Thursday, April 17, 2008

Missing the talent trade

My friend Tim Naumetz worked with Glen McGregor of the Ottawa Citizen on the series of investigative stories that led to this. Their National Newspaper Award nominations are a sure thing. Yet Tim, who, along with Glen, is arguably the best investigative journalist on the Hill, was allowed by CanWest to slip away. His freelance work used to exceed the output and byline numbers of most CanWest-Citizen staff. Recently, it was reduced by CanWest to a trickle. Now he's writing for rival CP, which seems to be the destination for most CanWest casualties as the company continues to cut costs, dumb down the papers and fill its newsrooms with flunkies, children and non-entities.
CanWest stock -- and here we can take the real measure of the company -- traded near $12 in the last 52 weeks and hit $16 in the convergence craze four years ago. It reached new lows most days in the past couple of weeks. The last day I checked, Monday, it was at $4.30. One fund is buying up the the stock and now holds about 18 per cent. The reason? CanWest is ready to be taken over and broken up. It is reaching the point where its composite parts may well be worth more than the whole, especially if taken out of the hands of the Asper family and run by professional media managers. What's the connection between stock prices and CanWest's inability to attract, hold and manage talent? I'm sure the Aspers would ask that question. But when you are very much in the business of selling news, great reporters are your finest stock in trade. Lose them and people say "there's nothing in the paper". And "people" aren't just the folks who drop a buck on a paper. Advertisers are readers, too.

Update:

Spent the evening at the launch of Michael Petrou's new book on the Spanish Civil War. Petrou, who now holds a PhD in history from Oxford, was a student intern at the Ottawa Citizen about five years ago. They didn't keep him.
I rest my case.
(Nice, though, that CanWest's head of editorial, Scott Anderson, showed up for the launch, along with Citizen "war correspondent" Mike Blanchfield).


Meanwhile, the wheels keep coming off convergence:

(From the Washington Post newspaper business roundup today)

Toronto Star: Torstar Corp. is shedding 160 jobs including the entire internet production staff of 10-- and taking a $21 million charge in a restructuring of its newspaper division. The Canadian company, which owns The Toronto Star and several other Ontario papers, cited continuing weakness in the newspaper industry. The Star.com: The job cuts were a mix of "voluntary and involuntary staff reductions," which Torstar says will save the company $12 million. The Star was able to avoid a strike back in January. Last fall, it shuttered its e-newspaper after a year to in order to exercise greater focus on its online and mobile websites. Canadian Press: "Most of the job cuts, taken through severance packages, were already expected, but laying off the 10-person Internet staff came as a surprise, said Maureen Dawson, an official with the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada." Their message to the world is that they're all dedicated to the Internet, but then they lay off the whole department."

The Star says it's committed to its internet presence and is adding some jobs in "soft" news, which is probably another big mistake. Meanwhile, according to the union at the Montreal Gazette, cuts are on the way at that paper. And there are cuts planned for the New York Times.
Say you owned toy store. People said they found your toys boring and old-fashioned. They said you were selling the same toys that you had a generation ago but of crappier quality. Would you deal with the situation by getting rid of some of the old-fashioned toys, shrink the store, and raise the price of the remaining stock? Do youn think this would bring the customers back? Would you keep the managers who told you this is a good idea? Or would you see it as a time for a shake-up, a re-investment and maybe even a re-invention of the entire business?

4 comments:

Matt said...

"But when you are very much in the business of selling news, great reporters are your finest stock in trade."

Glad someone else gets it. The newspaper industry in Canada has largely forgotten this truth. News is a unique industry -- while revenue comes from advertising, news is the industry's commodity. Advertising is NOT the commodity on offer. Newspapers seem to have abandoned this concept, instead focusing their resources on selling ads, content to fill column inches with wire copy and fluff (CanWest is particularly bad, but the trickle-down effect of this thinking has reached even the smallest of community papers).

Which is why I no longer write news (despite having loved it).

Anonymous said...

Though Canwest's problms to a lesser extent can be seen everywhere else in North America. Even the best newspapers have seen their readership and advertising go down during the past five years.
Eric Alterman did a good job on the issues facing American newspapers a couple of weeks ago in the New Yorker.

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/03/31/080331fa_fact_alterman?printable=true

James Goneaux said...

Yes, this is quite correct. People will read good writing, regardless of whether it is on-line or in a newspaper or magazine.

The problem is, the "YouTube" demographic is growing, and we are seeing the general literacy level sloping downwards precariously. Why read about Sudan when you can watch some dude face plant his radical board, yo?

One piece of advice I've seen given freely to the newspapers is "go local". I mean, I can find thousands of stories on the Olympic Torch. I don't need to read it in the Toronto Star, which will probably be a wire story anyway, with little relevance to Toronto.

You want to know what I want to know: why did the building just down the street from me on Danforth collapse in January?

I'd pay for that knowledge too.

MJMartin said...

The way in which people will get their news in the future, even right now is a big issue. We have a local website here in Watertown, NY which is free that has absolutely trounced the established local news company. See this example http://www.howardowens.com/2008/newzjunkycom-is-a-warning-shot-for-all-newspaper-publishers/ The traffic is literally 2 to 1 in favor of the free website, and circulation of the printed paper locally is down to below 30,000 copies in a 100 sq mile radius.

The problem I see looming is that too many people are getting their news from television and the internet. Television news casts are nortoriously limited in content and mostly spurred by popularity, not to mention it's really just dressed down drama. The problem with free local websites is you get more of the "citizen reporters". The reporting is simply on the spot matter-of-fact reactive summarizing. My 9 year old can do that. What we lose with television and the internet is the proactive investigative journalist. A good investigative journalist can bring a billion dollar corporation, or corrupt politician to their knees in a matter of hours.