Gannett’s newsroom cuts slash at St. Cloud’s heart

Though many people these days will loudly proclaim that they don’t read a newspaper, it’s an indisputable fact that daily newspapers drive a community’s and nation’s news agenda.

mn_sctSo when corporate owners set fire to their newsrooms, an increasing number of Americans shrug, unaware that the ashes are their new ignorance. It’s nothing to be proud of.

Gannett has been buying local newspapers and their websites in recent years, and is trying to buy Tronc, what’s left of the Tribune Publishing, the parent of such papers as the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times.

The bigger the better, the theory goes. Content from Paper A can be slapped in Paper B. Simple. Anybody can do it.

The strategy usually spells doom for the person who covers a city council, or questions why the local sheriff isn’t taking domestic abuse seriously, or stands in the rain and mud at the weekly high school football game, or provides the heartwarming tale that reminds a community that it’s still a community made up of good people. It spells doom for people who live in the community on which they report.

Gannett announced this week that it’s cutting 2 percent of its workforce and yesterday the layoffs hit one of the finest newspapers in our region. Hard.

In central Minnesota, a dozen people at the St. Cloud Times have lost their jobs.

New president to lead Times Media, St. Cloud Times,” today’s story on the Times’ website cheers, in a classic case of “burying the lede.” In it, we learn that the new corporate exec given the job of running the Gannett empire in this area has a history of getting results.

Not until the last two paragraphs of the story do we hear about the people who are the heart and soul of a news organization. They were given the bum’s rush.

As part of a companywide downsizing announced Monday by Gannett President and CEO Robert Dickey, Times Media eliminated 12 staff positions, including journalists and advertising staffers.

“I appreciate the hard work and contributions made by each of the folks that were impacted this week. I wish them the very best,” Jack-Romero said.

The company couldn’t even say their names. They included Dave DeLand, a longtime voice of Stearns County who knew every musician in the region. On Monday he broke the news that Bobby Vee had died. On Tuesday he gets the pink slip. There’s some results.

DeLand, by the way, is behind one of the best stories I’ve ever read. The rest of the world thought so, too, because it swept around the planet in a matter of hours. It’s this one.

[Update: I’m told that Mike Knaak has also lost his job. He’s been with the paper for more than 40 years and was second in command in the newsroom. And he’s a former president of the Society for Professional Journalists in Minnesota.

Also losing their jobs were reporter Ann Wessel; producer/copy editor Emily Peterson; photographer Kimm Anderson; and sports reporters Mitch Jensen Hansen and Sean Davich.]

These reporters covered the Wetterling case and never let it go, they blanketed the knife attack on people at a shopping mall in September, the murder of Cold Spring police officer Tom Decker, the effect of the changing demographics of the region (for which they received Story of the Year from the Society of Professional Journalists), and thousands of other stories that can’t be covered by watching Twitter. They covered the prep results and the candidate forums in the belief — antiquated by today’s standards — that an informed community is a healthier one. A closer one.

The newsroom in St. Cloud had 36 staff members as recently as 2014. Today, 20 will try to tell you what’s going on in their community.

“Actions like these are difficult, but I remain steadfastly committed to reinvesting in our employees and the capabilities required to sustain and grow our company so that we may continue to serve our customers with excellence,” CEO Bob Dickey said in a letter to employees.

“Yes, nothing says commitment to excellence like a round of layoffs,” D. B. Hebbard writes on “Talking New Media” today.

So, let’s be honest about layoffs, and those announcing them. They are not part of some grand scheme that will one day make our industry great again. They are simply a way of acknowledging a simple fact: those running our great publishing firms don’t have a clue how to succeed, and layoffs are simply a way of making back P&Ls look less bad, for a while.

But can it also be true that many newsrooms and ad sales rooms around the country are overstaffed? Absolutely, if by overstaffed you mean the cost of personnel exceeds the revenue being generated. Otherwise, I’m not a believer in the idea of something being overstaffed.

Yesterday, the remaining staffers at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, who’ve tried everything to remain in business, tried one thing more: They wore T-shirts.

They’re pleading with someone — anyone — with a community conscience to buy the place while it still has a pulse.

Sixty jobs have been cut — half in the newsroom, according to the Newspaper Guild — since a hedge fund bought the paper in 2012.

“The loss of so many photographers, reporters, copy editors, circulation accounting, and maintenance employees has impacted the communities we serve,” the union said in a news release this week, citing cuts in local news coverage.

The people who work at newspapers drive the local news agenda. What they can’t do — as the Times’ story today proved again — is provide coverage of the execution of a community’s soul.