More tales of fallen journalists, not long ago, known as a ‘holy’ profession by many; today it is the place for rich kids and losers. Earlier this month, Dave Wilson, who worked for a total of 18 years, 10 as a reporter and editor for the Akron Beacon Journal,went to a party. He was on his way to a wake of sorts. A fairly common practice in this rust belt area, where funeral parlors out number Starbucks.
He snatched up the mug and headed to a co-worker’s house, where Beacon employees were mourning the end of an era. Knight Ridder, once one of America’s largest newspaper chains, with papers from Philadelphia to San Jose, was officially dead. “Anyone got a golf club?”Wilson asked when he arrived. Someone slipped him a Big Buddie-sized driver. He placed the mug on a tee, then smashed it into a cloud of ceramic chunks.
“It was like saying adios to that whole scenario,” he said. Once upon a time that stupid little cup had meant something special — something that fought to better people’s lives, earned Pulitzers for doing so, and allowed Wilson to be a proud provider. Now, on this crappy August day, it stood for something ugly — something full of defeat, anxiety, and loss. Knight Ridder had spent the past four years trying to appease the bottom line with layoffs and cutbacks that shrank the Beacon to the size ofOhio
State’s student newspaper. Then it sold the paper off like a rusted junk Ford. But not even the new owner, McClatchy, wanted anything to do with it. The company spit it back onto the auction block just days later. McClatchy quickly sold the Beacon to Black Press for $165 million. The Canadian company’s owner, David Black, assured the staff that he cared about “journalism,” and wasn’t going to lay anyone off. Some breathed a sigh of relief. Others were more realistic, they knew that even Knight Ridder had trouble making a profit at a rust belt property with no growth. “We knew more layoffs were coming,” Wilson says. A few weeks later, Black must have had a good look at the real numbers and said, “What the frick did I get for 1.6 million bucks!” On Tuesday, Black laid off 40 of the newsroom staff. As the layoffs were announced, people ran to bathrooms, crying. Others fled to a downtown bar to numb the news. Ridder’s reign of terror hadn’t really ended, it seemed. “I was a little bit taken by surprise,”
Wilson said. “I thought there were others who were more expensive. I pretty much spent the whole next day seething with anger.” Over rounds of MGD and whiskey, staffers pondered what led to the latest bloodletting. Just as Black bought the paper, it was losing its biggest advertiser, Kaufmann’s. The department store was being purchased by Macy’s, with a top-rate marketing team, they wouldn’t be wasting their advertising budget on a token schedule in a suburb of Cleveland. The Plain Dealer won’t be getting much print from Macy’s either, the giant retailer is now a national chain and will leverage that with national TV buys. It was a financial blow the Beacon did little to prepare for. It simply raised ad rates and ignored the rest. “People were just hoping it was gonna fix itself,” Wilson said.
“Newspapers have often succeeded in spite of themselves. That’s no longer the case.” Adds columnist David Giffels, who is now dealing with survivor guilt, having withstood the purge: “Daily newspapers are big old traditional companies that are slow to adapt . . . There hasn’t been that sort of fire to adapt in an aggressive way. And until they start, those numbers are never going to turn around.” But Knight Ridder was the epitome of an old, lethargic company. “It became so bureaucratic,”
Wilson says. “There were too many committees, and committees always make bad choices.”
I saw the offices of the San Jose Mercury News about four years ago. I’d guess that 60 percent of the desks were empty, a couple were even truned over. I asked a secretary if there were layoffs recently, she nodded and said she was a temp. I stayed for the job interview, but I knew it was not the profitable, thriving flagship that Knight Ridder portrayed. The newspapers don’t air their own dirty laundry. They are not in the business of broadcasting their own demise. In fact, these quotes from Black Tuesday don’t come from the little Ohio paper. They are from a free paper in Cleveland. The new media model is pointing to free weeklies with Web 2.0 blogs. Google the Cleveland Scene for the story you won’t read in the mainstream media.