As far as local news cycles go, the biggest announcement Sept. 3 was arguably the official, and largely anticipated, naming of the Oklahoma City Thunder. But, earlier in the afternoon, the state’s largest newspaper posted an article online that resonated throughout the journalism industry.
A story titled “‘The Oklahoman’ to cut positions” announced the company’s 1,100-member workforce will be downsized in two stages ” through retirements and reductions in force ” as the paper initiates cost-cutting measures totaling an estimated 150 positions over the next two months.
Senior executives met Sept. 3 to discuss early retirement options with 102 employees. These veterans, who have worked a minimum of 15 years for the paper and are at least 55 years old, must decide whether or not to take the offers by Sept. 24.
The Oklahoman announced layoffs will begin in early October across OPUBCO Communications Group, The Oklahoma Publishing Co.’s media division. Publisher David Thompson said the communications division includes The Oklahoman, NewsOK.com, digital platforms, additional URLs and the direct mail company, The Oklahoman DIRECT. Employee severance packages will be included for both voluntary and involuntary reductions.
Thompson said the company “is sensitive to the impact they will have on our employees and their families.” Describing the downsizing as “painful,” he said the estimated 14 percent reduction was required to “right-size our costs commensurate with revenue.”
Jack Willis, former Muskogee Phoenix managing editor, said newspapers can go “belly up” if they don’t remain financially solvent during harsh economic downturns.
“They try to generate new income and cut expenses, but when advertising ” the primary source of income for a newspaper ” takes a major hit, managers have to make tough decisions. They have to retrench. It’s extremely unfortunate for those people who lose their jobs,” Willis said. “Most newspapers, most businesses, cut other expenses before cutting employees. No one wants to do that. At some point, though, the newspaper still has to have enough resources to operate effectively, and it may make more sense to cut personnel.”
Traditional media are enduring the second worst recession in advertising since World War II, trailing only the Sept. 11 attacks, Thompson said. Regarding transportation and daily newspaper distribution, skyrocketing fuel costs also are taking a toll.
“Many of the large, metropolitan daily newspapers are experiencing shrinking staffs,” said Andy Rieger, managing editor of The Norman Transcript. “What’s happening in Oklahoma City is not unlike what newspapers have gone through in Dallas and Los Angeles and Chicago.”
Terry Clark, chair of the Department of Mass Communication at the University of Central Oklahoma, wonders how much the news-gathering process will be affected.
“I would be interested to know how much of the cutback will be from the newsroom,” Clark said. “Excessive cuts there may not compromise the quality of the news coverage, but it can’t help but (cut) back the amount of news available to Oklahomans. Ironically, this will force readers to seek news elsewhere.”
MORE SOFT NEWS
Mark Hanebutt, UCO’s Edith Kinney Gaylord Professor of Journalism Ethics, said he fears cuts to the newsroom will mean more soft news that’s easier to report.
“The news is the reason people buy the paper,” Hanebutt said. “If you have fewer reporters, you have less news. Where does it end? If nobody is reporting the news, why should we buy it? I don’t think you can keep cutting into the product and survive as a business.”
Citing the voluntary early retirement phase for eligible employees, Thompson said he did not know how individual departments will be affected at this stage.
Rieger, who worked for the Gaylord-owned publishing company from 1978 to 1985, said he expects less news coverage overall.
“Television and radio stations usually make their news assignments based on Oklahoman stories that are widely disseminated through The Associated Press and The Oklahoman’s own Web site,” said Rieger, who teaches community journalism at the University of Oklahoma.
Thompson said The Oklahoman plans to move ahead with “quite exciting” digital initiatives, such as NewsOK.com and the event-oriented wimgo.com, which exceeded initial expectations when launched last winter. Clark praised The Oklahoman for exploring the future with its Web efforts during this revolutionary time in the industry. However, online ventures will take time to reap dividends, Rieger added.
“Competition, such as the Internet, is also affecting the profitability of the newspaper industry,” said Willis, a former faculty adviser for OU’s student-run Oklahoma Daily. “That’s why journalists today are being trained to work in multiple platforms. They’re better prepared to move back and forth from print to broadcast to online, wherever opportunities exist.”
Many young readers get their news and information online, Thompson said.
“In my regular contact with college students, I have become quite aware that, except for a relative few, they are not newspaper readers, as was the case for my generation,” said Harry Hix, visiting assistant professor of journalism at Oklahoma State University. “Actually, a surprising number of them are not readers of news, either in newspapers or on the Internet.”
Thompson also pointed to newsprint costs rising 40 percent in 2008, compared to last year’s fourth quarter. According to the recent Project for Excellence in Journalism study, “The Changing Newsroom,” three quarters of all editors surveyed said their newspaper’s width had been trimmed, literally shrinking news holes.
The Oklahoman is undergoing a redesign journey with the Florida-based firm Garcia Media. Thompson said he’s “pretty excited” about the more reader-friendly newspaper, which will be unveiled this month on a narrower, 44-inch format, with “lots of color and good graphic design.”
All of the journalism educators interviewed expressed little surprise regarding The Oklahoman’s pending cuts.
“I’ve heard journalists from The Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, which have also had layoffs, compare newsroom morale to a morgue. I think that’s a factor the public doesn’t realize,” Clark said. “The Oklahoman’s cutbacks follow an industry-wide trend, as metros scramble to find ways to get readers, and thus maintain advertising rates and income. But so far, it doesn’t seem to be working. Fewer people read daily newspapers now than they did 40 years ago, when the U.S. population was millions smaller.”
Is there a bright side? Clark, whose 20 years of newspaper experience includes owning the Waurika News-Democrat, said it’s interesting that weeklies and community dailies aren’t struggling as much as bigger, metro-based dailies.
“In fact, almost as many Americans subscribe to weekly newspapers as dailies now ” a huge increase,” he said. “And the reason is they cover news ” local news. I don’t think the big papers get it.” “Rob Collins