On Monday the venerable Salt Lake Tribune announced that it was laying off a third of its reporting staff, only a year after winning the Pulitzer Prize in journalism, and two years after it was purchased by Paul Huntsman (of the Huntsman family, who are well-known as the wealthiest folks in Utah), and a few months after patriarch Jon Huntsman Sr. passed away. As someone who has read "the paper" (a paper copy) most mornings of my life starting with the Oregonian, the Oregon State University paper, the Boston Globe, the LA Times, and the Trib and - like everyone - am a moderately voracious consumer of news on the interwebs and NPR, I had some mixed feelings; enough so that I felt compelled to do a quick blawg post.
It's no secret to anyone that newspaper industry has been struggling around the country for the last 10-15 years as it has struggled to find its place in the digital world. And it's understandable; the concept of printing on paper that is driven around neighborhoods in cars by underpaid folks in the wee hours of the morning to convey information that is literally yesterday's news has gone from a given to simply being quaint at best. Much of the paper's weight and bulk that is being driven around an ultimately thrown in the recycling bin is made up of ads, and when the ads seem to be comprised mostly of those for hearing aids, senior living communities, adult diapers, and valuable coins it's clear that the market is "mature" and quite literally dying. And if a product's market is dying, should the product itself die off as well?
Coincidental to the layoffs, on Sunday night we watched the newish movie "The Post" that stars Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep as the editor/publisher, respectively, of the Washington Post in the early 70's that was willing to "risk it all" to publish the now-infamous "Pentagon Papers" that clearly showed that the Vietnam war was perpetuated by the likes of LBJ, Nixon, Bobby Kennedy, Sec Def McNamara, and others for no other reason than they were unwilling to be the fall guys who would "lead" US meekly out of a conflict. Like another recent great movie - "Spotlight" about the Boston Globe blowing the lid off the Catholic church priest abuse coverup - it was a great tale of triumph of the free press keeping enough tabs on the power brokers affecting everyday people's everyday lives. "The Post" ends with Nixon on the phone yelling at an aide that the Post is no longer allowed into the White House, which of course is reminiscent of our current occupant attempting to deny credentials to the "fake" Post that is owned by a famous lib'ral, Jeff Bezos of Amazon (which - like Trump - is apparently smart enough to avoid paying its fair share of taxes).
I was shocked a couple of years ago when I went into a shop in the Portland airport and saw a little pamphlet that had the "Oregonian" banner on it. It was dwarfed by the indie Willamette Week right next to it, and the new Oregonian reminded me of a high school paper. I couldn't help but ask myself, "Is this the future of the Salt Lake Tribune?" Clearly Paul Huntsman didn't want that, and he was willing to put a lot of his family's money on the line to avoid the loss of "Utah's Independent Voice". But after 2 years - some of which was facilitated by Huntsman covering payrolls - it still isn't working. Should it?
On one hand, I love the Trib; the likes of Gerhke, Rolly, Pyle, Burr, and Maffly are excellent writers whose contacts, insights, level heads, and objectivity in a fairly strange political and social environment is invaluable, Pat Bagley is simply the best political cartoonist ever, and I simply like knowing what's going on in my tighter community since it has much more affect on my life than the national stage. But I also kinda feel it's getting what has been coming to it: like a lot of papers it seems to be full of dinosaurs who have kept their heads down as the internet and social media juggernauts have overran it and keep pitifully hoping for change. An interview of longtime business reporter Mike Gorrell on Radio West this week reiterated that attitude to me. And while Huntsman promised a new life for the company and hired a new editor, the business model seems to have remained the same, complete with a really lame website (in the online version's search bar I type in "Gehrke" or "Rolly" and get....."0 results!" Huh?" By contrast, the Washington Post is thriving after being bought by a guy whose fortune was made on new media, and it's doing well almost as much as a tech company as a media outlet. And in that Radio West piece a pundit says that - for example - the similar-sized Minneapolis Star Tribune's overall business is growing in the single digits/year.
That's the rub: yes, an independent media is vital, but independent media is a business, that - like any other business - needs cash flow and growth to survive. It seems it is indeed possible to improve fortunes, but there needs to be an acknowledgement that "the paper" is simply not being read by virtually anyone under 50 years old, so as much as I hate to say it, folks who have been in the business for 30 or 40 years need to make room for more innovative minds It was ironic that the day after the layoffs Robert Gehrke's column was about Ash's friend Chris Parker, a 30-something developer who is a darling of Salt Lake's leadership due to his bold and innovative ways of creating real affordable housing downtown that even uses solar power and electric car charging stations but keeps rent down to as little as $350/month. It's the likes of Parker and Bezos who have the ability to take a fresh look at something as antiquated as a old school housing and newspapers and come up with something truly innovative.
A friend asked me this week if I was going to cancel my subscription because "the firings were pretty ridiculous" and (sarcastically) "pretty classy management there." Having been part of several layoffs - which aren't firings - at far more profitable and successful companies, I have seen that it's probably the worst possible part of management. Firing is much easier since there's usually some legitimate personal reason for it. Layoffs are "you are doing well and I want to keep you but the company isn't doing well enough to continue to pay for its people, which is a company's biggest expense, and even though it's terrible for you and bad for me.....it's gotta be done."
So is canceling my subscription in protest the best thing to do? Or recognize that this is a desperate clarion call for help by a vital part of our community and without continued or even additional support this integral part of our democracy will evaporate like the Oregonian did? But if the layoffs of the dinosaurs and the subsequent savings are not invested in more innovative ways to deliver a product that a market needs, should they be allowed to live?
I hope for my sake and that of Utah the Trib's leadership figures out a way to exist in the future without "depending" on adult diaper ads, but if it doesn't, perhaps it deserves to go the way of its dinosaurs and something else will rise out of the swamp to replace it.