I’ve been accused over time of not liking daily newspapers and being overly bias toward weekly newspapers. I’ve always been quick to point out, however, that it’s not the newspapers I don’t like but rather the corporate culture that is killing the sense of community these organizations once had. When these businesses were cash cows and the money was flowing, it was like a big Monopoly game, with corporate buy-outs of long standing family ownership and then swapping and trading of properties to further enhance the corporate grip on a region.
Last week, while I and many of our editorial staff members were in Saratoga Springs at the New York Press Association’s Spring Conference, the news broke regarding the Lee Enterprise/Post-Star’s move to terminate about 30 percent of its editorial staff, primarily in the Washington and Saratoga County areas. More shocking than the cuts at the Post-Star and the 51 other Lee Enterprise-owned papers who made similar large-scale staff cuts across the country, was the announcement just days before that Lee CEO Mary Junck was awarded a $500,000 bonus and CFO Carl Schmidt was awarded a $250,000 bonus.
Call me a crazy fool or completely out of step with capitalism but I see a community’s newspaper as its biggest cheerleader and one of its primary guiding leaders. When times are tough, you set some of your own priorities aside and lead through example. It should be in times like these that a steady hand on the wheel will set the economic course for a community. A well run, well established company, should be positioned to set aside its appetite for making lots of money and sending it out of the community to its shareholders, while having a long term strategy to recognize there will be time enough for making money when the economy has been corrected.
There is something very wrong when making money is your sole motive, over the primary concerns for your community and employees. That is precisely what I see happening at the corporate dailies that largely populate our region. My issue has never been about the daily newspaper institutions themselves. It’s always been about the controlling interests who put up a friendly facade but whose true colors come to light when the going gets tough. This is a time to stand your ground and show you are a leader, especially when the health and welfare of your community is at stake. It’s not a time to hurt those you depend heavily on like staff, readers and advertisers who will be affected by the cut backs and then pass out bonuses and cigars to celebrate your shrewd business ways.
Interestingly enough, one of the seminars I attended this weekend in Saratoga Springs was about the common qualities that exist among successful newspapers. Here is the list:
- Loyalty to staff in tough times
- Constant investment in quality
- Regular staff training
- Close relationships between management and staff
- Close ties to the community
- Quality journalism
- Investments in technology, equipment and new publications
Our small rural weeklies don’t always get the respect nor prestige given to the Post-Star or some of the area’s other corporately owned publications, but we hope someday to alter that opinion when the community realizes how things are changing. During the last three years while the big guys have been cutting staff and furloughing employees, sending core services and jobs like the design of local ads and the layout of the newspaper to distance communities, we and other small, independent locally-owned publishers have been adding services and expanding staff with the displaced personnel cast off by the corporate giants.
Many members of our staff haven’t had raises in several years but they understand that as an organization we are fighting for our future and the future of the people and communities we serve. Maintaining your job and benefits while being focused on the future is a simple enough concept to understand, but when greed overrides common sense, that’s also a pretty simple concept that folks can see right through. During times like these we need less self-serving companies and public servants and far more teamwork and a sense of urgency to work together to solve the problems facing our economy. If a community institution, like your hometown newspaper, isn’t in this for the long haul, perhaps it’s time for the community to seek out a new locally committed institution to lead the charge.
Dan Alexander is publisher and CEO of Denton Publications. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.