Looks like someone has a case of the Gannett-sies…

If newspaper journalism gets in your blood, sometimes, you have to be willing to give some of it back to the paper. I learned this when I was 21.

If you haven’t readA’s book yet, let me give you the thumbnail version of what I mean. In college, our newspaper was in critical condition. We’d re-launched after a seven-month shutdown and we were always about a parking ticket and a busted wax machine away from going belly up again. The money wasn’t coming in as fast as we needed so that we could pre-pay our printer and keep the presses rolling. It was a suicidal schedule of running to the mail room every day, pulling the checks out of the mail, depositing them and praying that by Friday we’d have enough money cleared to cut a certified check for the next week’s press run.

About two or three weeks into the semester, we ran short.

It was going to close again. This time, for good.

We all sat around and tried desperately to figure out what we could do to keep the doors open if the money didn’t come in during that final day’s mail. Someone, I can’t remember who, uttered the two words that made me understand why soldiers who share a fox hole in war often bond for life:

“Plasma Drive.”

We counted up the number of kids willing to tap a vein at the plasma center, figured that we could each donate twice that week and that would cover us for almost two issues. What would happen after that, we had no idea. It wasn’t about the long term. It was about gritting our teeth now and saying to the university and media vultures that watched us every day, waiting for us to fail, “This paper will not die today. Not on my watch.” We planned to meet back that next day to donate. Instead, a deluge (for us) of checks came in. We never gave what little we had to the thing that had given us so much.

That’s why when a friend forwarded me this bit of news a few days ago, I felt the need to punch a wall.

Or a Gopher.

The Minnesota Daily has announced its plans to reduce its five-day-per-week schedule to four days a week while pleading poverty and loss. Pardon my lack of refinement here, but what a complete and total load of bullshit.

A quick glance at their most recent 990 filing sheet (for some reason, I couldn’t get the full 990) notes that they had assets in excess of $1.6 million with a reported income of a shade over $2.4 million. The paper notes its independence (I’m assuming they mean editorially) but they receive more than a half million dollars in annual funding from the university.For the sake of perspective, if you added together the income reported by BOTH student papers at the University of Wisconsin, you would have to TRIPLE it to equal that level of income.

And you can’t make it work?

The most irritating thing about whole article is the corporate-speak feel of what’s being said and done. The line about “we’re going from a five-day content source to a seven-day content source” smacks of “we’re not downsizing, we’re ‘right-sizing!'” The “sever a limb to lose weight” mentality of killing an issue instead of looking at what got you in trouble in the first place is also bothersome. The financial model doesn’t make sense either, as cutting one issue isn’t going to get you back in the black, given that internet revenue in these papers isn’t as strong as print revenue.

The worst thing, however, is that I’m looking at a paper that employs a staff of 150 people, pays for stories, dumps bonuses on people and then says to its readers, “hey, that product you read on Fridays? Not as important to us as keeping a payroll going.” I’ve worked at student newspapers and helped run student newspapers and rarely were the students paid. When they were, it almost was as a comical “hey, here’s a nickel for your trouble” bit of good will. I know kids who worked the Daily (er… 4/7ths Weekly) and they told me stories of how they didn’t need a part-time job to help pay for college if they just hung around the paper long enough. It was easier and more profitable than working at the local burger joint, for sure.

The issue here isn’t saving a budget or a paper or an issue. It’s about changing a culture. It’s about putting the readers first. Sure, you can do that online (perhaps even better than in print, depending on the level of dedication to the product) but that’s not the spin on this. It’s about saving their own asses and preventing a financial drain on what had been a previously fat and happy staff. It’s about being willing to pony up and say, “The experience is what matters most. I don’t need a bonus or a salary to work here as a student.” (Hell, working for no money will prepare you for a life in journalism.) It’s about not going all Gannett at the first sign of trouble and looking for the nearest thing to hack or slash at to say, “See! We saved money!” It tends to be that way in corporate America, but not at the student level. The product always has to come first.

College journalism is like an addiction. It’s what makes you stand on the lawn of a disgraced dean in a rainstorm until the guy threatens to have the cops come get you. It’s what makes you decide to record your conversation with the college president and then play it back to her after she lies about what she told you in an email to the faculty. It’s what makes you forsake a GPA, your dorm friends and any chance at a normal college experience for a byline, a drawer full of Advil and bottle of lousy scotch. No matter what the sacrifice, it’s always worth it and you’d never go back, even if you could.

When I die, I want the second line of my obit to be about being willing to do whatever it took to keep my college paper alive.

I hope the 4/7ths Weekly knuckleheads who made this decision live long enough to read it.

3 thoughts on “Looks like someone has a case of the Gannett-sies…

  1. Ahem. Clan MacGregor is not lousy scotch. It is lousy LIGHTER FLUID.
    The lack of pay, I’m sure, would be pointed out by critics if we used this as a model for professional news organizations, and the argument back, I think, is that it’s not that you can’t pay or you can’t pay well, it’s that you have to sensibly manage your money. Don’t go slashing left and right, either people OR days of production, to satisfy an artificial definition of success. As I said to Mr. A the other night when we were talking about this, you and I are a little short on funds this month but we need groceries, we look at if we have money in savings and we use that to maybe buy slightly less nice groceries. We don’t declare bankruptcy and then go on a six-week European vacation. That’s the “profit margin” most people understand.
    What we need most in journalism is a redefinition of financial success, I think. Along with a lot of the seventeen levels of management everywhere getting kicked really hard in the balls.

  2. Your punch landed squarely on the jaw … nice touch.
    A top notch college newspaper is just pure beauty. The Daily Texan was a faithful companion for much longer than the typical 5 year undergrad run. Uh, I mean 4.

  3. I worked for our college paper, but not as a reporter. I wrote a weekly column, which was supposed to be funny.
    But get paid? I got laid, yes, but paid? Never.
    And I was good with that.

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