Wednesday, June 24, 2009

What local newspapers should do #9

This is the ninth in a series of 10 posts on what local newspapers should do to survive and thrive in the face of the economic meltdown and societal shift to the Internet.

9. Stop incremental cutting. It’s true that nobody knows where the bottom is or how bad things could get. But what’s damaging motivation or hope for many at newspapers is that the cutting never seems to stop. It gives the impression that management doesn’t know what it’s doing and thinks it can cut its way to success, which nobody on the staff believes. It also creates a climate of fear. The biggest question on many employees’ minds becomes, “Who’s next?” Employees want a vision. They want a plan they believe has some chance of success. Hanging on and hoping to survive won’t cut it. This ultimately rests on the top people at any newspaper. They need to offer their employees a plan they can believe in, as painful as it might be to achieve. Then employees will have a clue where they might be heading and can decide whether they buy into going in that direction. Nothing is worse than death by a thousand slashes. The best advice for politicians or companies in trouble is often to get the truth out on the table all at once. Don’t let it dribble out day after day or week after week. The former approach may be painful. But generally it’ll be painful for a short period, and then they can try to move on. It’s amazing the problems people can recover from if they face them. The same good advice holds true for newspapers. If they would do this, they might create the prospect that the survivors in the organization could earn more rewards for their work.

Here are some concrete steps:
• This recommendation is related to many of the previous recommendations – for example, making the classifieds a separate business and removing their contribution from a newspaper’s bottom line. The first thing a newspaper needs to do is come up with an entirely new expense budget that leaves it a cushion even in a worst-case scenario.
• Stop making all compensation cuts “across the board.” As soon as good people can find alternative employment they will, if they don’t see any rewards for their own performance.
• Invest in technology and systems to reduce repetitive work that can be done by machines.
• Give the surviving staff the tools they need to do their jobs, even if it means cutting more people to make that possible.

Next: Stop pretending newspapers can be all things to all people.
Previous: Stop pretending that if the newspaper’s staff didn’t do it, the work is not good enough.

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