Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Requiem for Print Media

I’ve written before about the sad turn of events in the Utah media markets, especially in regards to staff layoffs at The Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News.


Well, Thursday Trib bosses announced eight more staff layoffs and the closing down of several print sections of the paper.

The Trib stories says the eight new layoffs come after “elimination of four other newsroom positions by attrition in the past six weeks, the laying off of 19 staffers in September and a handful of job losses in each of the three years prior.”

I worked at the News for 33 years, and am currently a retiree of that organization. The News laid off nearly half of its staff in 2010.

For several months – after news broke last year that the Trib owners had sold to the News (really the LDS Church) their previously-jointly-owned printing and advertising facilities – Trib employees have been telling me they expect another round of layoffs coming this June.

It is unclear if the layoffs announced Thursday means the remaining staff is safe for 12 months, or if more layoffs could come this summer.

The Trib ran a story last week detailing how their parent firm was shutting down a New-York-based operation aimed at providing national and feature content to the 200-plus papers in that newspaper chain.

At the same time, Trib bosses said their owners want a 10 percent cut in operating costs at the start of the firm’s fiscal year, July 1.

Now Trib staffers take another blow, after seeing a 20 percent staff cut last year.

In the larger picture, by selling off all of the real assets of the Tribune – leaving it basically with its name and subscription lists, no presses, no other real estate in Utah – it looks like the Trib owners, a New-York-based hedge fund, is looking to sell the paper.

But what is the value of the Tribune – now with a product further diminished?

Back when the Tribune owned half the presses (the DN the rest), back with the Joint Operating Agreement gave the Tribune 58 percent of the JOA profits (the DN 42 percent), the Tribune had some real, concrete value.

But it sold its venerable Main Street office building, which it had vacated years earlier, to the LDS Church (which has since sold it again).

It’s sold its presses.

And in the new JOA the News gets 70 percent of the JOA profit, the Trib just 30 percent. (Federal regulators are looking into that new agreement.)

And the Tribune has to now pay the JOA to print its newspaper.

It appears if the Trib went to just online, and stopped printing a daily paper, the owners would still get 30 percent of the JOA’s profits – a real incentive to dump the printed paper.

Both the Tribune and the News separately get all of their profits from their independent online operations – they no longer share those revenues with each other.

The Tribune’s larger staff was breaking even last year, I’m told, because of its 58 percent share in the printing operations – which is reportedly making money through its local printing of The New York Times, USA Today, the Provo Herald, the Park City Record and other local publications.

Thus the doom and gloom at Trib HQ as the new fiscal year approaches July 1.

As traditional newspapers try to adapt to a new reality, the main idea is to generate reading (and hopefully, advertising) with online content.

And crazy things are starting to happen.

The Portland Oregonian’s owners have just ordered that each reporter (and there have been staff layoffs there, also) must write at least three online stories a day – preferably short, spicy and interesting pieces.

It’s a ridiculous demand, and certain to lower the reporting quality.

Morale in newspapering is low.

Pay raises, if ever given, are usually small.

In the Utah media market, good reporters I know have almost doubled their pay by leaving newspapering and becoming spokespeople for local, state and federal agencies or officeholders.

Much better health insurance and retirement in government, also.

As a DN employee I watched as our outstanding Washington, D.C., reporter, Lee Davidson, was ordered back to Utah. The DN later closed its D.C. bureau, and Lee did his best (which was pretty darn good) to report on Utah’s congressmen and federal issues from Salt Lake City.

Lee left the News and went to work for the Tribune soon after the huge News employee layoffs of August 2010.

Now the Trib is cutting its two-man D.C. bureau in half, I’m told.

Matt Canham has already returned to Salt Lake. For now Tommy Burr is staying in D.C. – but as the only local Utah reporter in Washington his future is uncertain.

As older, more veteran reporters and editors retire or are laid off, experience also suffers.

I remember several years ago, at a national legislative conference in Salt Lake, the president of the New Hampshire Senate said that his state’s one TV station kept seeing great turnover in young reporters covering his body.

He did a count, and over the last 15 years the most tenured TV reporter spent three years covering his Legislature – then they were off to other assignments or larger media markets.

I’ve covered the Utah Legislature for 34 years. My experience may lead me to poor judgments and/or half-ass reporting (as some lawmakers may believe).

But at least I have some experience in detailing the often bizarre inner workings of the legislative political process.

What’s happening at The Salt Lake Tribune these days is important, especially as the News moves more and more into its national and international emphasis on faith, family, and traditional values reporting.

The Trib’s excellent investigations of former AGs Mark Shurtleff and John Swallow show the value – the real need – for an aggressive government watchdog.

If not for the Tribune – and some fine reporting by City Weekly, as well – Swallow may still be in office; no Utah Elections Office investigation, no Utah House investigation.

A hedge fund in New York could care less about journalist quality in Salt Lake City; nor its impact on the democratic process of governing.

We should all be paying attention over these next few months to the Utah media market, and what’s happening at our daily newspapers.