Newspapers cut costs, eviscerate value

The day after Web marketing guru Seth Godin suggested that the New York Times missed the boat in not vastly expanding its network of blogs, among other things, the author of its invaluable “Shifting Careers” blog notified her readers today that the Old Gray Lady was shutting it down:

“It is hard to call this a layoff since I’m not an employee of the Times and I will likely still contribute to the paper occasionally. Yet I have been feeling a lot like someone who has been laid off. For starters, I have tried to build a narrative based on the little information that was shared with me by my editors, who have told me they were nearly as surprised as I was about this decision. As in a layoff, the decision was made in response to the economic realities of the media industry, which is a polite way of saying that newspapers are in difficult financial shape.”

The irony of this move, at a time when thousands of workers in all industries are being given pink slips, is incredible. The Times is suffering badly on Wall Street; its price per share plummeted below $6, then rose slightly today when the company announced a sharp dividend cut.

The Times, like so many media companies in free fall, is chopping costs regardless of what value gets tossed aside in the process. Even those workers — or in the case of Marci Alboher, freelancers — who thought they brought an indispensable skill set to the table are finding out that value is now regarded as a luxury:

“As an online journalist focusing on work and careers, and as someone who fervently believes that embracing new technology is crucial to surviving as a journalist, I too felt like one of the safe ones.”

So did I, in my former newsroom. What she and I, and many others have been told, essentially, is that critical mass in the newspaper industry is virtually here. I hope Marci will continue the blog somewhere else because it’s a niche that obviously has a growing audience.

As for the newspaper industry, I want to believe it’s not too late to avoid a total collapse. But my doubts are growing. I don’t agree with all of Godin’s ideas, because like many new media sages he sounds overly simplistic in the face of a grueling reality (more on his absolute worst bone-headed suggestion about journalism in a future post). Then there’s this:

“The people I know at the Times are smart, driven, honest and on a mission to do great work. The people didn’t fail the system, the system failed them.”

Newspaper companies have been busy cutting, in addition to personnel, expensive fixed costs — especially those related to the manufacture and distribution of the printed product — for quite some time. But to slash blogs from contractors on its Web site, where its future rests, makes no sense at all. To cut a popular, useful blog just to save a little money is yet another system failure.

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