“You’ve been reduced” said the voice on the other end of the phone. It was an editor from The Omaha World-Herald—where I wrote a humor column called “Breaking Brad” for eight years, as well as a Sunday sports column, “Upon Further Review”—calling to tell me I was one of about a dozen layoffs at the paper on Feb. 20.
While a phone call may not seem like the best way of informing a colleague that their job has ended, considering the sometimes icy impersonality of The World-Herald, I was lucky the editor didn’t fax me.
My termination felt like a prisoner of war experience. I was summoned to Human Resources where I had to sign a series of propaganda-type documents while a platoon of HR reps, none of whom lost their jobs, sat watching a Diagnosis Murder rerun on MeTV.
This was actually my second time being terminated by the newspaper. The first was when I was a kid carrier. I recall it had something to do with drawing devil horns on several U.S. Supreme Court justices on a front page photo and some uptight customer complaining.
The newspaper I delivered back in 1970-something was different from the paper today. It was quite a bit heavier and thicker than the 2018 version, the Monday and Tuesday editions of which increasingly resemble a discarded doily lying in your neighbor’s driveway.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. When the internet arrived, the conventional wisdom was that we will always need newspapers. Newspapers still always serve a vital function in the community, we all understood. Of course this was before Americans realized they preferred getting their news in targeted online blurbs blasted across social media by Russian troll farms.
It’s not really news if you can’t forward it to all your friends, right?
Our idea of news today is an Internet headline reading “SENATOR TOBACCO SHOP SEX RING” or “PARDONED WHITE HOUSE THANKSGIVING TURKEYS WERE NORTH KOREAN SPIES” that are blatantly false, but hey, the main thing is they were fun to share on social media.
Perhaps even more significant than newspaper subscribers going away, advertisers have migrated online. The double whammy of lost subscribers and declining ad revenue are taking a serious toll. The Denver Post newsroom has gone from 184 employees in 2012 to about 70 today. Alongside an editorial lambasting the publication’s “vulture capitalist” ownership (the newspaper is part of Digital First Media’s chain of newspapers, owned by New York City hedge fund Alden Global Capital), The Denver Post ran a photo illustration showing the gutted newsroom team that won a Pulitzer for breaking news coverage of the Aurora theater shooting.
The 2018 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography went to an ex-journalist for an image—a man driving through a crowd of counter-protesters at a white nationalist rally—captured on his last shift at The Daily Progress, the sole daily newspaper of Charlottesville, Virginia. He received the Pulitzer after leaving the journalism profession for a job at a Virginia brewery.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of people employed in the newspaper publishing industry fell by almost 60 percent between 1990 and 2016.
In his book The Vanishing Newspaper, author Philip Meyer writes that newspaper leaders who realize they’re in a losing battle often engage in something called “harvesting market position”—business jargon for raising prices and lowering quality to squeeze your most loyal customers as they die off. In a template that will sound familiar to World-Herald subscribers, this usually calls for reducing content, laying off staff, shrinking page size and jacking up rates. The goal is to soak your remaining subscribers for all the revenue you can get from a diminished product.
Let’s go back to that Tuesday in February when I was reduced. I didn’t feel awful. I’d backed into journalism. I was a TV comedy writer who went to work for NBC and penned monologue material for The Tonight Show With Jay Leno from 1992-2006. Writing jokes about Monica Lewinsky and Happy Meals paid more than journalism.
I told the mid-level editor breaking my bad news that I’d stay on for a reduced salary, roughly the same as I got to deliver the paper as a kid. I loved my job and my readers. The editor thought that was a terrific idea.
My fans, a passionate lot, weighed in on social media. They didn’t understand my “reduction.” A December 2015 World-Herald survey indicated my column was one of the paper’s more popular features. All the mid-level editor could muster was that my reduction probably had something to do with my poorly promoted online column not receiving enough clicks.
On Twitter, one reader posted a photo of his last newspaper—still in the plastic bag—before canceling his subscription. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of others lashed out. They emailed, wrote to and called editors. This was approaching a reader revolt. Surely the paper didn’t want to alienate all these subscribers. I thought I might be invited back. I thought wrong.
But I’m not alone. Newspapers were caught flat-footed by the internet thing, and the initial response—which pretty much consisted of an editor waving a rally monkey in the office and hoping for the best—was sorely lacking. Now papers are playing catch up and adapting to a swiftly changing landscape that demands severe belt-tightening and digital revenue strategies.
Studies have shown people are less likely to read an entire online article and thus are less educated on current events. This tilt toward digital could mean there won’t be any more checks and balances for local elected officials who may begin pillaging and looting their communities sans fear of reputational reprisal. Marauding local politicians will be stampeding like escaped zoo animals swallowing whole anything of value that isn’t tied down.
Bereft of newspapers, Americans will eventually get all their news from a single emoticon: sad face indicating a bad news day, happy face meaning all is well.
In June, it was announced that Berkshire Hathaway hired Lee Enterprises to manage The World-Herald and Berkshire’s 29 other newspapers. The goal may center on significant cost-cutting. I cannot confirm whether the World-Herald office stapler is now coin-operated.
Cuts and innovation may indeed prove to be the answer for print. Some very bright people are optimistic about the future. Even Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook team in Europe publishes a quarterly print magazine, Grow (available in the United Kingdom and Northern Europe).
There are certainly big success stories in print media’s dystopian “Brave New World.” The New York Times and Washington Post are integrating print with digital channels to thrive. The Times has set a goal of $900 million in digital revenue by 2020 after pulling in nearly $600 million in 2017. It turns out readers are willing to pay for online content when they enjoy the product enough.
Of course, not everyone will make a go of it. But those newspapers that are fast on their feet and can adjust to a new world order in journalism have a good chance to succeed. If not, the joke’s on all of us.
Follow Brad Dickson on Twitter at @brad_dickson.
This article was printed in the September/October 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.