When John Schueler resigned on May 22 as publisher of the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune, I cheered. At last, our competitor, 10 miles away, would begin cutting staff and resources. Three weeks later, I applauded again when our editor announced we would have to cut only eight staffers from the newsroom, not the 23 originally announced by Knight Ridder.
It took me a few days, but when I finally snapped out of it, I couldn’t believe what I was doing. Instead of being angry at the short-sightedness of the Knight Ridder corporate bosses in San Jose, I was cheering when others followed our lead or we were given a slight reprieve. I was falling victim to some kind of business version of the Stockholm Syndrome. I had been taken hostage and was now identifying with my corporate captors.
The situation reminds me of the story former Arizona Congressman Morris K. Udall used to tell about the wealthy man who was getting ready to leave for a month. He asked a neighboring farmer how much he would charge to board his horse. The farmer said it would be $50 a month, and he would keep the manure. The rich man thought that was too high, so he went to the next farm. There, he was told the fee would be $40 a month, and the farmer would keep the manure. Noting the downward trend, he went another mile to a ramshackle farmhouse, and the farmer there said the fee would be five dollars. The wealthy man agreed immediately, but before leaving, asked why the farmer hadn’t demanded to keep the manure. “Well, mister, at five dollars a month, there ain’t going to be much manure.”
The rush by the newspaper chains—not just Knight Ridder—to reduce the size of the newshole, to cut sections, to remove bodies in order to keep profit margins astonishingly high, won’t leave much of a newspaper for our readers to use. And make no mistake; the readers are not fooled.
In St. Paul, in Minneapolis, and across the country, newspaper publishers are distraught over stagnant or declining circulation. They look everywhere for the scapegoat. They blame television, the Internet, the busy two-worker families. Seems to me it’s readers saying they will not be played for chumps. At the same time the St. Paul Pioneer Press cut back the newshole and reduced the scope of our successful suburban zoning, we were also raising home subscription prices. I don’t have an MBA, but I’ve lived in the capitalist culture my entire life. I am sure very few companies enlarge market share by giving the customer less and charging more.
We’ve been locked in a classic wrestling pose with the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune for years, hands on each other’s arms, looking for a way to throw the other to the mat. In 1987, the Star Tribune announced what they thought would be a double-leg takedown. They would pour money into St. Paul circulation and open up a full-scale St. Paul bureau. The advertising and journalism gurus in the Twin Cities soon pronounced that there would only be one newspaper left in 10 years. The betting was heavily in favor of the Minneapolis paper surviving.
Those bets didn’t pay off. At our paper, editors and division heads came up with innovative ways to make the paper competitive and a must-buy for advertisers and readers alike. Knight Ridder allowed us to keep more of our money for the improvements. Circulation held and even grew for a while. We won Pulitzer Prizes. The Star Tribune quietly retreated. The readers were well served. They had a choice of which paper to buy, based on anything from the comics to the editorial stances.
All of this began to change last fall. First came the word that positions at our newspaper were being frozen. Then the news trickled down that Knight Ridder corporate was requiring the publisher to redo his budget with new figures that would keep the profit margin obscenely high, especially at a time when advertising was tumbling. Finally, in late April we were told there would be early retirement and buyout packages. But if not enough took it, the least senior people would be laid off.
The newsroom essentially stopped functioning for weeks. The younger, least senior people couldn’t concentrate because they were hurt and worried that they would soon be fired. The oldest hands had visions of jackpots dancing in their heads. There was low-grade sniping between the generations. And everywhere was the question, why doesn’t the Star Tribune seem to be cutting back?
When Schueler turned in his resignation, the rumor spread rapidly that it was because he was unwilling to make the cuts corporate owner McClatchy was seeking. The new guy undoubtedly would cut bodies and newshole. I, and many of my colleagues, were now cheering on a race to the bottom of the journalistic barrel. In early July, a new publisher was named. A hiring freeze is in effect and everyone is waiting to see what else might happen. Meanwhile, at our paper, when the early retirement package finally was announced in late May, it was generous, and the eight bodies that would be permanently cut from the newsroom would be reached without layoffs. The younger staffers were spared.
We are wrong to applaud. We already have lost too many newspapers and newspaper jobs during the past 20 years. The loss of any more weakens our craft and hurts the millions of readers who still look to us for information and perspective on their towns and their world. Walker Lundy, the St. Paul Pioneer Press editor, has been candid about how the loss of eight bodies will affect our paper. While he hasn’t yet determined exactly how the newsroom will be reorganized, he said there will be beats we cover now that will disappear in the coming month or two. There are photos that won’t be shot.
It must stop. Newspapers are a different business than building computers, cars or refrigerators. We have an obligation, protected by the First Amendment, to inform the public. Newspaper companies are handsomely rewarded while doing that. The mantra of newspaper CEO’s that these latest cuts will fatten profits while not hurting our coverage is a lie. You cannot cut newshole without leaving out stories. Indeed, in order not to pay overtime, we missed a committee vote on a volatile gun issue during the legislative session in March. The Star Tribune stayed and reported the vote. Our readers noticed the omission.
Finally, we all know Wall Street is never satisfied. Give them 50 percent profit margins and they will want 55. It’s time for the people running the newspaper companies to tell the analysts and investors that they will get bushel baskets full of money during the good times, but only buckets full of money during the down times. Whether the times are good or bad, we will tend the franchise, putting money into it so it will be strong, vital and profitable for years to come. If we don’t, there not only won’t be any manure left, there will be darn few horses.
Chuck Laszewski is a projects reporter at the St. Paul Pioneer Press. A reporter for 22 years, Laszewski has spent the past 20 years at the Pioneer Press where he has covered cops, courts, the environment and city hall.