I’ve been critical of some recent changes at the Grand Rapids Press; particularly of the decision to lay off so many reporters and photographers.
These criticisms warrant further explanation. My intent is not to be a pugilist; newspapers are dear to my heart, and I very much want to see the Press succeed and return to its former glory. Indeed, there are abundant signs that it is on that track now.
But the way the Press got here was completely terrible, and that needs to be talked about before we can move forward and look ahead.
I’ve read and loved newspapers for as long as I can remember. Growing up, I read the Denver Post every morning over a bowl of cereal. During high school, I delivered the Post for a year — getting up at 2:00a every morning, rain, snow, or shine — to raise money for a summer trip to England. I literally went to school with newsprint staining my hands every day.
I’ve been the editor of two small newspapers, and a writer for a few others. I know what it’s like to look up from ten hours of InDesign work and see 4:00a on the clock, or to realize minutes before deadline that you’re short on content.
I’ll be the first to tell you this barely translates into any knowledge of how a large, regional news agency like the MLive Media Group works. But it does mean I’m not completely unfamiliar with the business and its complexities. It’s a stressful, unrelenting, and wonderful industry.
How we got here
At its zenith, the Grand Rapids Press employed hundreds of writers, editors, photographers, and designers in a building whose façade makes a prison look inviting. The Press headquarters at Michigan and Monroe housed the newsroom, printing press, business office — even a full-service cafeteria for staff.
When the bottom began to fall out from the newspaper industry last decade, it was clear that this largesse was unsustainable. Rather than repositioning proactively, management at the Press and its parent company Booth Newspapers deferred; comparisons to the auto industry and its hubris of perpetual profitability would not be unwarranted.
But things had to change, and so eventually, waves of attrition washed through the newsroom. Staff were offered buyouts or early retirement, and well-known writers began to disappear.
The result was a corrosion of morale. People began to fear for their future; Press staff I talked to seemed awash in anxiety when the topic turned to their jobs. Did every closed-door meeting of the editorial staff mean pink slips were coming that afternoon? This is no way to run a newsroom.
Morale was bad, and that building wasn’t helping. The first time I set foot in the Press newsroom, I thought a bomb had gone off. Despite being a sunny summer afternoon, the newsroom was dim and seedy; half the fluorescent bulbs in the ceiling had burned out without being replaced. Yellow caution tape was hung around a pile of desks and chairs turned on their side. The carpet looked as though it hadn’t seen a Hoover since Herbert. Again, this is no way to run a newsroom.
Enter the MLive Media Group
On November 2nd of last year, Press publisher Dan Gaydou announced the formation of a new company, MLive Media Group, that would “encompass” the Grand Rapids Press and other local Michigan newspapers.
The written version of the announcement was so terribly-worded that I posted a translation of it, which I later heard circulated in samizdat form among some Press staff. The terrible wording in and of itself signaled a problem; as one of my favorite writers, John Gruber, once put it: “A lack of clear, concise, plainspoken communication is as sure a sign as any of poor leadership.”
Wearing a pinstripe suit and standing in front of a November-gray background, Gaydou announced the Press would go down to a three-day-a-week delivery schedule and that the MLive website would become the focus of the new company. Notably, this stood in contrast to Press editor Paul Keep’s earlier editorial assertion that the Press’s focus was “web-first, print important.”
What wasn’t announced by Gaydou is what became the real story — one that Gaydou’s rambling missive only hinted at: Massive layoffs.
By some accounts, 70% or more of some Press staff have been let go in the past months. Crain’s Detroit put the statewide number for Booth layoffs at 550. Some of the cuts devastated newsroom departments: Only three full-time photographers remain at the Press. Huge swaths of news and sports reporters are gone. The editorial board has been disbanded.
The firings came like a culling. Staff were called to back rooms one-by-one. If one editor called you, you were gone. If a different editor called you, you got to stay — and were maybe even offered a raise.
None of this seemed to bother Gaydou, at least publicly. In response to a congratulatory tweet about the MLive Media Group announcement, Gaydou wrote on Twitter:
@KatieLandan Thanks, exciting times.— Dan Gaydou (@dgaydou) November 3, 2011
This on the day that hundreds of his staff had to drive home and deliver devastating news to their families — a month and a half before Christmas — that they were soon to be unemployed and skilled for an industry growing smaller by the day. “Exciting times” indeed.
Without a trace
The massive firings were also problematic because they were so abrupt and happened largely without any fanfare.
It’s understandable that a company laying off hundreds of people doesn’t want to make it too public — even though Booth Newspapers was required to publicize the layoffs under the Michigan WARN Act. But for reporters and columnists whose names have graced the daily pages of a newspaper for decades, some sort of farewell would be in order. Unfortunately for most staff, none was permitted; their names simply disappeared from the masthead one day.
And what should this signal to remaining staff? Extreme caution. Even for those who still have jobs at the Press, consider: If the MLive Media Group was willing to fire your predecessors — people with decades of experience — at the first sign of bad weather, what’s to say the same thing won’t happen to you down the road?
Doing more with less
In no uncertain terms, some of this was inevitable. The Press staff was larger — significantly larger — than it needed to be for the times it serves. For a city the size of Grand Rapids, there simply isn’t a need for hundreds of full-time reporters.
But how to trim the fat? Apparently, by letting the accountants make the calls. The vast majority of the newsroom staff who were laid off were longtime veterans of the Press and journalism generally. I don’t have access to the necessary data to verify, but I’d be shocked if the median industry tenure of fired reporters and photographers was less than 15 years.
Why cut your veterans? Because they’re expensive. Sometimes this is a great idea, as Detroit Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski has shown us this offseason: Clear the books of high-dollar deadweight and you’ve freed up your payroll to go get a superstar.
But a newsroom isn’t a baseball team, and veteran reporters and photographers aren’t bringing down the team average.
On the contrary, cutting so many long-serving staff eviscerates institutional experience and wisdom. One of the best ways to become a great reporter is to work alongside one. When that aspirational context is gone, what’s left?
Never work for free
What’s left is to ask your readers to do the heavy lifting for you.
Because there simply isn’t enough remaining newsroom staff to cover everything going on in greater Grand Rapids, the Press plans to advertise for “community reporters,” a la The Rapidian. Instead of paying a professional reporter to write about the Whitecaps or Griffins, for example, the Press hopes that its devoted(?) readers and audience will pick up the slack for them. For free.
On this point, I turn to Mike Monteiro, design director for Mule Design — incidentally, the agency that just finished the redesign of MLive.com. Monteiro hosts a weekly-ish podcast called ‘Let’s Make Mistakes.’ In episode two, Monteiro and co-host Katie Gillum talked about working for free, and why it’s a terrible idea. While the focus was the design industry, what Monteiro said (around 16:00) applies to any creative profession:
“There is nothing illegal about somebody asking you to work for free. There is something very wrong with you doing it. No one should ever work for free. This is a profession. This is what we do to earn our living.
“When you take on work for free, you are not only screwing yourself and your ability to do good work on that project, but you’re also keeping this myth alive that spec work [work done for free] is a viable alternative to paying designers.”
Substitute “reporters” or “photographers” for “designers,” in our context. A few minutes later, talking about hiring for work-on-demand, Monteiro again:
“I’m asking that person to give me their time and energy. In exchange for that, they’re going to give me some work that I’m going to sell back to a client. So of course I’m going to pay them. It’s unethical not to pay them.”
People in creative professions, whether journalists, designers, photographers, or whatever, should be outraged by the Press’s “community reporter” idea. It cheapens the profession by asserting that creative work isn’t so important that it should be paid for — let alone enough to make a career of it — and that any work-for-free hack can do a good-enough job to get by.
Going forward and looking up
All of this is certainly a long litany of wrongs, so it would be fair to ask, is the Press and MLive Media Group doing anything right? Yes: Plenty.
First, the Press is finally vacating its decrepit old building on Michigan. The old property has been sold to Michigan State University, and its new offices on Monroe overlooking Rosa Parks Circle are stunningly beautiful. For staff who toiled for years in the dungeon of the former building, the new cutting-edge offices are undoubtedly a welcome change. The new offices are single-handedly my favorite thing to come from the changes.
Second, there’s the new MLive.com redesign I made notes about earlier. Let me be clear: I think the new MLive design is terrific. Everything is cleaner, brighter, and more refined — exactly what a redesign should accomplish. The MLive Media Group is to be applauded for involving one of the best design agencies in the country — this signals not only a pursuit of excellence, but cognizance about the importance of design and new technology in producing digital news products.
Third, MLive and the Press are finally putting their products on new devices, including apps for iPhones, Androids, and iPads. At this point, it’s still a mixed bag — the current iPad apps, for example, are terrible. But the fact that they exist at all is evidence of a forward-looking approach. I’m hopeful they’ll get better.
And finally, the staff. The Grand Rapids Press staff is much, much smaller, but the staff who remain are an absolute A-list of reporters, editors, and photographers. I’ve been particularly impressed with the recent work of Garret Ellison and Jeff Haywood. Staff like John Agar, Jim Harger, and Barton Deiters who have been writing for the Press even longer need no endorsement. Appointing Julie Hoogland as news director seems like a great move. I could go on. There’s nobody in that staff box who isn’t top-shelf quality.
Taken together, these things signal a future for the Press that’s getting brighter by the day. And I’m aware that Gaydou and other MLive Media Group leaders I’ve singled out by name in sharp criticism are very likely the ones leading this charge, and so I tip my hat to them. Well done.
More than ever, right now
The single most important asset to producing a great publication is having a great newsroom. I will always side with journalists and defend them, because they are the metric by which a newspaper is properly measured.
And that’s precisely why I’ve been so critical of staffing cuts, free-for-all commenting on MLive, and community-reporter concepts: They undermine the good work that the professional journalists at the Press have been doing, and must keep doing.
In an interview with Steve Jobs at the D8 conference in 2010, the topic turned to journalism. Steve said:
“I don’t want us to become a nation of bloggers. I think we need editorial more than ever right now.”
I couldn’t agree more. We need great newspapers. Grand Rapids needs a great newspaper.
So while I can’t look past the carnage of the past that brought us to this point, my sincere hope is that the positive changes we’re seeing now signal a new direction for the Grand Rapids Press — one that continues into the future, and multiplies.