The Long, Slow Death of the Times-Dispatch

. . . and the dinosaurs are feasting today on their own young at 300 East Franklin.

57 good people were shit-canned today, and two more are scheduled for May. Some are people I worked with for nine years; some are friends I’d known for years beforehand, as colleagues and as rivals. Good people, all of them.

Not a single one of them is a bow tie from the corporate office directly across Franklin Street.

Here’s the press release masquerading as an article on TimesDispatch.com. Note how it pretty much says nothing of any importance whatsoever. Seriously, you’ve got to love the sheer artistry, the disingenuous genius, that goes into writing bullshit of this caliber:

“This is not a day I ever wanted to see come. I thank each and every departing employee for their years of valued service that helped publish Richmond’s daily newspapers,” said President and Publisher Thomas A. Silvestri.

There are no plans to eliminate days of publication. The Times-Dispatch will continue its focus on breaking, local news and insightful and thorough coverage of our core market in Central Virginia where more than 80% of its readers live and work.

“Despite today’s announcement, our news mission at the RTD remains clear,” said Vice President and Executive Editor Glenn Proctor. “We will provide readers and viewers with a vibrant news website and print product worth reading every day. We will do that by sharpening our focus on state and municipal government, state and local politics, education, crime and public safety, college and prep sports, and, of course, the economy and business.”

“We will do everything we can to retain our current customers by demonstrating our strength as the leading provider of high-quality content and services,” Silvestri added.

Beautiful, isn’t it? And it’s curious how Silvestri and Proctor sound so similar in this piece. I mean, it’s eerie, isn’t it? Unearthly. Almost as if someone were writing the words for them.

Naaaaah.

The dinosaurs obviously have it all figured out and are doing the best for their company. Right? They’re performing surgery on themselves on the advice of middle managers and bean counters who simply don’t understand that the future is here and it’s coming to get them if they don’t evolve and run faster, better, and leave behind their usual, hidebound, corporate bullshit.

And why, exactly, is it bullshit? Well, let’s read between the lines, shall we, and try to discern the pattern hidden behind the corporate curtain, and you tell me what you come up with:

1. Downsizing the reporting staff is one thing. But the primary sales rep responsible for at least — and this is conservative — half the revenue that flows from national accounts was let go. Why?

2. The library staff was let go, except for two. Why?

3. Three months ago the two-person research staff was let go. Why?

4. In May — the end of the school year — the Newspaper in Education staff will be terminated. They aren’t revenue producing, but they pulled in circulation numbers — about 2 million papers were distributed to area schools last year. Why?

5. Despite “Silvestri’s” claim in the press release that there are no plans to cut publication days, Style Weekly reports that:

Media General, the Times-Dispatch’s parent company, announced a reorganization of its corporate business structure last week, described by company officials as a move to a “Web First strategy.” Divisions between the company’s television, print and Internet holdings were broken down and replaced with five geographic markets. That strategy is in line with remarks made by T-D Publisher Tom Silvestri in recent years, in which he’s speculated on a merging of the company’s mediums, with the daily print newspaper ideally scaled back to three times a week or fewer, in favor of an online presence.

6. Style also reports that:

“Sources also say the newsroom was recently informed of changes that largely do away with the food section and real estate pages. Times-Dispatch spokeswoman Frazier Millner clarifies with Style that Wednesday food coverage will stay with a “change in format,” including going to black and white . . .”

NOTE THIS LAST PART. It’s extremely important . . .

Sure, the bow ties will tell us these positions were being eradicated and it’s all an effort to cut costs. Somewhat true, that is. (Why, suddenly, do I sound like Yoda?)

But here’s what I’m thinking. Here’s the truth I see lurking behind their flimsy, patchwork wall of excuses and bullshit: The Times-Dispatch doesn’t need a few million in national sales; they don’t need a research staff; they don’t need to promote papers in schools; they don’t need librarians to get facts and answers to reporters; they may or may not go to a three-day a week publishing schedule, but it won”t really matter in the long run; and the paper can return to glorious black and white despite what readers really want . . . all this because the bow ties up in the MG dinosaur den are gutting the company not only to save short term costs, but in order to justify the company’s deliberate and eventual suicide.

I admit: on the surface, some of the personnel cuts they made today were justified. Some were justified during the last two rounds, as well. But this round eliminates people and jobs that are only unnecessary if you begin to consider the unthinkable: that the company is preparing not only to go Web-first, but Web-only, and that the RTD will cease publication, perhaps not in a matter of years, but in months.

The RTD is quite top heavy now, but there won’t be any cuts up in the dinosaur den. They’re tightening their bow ties and polishing their spats, getting ready to run with their seven figure salaries and bonuses, as per their contracts, as signed by God! But be assured there will be more bloodletting at the staff levels in three months — the end of the current fiscal quarter. Personally, I think that the RTD will sell out their advertising art department and outsource to freaking India for all ad production, just like their Winston-Salem and Tampa papers — if not by July, then by October.

If I’m proven wrong, it will be because the bow ties will kill the paper by the end of the fiscal year.

Deliberate and eventual suicide.

Today the dinosaurs posted an editorial that makes fun of Twitter, the online messaging site.

Web-first. You’ve gotta laugh. They just don’t get it. The future is here — hell, Asimov predicted this in an essay in 1983 (I’ll blog about that another time) — and it’s inconceivable to them!

How can they possibly go Web-first if they are woefully Web-ignorant?

The RTD can again become successful — not through downsizing and knee-jerk change, but by the embrace of deliberate corporate evolution; by a careful examination of American culture and consumer needs in the 21st century; by working with the public, instead of merely exploiting them; by hiring people who just freaking get it and by the firing of those who don’t; and by the adoption of reasonable financial goals.

But I no longer think the bow ties will take the high road and do what’s necessary.

I think they’re gonna cash their bonus checks and bail, leaving us with the Richmond Times-Disgrace. “Thanks, Richmond! Been nice knowing ya! I’ll see ya on hole 9!”

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5 thoughts on “The Long, Slow Death of the Times-Dispatch

  1. I am sorry for the employees let go today. However, forgive me for wondering about the downtown physical plant. The Times Dispatch made a big deal twenty years ago by stating its loyalty to downtown. They were able to get some prime real estate and get around some historic preservation and design concerns. Even now, speaking of suicide, they trumpet Center Stage’s emergence as the savior of downtown. What’s going to happen to these big empty places?

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  2. The RTD has two primary facilities: the office downtown, and the physical (printing & circulation) plant in Hanover at Atlee Station.It's premature to even guess what will happen to the buildings themselves, but I don't think Media General will completely abandon them. MG will stick around — it's the RTD whose days are numbered.

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