Charles Apple has highlighted some structural changes at the Tribune Company newspapers that many find troubling. The comments on his blog post are especially interesting.
Some of the reaction struck me as reflecting a big disconnect between working journalists and economic reality.
Tribune is consolidating some editorial functions in Chicago, producing standard shared page modules for nonlocal information that slip seamlessly into local newspapers in Orlando, Baltimore, Fort Lauderdale, Hartford, Allentown and Newport News. This enables fewer hands to do essentially the same work; in Orlando, "half the design desk and two-thirds of the copy desk was laid off."
Read my lips: This is not a temporary maneuver in response to an economic cycle. This is permanent structural change.
As a medium, print is on an irreversible decline relative to digital. We are headed for an inflection point at which print newspapers as we knew them in the past will be unsustainable.
Like it or not, print must change.
For print newspapers to continue to exist at all, their production must become radically more efficient, and for journalism to thrive, energies and efforts must be redirected at digital media and new products.
If you are a wire editor or features editor, your odds of surviving in such a position until retirement are slim to none. Those jobs are obsolete. We can not save a system in which thousands of people sit around reinventing the wheel in parallel processes all around the country.
The Tribune Company's bankruptcy raises the urgency of facing this issue, but it will be an issue for everyone sooner or later. This is just another case of "the future is already here; it's just unevenly distributed."
If you imagine that jobs will simply move from a print focus to an Internet focus, you're wrong. Some jobs, like the wire editor and the features editor, will disappear. The Internet presents us with completely new tasks, requiring different skill sets.
Most smaller daily newspapers no longer have wire editors (if they ever did). The percentage of nonlocal content in midrange and small dailies has dropped, in some cases to near zero. Newspapers -- including those owned by the Tribune -- are beginning to restructure the physical product as it becomes more locally focused, merging the redundant "metro section" into the A section.
On the Internet, we have no need of wire editors; if we wish to have wire content on our websites, we can plug in AP Hosted News, or run a full feed of AP Online or some similar product from another service. But with everything on the Internet just a click away, the value of such branded and hosted wire content is low (and measurable), and even that may go away before long, based on simple cost-benefit analysis. We may be better off sending users to CNN, MSNBC and NYtimes.
The situation for the features editor is only slightly different.
One of the "jobs to be done" that leads a consumer to read a newspaper is "entertain me in my spare time." Spare time is becoming scarce, but some of us like to read while we eat breakfast, or ride the bus, and the printed features section, much of it consisting of nonlocal syndicated content, fulfills that need.
But the job simply doesn't transport to digital media. Again, everything on the planet is just a click away, much of it more interesting, entertaining and informative than can be found in the typical daily newspaper's features. This is why efforts such as the AP's Web-based ASAP "youth product" are doomed before they're even built. Print has only to compete with whatever is in the room at the moment (TV?), but a Web product has to compete with everything.
This isn't a case of good guys (journalists) against the bad guys (management).
I know some people are offended by the description of print production jobs as "manufacturing," but they are. Newsrooms of the past were integrated parts of newspaper factories. We're leaving that behind.
I understand the concerns about quality as copy editing becomes minimal. I worked as a copy editor for years. In some situations my job was more rewriting than editing, as talented gatherers of news are not always talented tellers of stories.
If you are one of those talented gatherers of news who can't write clean publishable copy, you can pretty much consider your job to be in the same at-risk category as wire editing and features editing.