March 11, 2008

State's Gannett papers mull regional copyediting

Back in January -- a century ago in Internet time -- I posted a rumor that Lee and Gannett might be thinking of swapping newspapers, "to help both chains regionalize their holdings, allowing both to wring financial economies and operating efficiencies out of the process."

Well, for those of you keeping score: No news on that front at all. There's been nothing to indicate any substance to that rumor. So far, it's dead wrong. Lee continues to operate its eight papers in Wisconsin, including The Journal Times, and Gannett continues to own and run its ten newspapers. There's been no public talk about any kind of swap. (OK, enough crow-eating?)

But there is news on the Gannett front, and -- surprise! -- it involves regionalizing and consolidation, although strictly within that chain's existing holdings. The Gannett Blog, run by a former USA Today reporter, said yesterday:
Gannett's 10-paper Wisconsin Newspapers group is considering a plan under which copy and pagination work would be merged into a regional operation, likely resulting in "significant'' job cuts, an internal company document shows. Publishers discussed the idea at a meeting last Wednesday that addressed several topics -- including consolidating work...

The document describes "two possible consolidations. 1) regional copy desk and 2) page layout." It says executives are "looking at severance costs, which are significant. They will be meeting to walk through the process. At this time, we’re not sure if there are any showstoppers."

Consolidating all copy editing into giant regional or statewide desks has emerged as another way for newspaper publishers to cut labor costs at a time when revenue is falling. But critics say copy editors can't do their jobs well when they work far from the communities their papers serve. (Mayor Smith? Smyth?)

A Gannett shift to regional editing would not be surprising. The company has made clear that it's now favoring newspapers in its portfolio that are clustered together. Proximity makes it easier to share resources, a factor in GCI's decision last year to unload five papers.

Some Wisconsin papers already share copy editing functions... Geography makes the 10 Wisconsin newspapers good candidates for consolidating work: Eight of them are small afternoon dailies, within about two hours of each other.

Back in the '70s, I worked at two newspaper chains with regional copyediting desks -- in New York and Illinois. The former, an eight-paper, tightly-clustered group (later bought by Gannett) was noted for "common pages" -- ads and news put together by the centralized desk and shared in toto by all the newspapers. The other, five papers in Illinois (later bought by Lee) handled all local stories locally, but the AP wire, statewide coverage and all editorials that weren't strictly local came from the centralized desk via a noisy teletype. Both were good outfits, and put out good journalism, but the centralized operation -- particularly early deadlines to accommodate distribution in those pre-computer days -- frequently got in the way.

Regional copyediting is not the worst trend in newspapers today (we're talking production, here, not whether Eliot Spitzer's loose zipper should drive the deaths of eight U.S. soldiers in Iraq in one day off page one). Not long ago, a California paper tried to outsource its county government coverage -- to India! (Webcasts and telephone, donchaknow.) And every month or so comes another story about a newspaper experimenting with offshore advertising makeup, page layout or copyediting. (This week: The Ft. Worth (TX) Star-Telegram, 26 ad makeup jobs, India.)

The ten Wisconsin Gannett papers are: The Post-Crescent at Appleton, The Reporter at Fond du Lac, Green Bay Press-Gazette, Herald Times Reporter at Manitowoc, Marshfield News-Herald, Oshkosh Northwestern, The Sheboygan Press, Stevens Point Journal, Wausau Daily Herald and The Daily Tribune at Wisconsin Rapids.

Lee's eight Wisconsin papers are the Wisconsin State Journal at Madison,the Beaver Dam Daily Citizen, the Baraboo News Republic, the Portage Daily Register, The Chippewa Herald, The Journal Times in Racine, the LaCrosse Tribune and Minnesota-border-crossing Winona Daily News.

At the time of our earlier post raising the issue of a Gannett/Lee swap, Lee's stock had just hit a 52-week low of $11.78 per share, erasing more than $1 billion of its market capitalization. Gannett wasn't doing much better: in the first week of 2008, it dropped from $39 per share to $32.45.

Ah, the good old days! Today, Gannett is trading at $28.81, less than half its 52-week high. Lee hit $9.73 this morning, one-third its 52-week high. (As the entire market has tanked, it must be noted.)

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