Deseret News layoffs, revolution forges ahead

by Russ Hill on August 31, 2010

I used to ride the light rail train through the streets of downtown Salt Lake City to get from my office at KSL News to the Deseret News.

KSL has some of the nicest studios of any radio station in America. They’re huge. The newsroom is massive.

But, KSL had nothing on the expansive and luxurious conference rooms at the Deseret News. Those of us in the management of KSL were jealous every time we went to the Deseret News for our regular meetings.

Back then, we talked of ways to share our vast radio, TV, and print resources to own the news market throughout Utah. The meetings were friendly, but never productive. Radio people are used to wearing eight hats and acting with urgency but our peers – back then- were not.

Defense was the strategy of the day.  Protecting turf was much more important than preparing for the future.

I remember some in those meetings insisting that rushing something to the web instead of saving it for 10pm or Sunday morning was foolish – even destructive.  I quickly realized the limits of how much I could challenge their thinking.  After receiving a few phone calls I toned down my advocating for change.

And, then I left.

Those meetings in the conference rooms of the Deseret News weren’t unique.  The same scene has been, and is, playing out at legacy media companies across the world.

And yet, today’s announcement that the Deseret News laid off 43% of its newsroom staff brings me back to to those conversations years ago.  So much has changed since then. So much needed to change.

Forty-three percent is a staggering number. It’s a monster of a figure.

And, yet it comes just days after USA Today announced more than 130 layoffs.

Again, a huge number.

None of us enjoy watching someone lose their job. Especially in THIS economy.

And, yet, I wonder how many of my peers in the media truly understand how massive the revolution in our industry truly is. I’m convinced few get it.

My nine-year-old son came home from school with an assignment to write a newspaper article today. His mom tried to lobby him to get my help. Afterall, she said, “dad has written articles for newspapers before.” It’s true. In fact, a long piece I wrote after traveling to Indonesia to cover the tsunami appeared on the front page of the Deseret News.

The kitchen conversation made me wonder, “why are schools even bothering with newspaper article assignments anymore?” After all, how many children in the fourth grade will ever work for a newspaper.  My money is on very few, if any.

You can disagree. Many do. They fill the newsrooms and studios of radio, TV, newspapers, and magazines. They say they know the business is changing, but I worry most truly don’t get it.

A manager at a local Ford dealer was describing to me last week how the Internet is in the dashboard of the new 2011 Ford Explorer. The real estate where radios currently reside in cars is too valuable for companies like Google, Apple, Amazon, and others to not fight for it.

Don’t believe it?  How about this news article which says, “Technology and vehicles go hand in hand, but recently automotive manufacturers have been taking cues from Apple, Google and other digital trendsetters to make their machines more tech-friendly than ever.”

In fact, check out Ford’s website that raves about the USB ports and mobile Wi-Fi spot in the new vehicle.  Microsoft is Ford’s new dashboard partner.

Not Kenwood, RCA, or Pioneer.

When Wired is writing about new car consoles you know times are changing.

From Wired’s interview with the suits at Ford:  “While you’re driving to grandma’s house, your spouse can be finishing the holiday shopping and the kids can be chatting with friends and updating their Facebook profiles,” said Mark Fields, Ford president of the Americas. “And you’re not paying for yet another mobile subscription or piece of hardware because Ford will let you use technology you already have.”

Apple plans to announce their new AppleTV or iTV product Wednesday. Amazon is working on a streaming video provider.  Amazon.  TV.

The iPad delivers Time Magazine and the Wall Street Journal to my hands much faster and in a dramatically more user-friendly format.

And, yet so many in radio, TV, and print keep doing what they’ve been doing before. Some of the smart ones are incredibly active on Facebook and Twitter.  It’s a great start.  But, it’s just that: a start.

There will be more announcements in the months ahead like the one from the expansive newsroom of the Deseret News (a building that will be completely empty in 90 days).

Most of the managers at organizations who will make these announcements don’t even know they’re coming yet.  They’re too caught up in the present. And, their bosses deserve enormous blame for being blinded by today’s metrics which will be meaningless in a matter of months rather than years.

When was the last time radio, TV, or print staffers saw an email about page views, unique visitors, fans, followers, or downloads?  Instead, we continue to be consumed by ratings.  I understand it’s a matter of survival for many who work for antiquated bosses or companies.

So, what to do about all of this?

Embrace digital.

Those who spend great amounts of time building followers, creating new avenues of distributing their content, crossing over platform walls, learning how to do video, embracing a 24/7 consumption cycle, and finding ways to get their material on mobile devices will not only survive but will thrive in the years to come.

Now is the time for creativity.

Now is the time for working harder than before.

Now is the time for strategizing.

Now is the time for original ideas.

Now is the time for new metrics.

Now is the time for new leaders.

This media revolution has not yet destroyed all the duplication in TV, radio, and print. It will. Soon.

And, yet the future has never been brighter for the talented and hungry.

What an exciting and historic time.

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