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Rick Redding: More top Courier-Journal talent out the door

by Rick Redding

CJ 680

I’ve written plenty of stories about the decline of the local daily newspaper. This one illustrates how more talent is walking out the door at Sixth and Broadway, and how a Gannett strategy is failing the Courier-Journal miserably.

A week ago, we learned that Bennie Ivory was stepping down after 16 years as top editorial executive at the CJ. That’s a bigger hole for the paper’s knowledge base than you can imagine. Ivory is 62, so his announcement came as somewhat of a surprise. Multiple insiders say they believe he made the ultimate beau geste: Ivory resigned to save newsroom jobs at an organization where talent is disposable.

Speculation about this replacement wavers from certainty that he will be replaced by a Gannett lifer (see “Arnold Garson”) to the idea that Gannett will forgo paying an executive editor salary and just ask Jean Porter, the current managing editor, to work harder. Porter declined to talk with me for this story.

At the reporter level, many are getting out while the getting is good. Some familiar bylines, and their beats, are out with no sign of being replaced.

From an insider this morning:

- Even after all the layoffs and buyouts, the paper watched four talented reporters walk out the door voluntarily in the last year and none have been or will be replaced. Dan Klepal, city government reporter, went to Atlanta (Journal-Constitution), and 8 months later the city hall beat is still vacant. Joe Lord, breaking news reporter, got scooped up by WFPL. Chris Otts, economy and business reporter, hired away into workforce development. And just announced: Jessie Halladay, longtime cops reporter who switched to social services, going to Mike O’Connell’s communications staff. (Editor’s note: Mike O’Connell is Jefferson County Attorney.)

- Take this to the bank: Mark Schaver, an assigning editor with extensive data/CAR skills, will soon be announced as the next hire at WFPL’s investigative unit. (Editor’s note: Indeed the email went out later this morning.)

- A lot of speculation around the newsroom that executive editor Bennie Ivory decided to retire with 4 days notice last week because he didn’t want to go through another round of painful cuts or furloughs. Seems obvious the lack of lead time was because they needed to start taking advantage of the savings of his big salary right away. Corporate often demands savings on a moment’s notice in reaction to the previous quarter’s numbers.

There hasn’t been a beat reporter on the City Hall beat since Dan Klepal left last December.

Don’t expect one, as the concept of “beat reporting” disappears. According to sources with direct knowledge of the situation, Gannett put the brakes on a plan local editors championed to replace Klepal with an in-house digital editor, because it didn’t want a staffer “moving from digital to print.”

Andrew Wolfson has been covering the trial of Metro Councilwoman Barbara Shanklin, a trial that is happening in large part because of Klepal’s reporting. Wolfson’s beat is listed as federal courts.

Jessie Halladay has taken a job with the city. Chris Otts left in May for a job with Kentuckiana Works. You can find ex-C-J reporters in almost every government agency, including the Mayor’s Office. Perhaps being a reporter is simply a required stop before doing P.R. for the government.

But the exits aren’t just to cushy P.R. jobs. People have been leaving the C-J for more promising jobs in journalism. This spring, Ralph Dunlop, a veteran of more than 30 years in the CJ newsroom, joined Louisville Public Media’s Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting. In 2012, prominent sportswriters Ric Bozich and Eric Crawford took their talents to WDRB-TV, where they were joined this year by former C-J Op-Ed columnist John David Dyche.

My sources add that the newsroom is abuzz with fresh rumors of impending layoffs. I’m speculating, but the dash for the door by Otts and Halladay might be the start of a “get out while you still can” mentality. These types of rumors, when started, have always proven true, according to my source.

Here’s another “incredible” bombshell for C-J readers – no more “Incredible Inman.” The C-J’s TV Trivia writer has been submitting copy for three decades, but announced on Facebook last week:

Got the call from The Courier-Journal today. At the end of July, after 32 years, ‘The Incredible Inman’ won’t be in the newspaper anymore. But I’ll never shut up, at least as far as writing is concerned, and there are too many opportunities out there to display your stuff. This has been a great gig that’s taken me places I’d never been and taught me things I’ll never forget. Not sure where this road leads next, but I know it isn’t a dead end.

Inman’s comment illustrates one of the biggest challenges for Gannett. The reporters left at the C-J may be biding time until retirement or simply haven’t found a nice P.R. job yet.

If you’re like me, and I think you are at least in terms of this topic, you’re not paying for Gannett’s digital products. I tried the Sunday paper for a few months, based on a very generous marketing offer, but just can’t make myself continue to pay for it.

(Here’s a tip – if you can’t stand that paywall, just log on to the Louisville Free Public Library site, log in with your FREE library card and search to your heart’s content every Courier-Journal news story since 1999.)

I don’t have access to local numbers on how many digital subscriptions have been sold, but based on the national numbers Gannett released, it ain’t many.

In January, Gannett said it expected to have at least 250,000 digital subscribers by the end of 2013 with its 80 newspapers. With a head start of 46,000 toward that goal in January, Gannett boosted the total by – get this – 4,000 in the first quarter. The number of digital subscribers had jumped all the way to 65,000 by the end of 2nd quarter, Gannett reported.

“In other words, having started the year with 46,000, it had now sold only 30,000 more in six months – an average 5,000 per month. To hit even the low end of the 2013 goal, GCI would need to sell another 174,000 digital subs in the second half – an average 29,000 per month,” Gannett Blog reported.

My anecdotal evidence makes even the 5,000 per month seem high. I’ve asked around, and very few of the people I know are digital subscribers. When I ask young people, like my sons in their early 20s, they look at me like I’ve asked them if they regularly use adult diapers.

Picture 10

Gannett’s taking a lot of heat from its shareholders, who want to know if the company has a plan to make its newspapers profitable. While digital subscriber numbers are way short of projections, print revenue continues to fall. And when Gannett feels the heat, at least in recent years, it has started cutting jobs.

In June, Gannett announced it was acquiring Belo Corp. and its 20 TV stations, including WHAS-TV here. Perhaps the company believes TV stations can be more profitable than newspapers.

All that announcement has done around here, though, is add to the anxiety about the future at WHAS-TV.

I’ll have more on that in the near future.

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  • Robertok

    Is anyone surprised? No wonder there are few digital subscribers–their website stinks and their iPad app is terrible and usually broken. Gannett must be one of the worst managed companies in the media world. If you work for WHAS-11, you better polish up your resumé.

  • Carter_Burger67

    When the deal with Belo is done, look for more talent to bleed out of 525 West Broadway as the newsrooms of WHAS and the paper are combined….that is, if they are allowed to keep both properties. They still have to get FCC permission for that I understand.

  • Seldomever

    You can’t believe any readership/subscriber stat that emanates from Gannett. And, gee, it sure took Bennie a heck of a long time to realize what a sorry company he worked for. How do you stand such corporate hypocrisy for that many years?

  • http://www.billysuratt.com/ Billy Suratt

    Congratulations to WFPL on another great pickup.