Courier-Journal-buildingThe executive editor and publisher of The Courier-Journal called the news staff of about 40 into a meeting on Tuesday afternoon, ostensibly to talk about the future.

That future, they soon learned, would start with all of them reapplying for their jobs. It’s a particularly dehumanizing part of an ongoing process driven by parent company Gannett and embraced by C-J executives to incorporate more market research and demographic trends into the paper’s reporting.

The meeting quickly turned contentious. Executive Editor Neil Budde, who was “visibly nervous” according to multiple staffers interviewed for this story and granted anonymity to speak freely, fumbled through an explanation that reporters and editors found deeply inadequate. A sports reporter was told on the spot — in front of colleagues — that his beat would be eliminated. And it was only after prompting near the end of the 90-minute meeting that Budde acknowledged he was closing the paper’s D.C. bureau and laying off James R. Carroll, the veteran political reporter who has covered Kentucky’s federal delegation for the paper since 1997.

“It was just un-fucking-believable — but also totally believable,” one staffer told IL. “Every time you think they can’t get more inept, they top themselves.”

The reapplication process is a housecleaning tool Gannett has used in a number of other markets. It has prompted staffers to quit in protest in Nashville, Cincinnati, and Burlington, Vt. Staffers at the C-J told IL that Budde had led them to believe they would be spared the professional indignity. As part of a newsroom overhaul late last year, Budde required reporters to write out descriptions of what they cover and how they could improve it. Staffers viewed the process as a light version of reapplying for their jobs — ugly, but still better than what colleagues at other Gannett papers had endured.

The beat descriptions the staffers wrote became the 41 jobs for which they now must reapply.

“It was a hoax,” said one. “It was sold as a way to avoid this.”

The extraordinary contraction of the newspaper industry during the past decade has prompted round after round of layoffs and shrinking page counts. As ad revenue has declined, newspaper executives at the C-J and up the Gannett chain have scrambled to figure out what’s wrong, devoting increasingly more time and money to market research. Reporters and editors at the C-J have been subjected to various initiatives — driven by marketing professionals and often carrying goofy corporate rhetoric — designed to better connect them with their audience, a goal most media companies strive to achieve.

Instead, the initiatives have created confusion and unrest in the C-J newsroom, with some staffers wondering whether the ultimate goal is to change their modus operandi from chasing the news to chasing the people who read it. To the public, the efforts have at times created the impression that the C-J is flailing — not for a lack of quality reporting so much as the mark of leaders who don’t fully grasp the mission of the paper.

Market-driven reporting

The “Picasso” initiative began in the C-J newsroom late last summer. Driven by Gannett and embraced by the executive team at the newspaper, including top editor Budde, it was built on three “pillars,” according to a staff memo provided to IL: “metrics-driven newsroom, community connecting and journalists as marketers.”

In late August, Budde sent an email to all news staff announcing a Sept. 8 Picasso training with a handful of editors from sister Gannett newspapers. During the week, reporters would be required to attend three additional one-hour sessions on the Picasso pillars.

The memo is an explicit indicator of the change in approach C-J executives are pushing. Traditionally, reporters have been protected from the market pressures affecting their newspapers. It’s as old as newspapers themselves: Profit motive can corrupt the pursuit of news and investigations that aren’t exactly sexy but remain essential to the public discourse.

Now, reporters at all Gannett publications are being equipped with technology to monitor the performance of their online stories in real time. This might seem like useful information, but the implication has been clear: Write stories that people want to read. Never mind the traditional role of newspapers as keepers of the public trust.

“I don’t think they’re ignoring (the strong journalistic tradition at the C-J),” said one staffer. “I think they’re trying to obliterate it. It’s how can we get the most metric hits.”

The Picasso pillars meant C-J reporters’ job descriptions were again expanding. In recent years, reporters have been required to shoot their own photographs and video pieces, in addition to the heavy lifting of their day jobs. Now they were to begin working more explicitly to build online profiles, through Twitter, Facebook and courier-journal.com.

Reporters also were directed to seek opportunities to create and curate community events specific to their beats, such as reporter Bailey Loosemore’s recent “12 Days of BrewLou” series, which matched light, fun web and video reporting on craft beer with a series of C-J-branded in-person events at local breweries.

The newspaper also started running reporters’ photographs with each print story. And they added a feature called “On Assignment,” in which reporters, photographers and editors write personal essays about how they work and why they cover the beats they do. All while encouraging every reporter capable to shoot, edit and post video with their stories.

It was part of an effort to make the C-J a warmer, less aloof consumer product — because that’s what their market research told them they needed to do. In the process, however, it put some C-J journalists — particularly veteran reporters — in the increasingly uncomfortable position of building their own brand in order to advance that of a newspaper becoming less and less loyal to them.

This was far from the first time leadership at the C-J had brought in market research to tell journalists how to do their jobs. The year before, in fact, under previous executive editor Bennie Ivory, staff at the newspaper surveyed 200 readers and came up with four key demographics and two “passion topics” — subjects to which both readers and reporters were expected to bring a depth of knowledge and commitment.

The research was presented to staff in a memo provided to IL. It included target audiences with names such as “Larry and Laura, Louisville Lifers” and “Wired and ‘weird’ Wally,” a millennial. It struck staffers at the time as odd and ridiculous. C-J used that research to create two blogs — called “portals” in corporate lingo — one focused on personal finance and the other on health and fitness. Both are now defunct.

Though that test of market-driven content failed, the C-J — and Gannett — stuck with the approach. By last fall, in advance of the mandated Picasso training, Budde told news staffers in an email: “While we’ve been testing some of the Picasso pillars for some time, now is the time to fully embrace them in our daily work.”

But for all the corporate wheel-spinning about reorganizing the newsroom and building reporters’ “brands,” C-J executives have some pretty explicit blind spots. Anyone could see requiring reporters and editors — some of whom have been with the C-J for more than three decades — to reapply for jobs at which they are excelling would directly contradict efforts to paint the paper as a friendlier community partner.

[dc_ad size="9"] [dc_ad size="10"]
Stephen George
Stephen George is news editor of Insider Louisville. He is a former editor of LEO Weekly and the Nashville City Paper, and a former news editor of the Nashville Scene. He has written for various other news and culture publications and is happy to be back in Louisville.