Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Journalism tries to tackle money problems

I am going to be a money man this morning. It's not my favorite subject to write about, but times require a different perspective. Money and journalism used to be on friendly terms. It was a profitable business on a predictable basis. Well, you can forget those days.

Those of us in the business knew this was coming. One of my friends. Glen Crevier at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, told me about 15 years ago that he hoped we still had jobs until it was time to retire. The fallout at The Denver Post started several years ago. The first to go were mid-level managers in jobs that were seen as redundant. The steady decline continued over the years. Copy editing jobs were slashed. Job slots for employees who retired or moved elsewhere were not filled. A few jobs were cut here, a few more there. I was part of the dreaded reduction in workforce twice.

Now, The Post and all parts of the massive entity of Digital First Media are for sale. That's how bad it has become.

My job at YourHub wasn't immune from the damage. I had to notify five employees they were losing their jobs, and that was the worst day of my career. My own job was removed in April. There used to be five designers on the YourHub staff. Now there are three full-timers, and another who splits duties between designing and reporting (a decision I was forced to make when my staffing was slashed). Still, I tried to find ways to bolster the revenue stream. One project in particular had what I thought was significant promise. Here's some history behind that.

The YourHub website is divided into two parts. One part is for staff-produced material, which goes into the main Denver Post system. The other is for user-generated copy, which is created by members of the general public (from public information officers of corporations to soccer moms), and that copy goes into its own system. That was fine until the old UGC system completely collapsed. No one could post new material. We had to come up with a new way to do things. Four of my employees, who I affectionately dubbed the Gang of Four, came to me with an idea for creating a WordPress-based website. Those four (Joe Nguyen, Sarah Millett, Kevin Hamm, Laura Keeney) came up with a presentation that impressed me, but impressing me went only so far. I didn't control the newsroom purse strings, so I had the Gang of Four deliver their message to news director Kevin Dale. He loved it, and we got the go-ahead to develop the system.

But before anything went from drawing board to reality, I delivered a message to the Gang: This new system must be able to generate more revenue. I hoped the new system would improve access to YourHub material on both sides of the website. More access would equal more page views, which would make YourHub more attractive to advertisers. The Gang of Four did a great job in developing strategies for the new system and getting them implemented. The resulting system is great. Our UGC contributors love it. However, the new system isn't exactly a revenue generator. Those access problems still existed.

My experience isn't new in journalism. Big ideas meet with limited results. I don't have the financial figures for The Post these days, but most media companies report falling ad revenues from both the print and digital sides. I know by combing the website that YourHub isn't having a great impact on The Post's bottom line. I hope it does better. And then there's that for sale sign for all DFM properties, which is a desperate sign of the times.

I watch the world of journalism from the outside now. Still, I know the hurt and uncertainty. There are so many great journalists on the DPost and YourHub staffs, and I fervently hope they all retain their jobs. That's going to require an influx of money, and that brings us to the same old problem. We work in a capitalist society, and we have to deliver or be sold. It's just the facts of life.

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