Monday, May 05, 2008

Why The News-Press Circulation Numbers Have Tanked

Wendy McCaw's admission last Thursday that thousands of the newspaper's readers had indeed cancelled their subscriptions was a startling departure from the paper's past characterizations of the effect that nearly two years of rancor has had on the paper's bottom line.

Last February, Matt Kettmann of the Santa Barbara Independent reported the contents of a memo circulated to News-Press employees in which McCaw insisted that the paper was "doing fine" since the walkout of top editors in July of 2006. She went on to elaborate: "In fact, it is doing much better since the changes in the newsroom. Statistics show that in the first half of last year under the supervision of Jerry Roberts, many more subscribers canceled than in the second half following the departures of Mr. Robert’s and the others."

And in response to her own rhetorical inquiry in that same memo as to whether the News-Press is financially viable, her answer was; "Yes. Our readers and advertisers have been incredibly loyal and understanding during this period." McCaw went on to say that despite what she characterized as a "vicious campaign" on the part of the Teamsters union "News-Press circulation figures have stayed in line with general newspaper industry declines. The state of the newspaper industry is changing and it is clear that it has been tough for papers nationwide. We are strong and getting stronger."

Sure, that memo was circulated over a year ago. Things could have changed a lot since then, right? Well consider what co-publisher Arthur von Wiesenberger told the Santa Barbara Middle School Teen Press in an interview in early March of this year: "Although The Santa Barbara News-Press experienced a brief increased decline during a Teamsters campaign to get subscribers to cancel their subscriptions, our numbers are currently in line with national averages."

Oh really?

U.S. newspaper circulation fell 3.6 percent compared with the same period a year earlier. For the News-Press, daily circulation fell 7.6%. Sunday circulation fell 8%. (Former News-Press financial officer Randy Alcorn wrote in to point out that my math was wrong when I originally posted about the declines.)

So why is the News-Press' circulation plummeting at twice the rate of the national average? McCaw says it was the Teamster's call for subscribers to cancel the paper, but of course the Teamsters would never have made that call had McCaw simply recognized the newsroom employee's legitimate wishes to be represented by the Union and had bargained with them.

Instead she chose to fight the Union. Of course McCaw had no more of a right to opt out of being saddled with a union if that's what the employees voted for than she had of opting out of having to extend offers of "COBRA" health insurance benefits to the employees she just laid off. It's the law, and it was McCaw who chose to buy a business that was large enough to be subject to the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Act. If McCaw thought she could circumvent the law by using her fortune to outlast the Teamsters, she appears to have sorely miscalculated the fabled union's resolve in that regard.

But ultimately it's not the Teamsters that have sent circulation into the tank, but rather it's the product that lands in driveways (fewer and fewer driveways I might add) each morning that is causing readers and ultimately advertisers to abandon the News-Press.

Would a savvy business person purchase a department store and run it like it's a boutique? Why does McCaw insist upon running a general circulation newspaper like a personal blog?

Here are three things that are killing the News-Press' circulation.

1. Lack of professional management. Just because Wendy owns a yacht does that make her qualified to take the helm and steer it? Just because you have a pocketbook big enough to buy a yacht or newspaper doesn't mean that you have the savvy to captain one.

As far as McCaw is concerned, there's never been a publisher who's been worthy enough to run her paper. Will Fleet, Jerry Roberts and Joe Cole all were either given the boot or squeezed out. Neither McCaw or her boyfriend could ever have gotten hired to run someone else's newspaper. What makes them think that they're qualified to be the publishers of this one? Wendy is paying dearly for her own inexperience in this regard.

And it's not just the very top where experience is lacking. Consider the departures of others such as Alcorn (finance), or Sarah Sinclair (advertising) and others from key positions on the business side of the paper.

The fix: hire an experienced publisher, tell him or her that you'll stay out of their way and make good on that promise.

2. Poor story selection when it comes to news coverage. With McCaw constantly looking over everyone's shoulder, the newsroom must be in constant fear of offending her. Hence the steady diet of animal stories in the paper to appease McCaw, the animal rights activist.

Other stories seem to be chosen not for their newsworthiness or even because they have the potential to sell papers but rather for their potential to embarrass McCaw's enemies (of which there are many). How else would you explain a news story on a post-judgment hearing in a former city council member's divorce case? In the long run, dirty laundry is only profitable if you're in the dry cleaning business.

The fix: hire a "full-charge" editor for the newsroom. What you have there now is a weak puppet. And if Judge Wilson doesn't force you to take your eight fired reporters back, then bite the bullet and staff the newsroom.

3. It's an opinion section not a pillory! I've lived here for more than 30 years and as far as I know, no public official has ever made a fortune by working in local government. Insinuations that people are venal or corrupt ring pretty hollow.

The fix: a kinder, gentler editorial section.

Addressing these three areas won't be a cure-all, but it will be a start.

* * *

The layoffs continued on Friday when sportswriter Kyle Jahner was given his walking papers.

That particular firing did not sit well with the Teamster's Union. Jahner was a "temporary" employee at the paper and the Union claims temporary employees are entitled to Union protection because they are doing the work of union members, and were hired as "temps" by the News-Press in order to to keep the union bargaining unit artificially small.

On Friday, former News-Press reporter Dawn Hobbs, who is a member of the union's negotiating team, had this to say:
The remaining News-Press employees have been working in a climate of horrendous fear the last two days. Everyone is stunned, stressed out -- and now, once again, constantly looking over their shoulder. No one inside is buying the company’s line that the union should be faulted for the lay-offs. They know this entire issue could have been settled a long time ago. Wendy McCaw has had to spend tons of money because she is violating the law and because she’s vindictively attacking her perceived enemies with her lawyers.

* * *

On Friday I listed the names of the nine employees who were laid off on Thursday, however I didn't have a last name for one of them. Over the weekend I heard from him. His name is Greg Brechbiel and worked in the creative services department. His duties include the design and layout of the special section advertising supplements. He started working at the News-Press in 2005 in the ad production department and was later promoted to the creative services department in early 2007.

What was Brechbiel's reaction to being laid off?
I can't say that I am terribly surprised by the event. The sinking feeling at the News-Press has been apparent for sometime, obviously. As low and dirty as the event was I am ecstatic to be free from the communal stress and politics that are associated with working in that building.

The layoff casualty list now stands at 10, meaning the original number of 16 I reported on Thursday was incorrect.