While the layoffs at major print publications may not carry the same economic impact as those on Wall Street that carried high-value bonuses, and by extension high tax revenues, but they nonetheless signal a trend that has to have news enthusiasts concerned.
As I've chronicled before, I'm one of many who made the switch from journalism to public relations. And although I haven't really regretted the decision that much, I always tried to carry forward the principles and tactics I learned during my decade in the field. I've always practiced solid journalistic principles when I put together something written for clients and have worked hard to get clients to avoid jargon that has no meaning. Also, my years in that field gave me a big appreciation for less is more when it comes to describing clients, what they do and what makes them unique. One of the big problems in our field is most people take 100 words to do that when you really should be able to do it in about a dozen.
So it's with sadness that I'm reading a veritable sea of news about layoffs at well-respected publications, ranging from The New York Times and Forbes to the closing of publications like Fortune Small Business. However, the news isn't really catching anyone by surprise. Journalism has always been a relatively low paying field and was always very dependent on advertising. Thus, when times got tough and advertisers fled, it's tough to make cuts because there's not that much fat there. Instead, many publications are finding it necessary to make widespread changes to their structure, or in other cases, to shut down entirely.
And contrary to what most people think, circulation revenue is basically designed just to cover the production costs of a publication; it's never really made much of a contribution to the overall operating costs. Thus, when circulation declines, over time it gets more and more difficult to cover the costs to just produce the publication, much less the content that's in it. While the recession has undoubtedly had a lot to do with the havoc, publishers have never been at the forefront when it comes to embracing technology. Most were initially scared of the Web because they though it was going to kill their business models. Unfortunately for them, they didn't realize that the Web was one of the few things that could save their businesses if they invested time to figure that out.
One example that has always been held up as a success when it comes to the Web is The Wall Street Journal. Their unique mix of content, combined with a reputation for excellent reporting and a high level of readership among the top players in the world of business and finance, means they didn't have to panic when everyone else was going free on the Web. While Rupert Murdoch initially made mentions of making WSJ.com free when the News Corp. purchase of Dow Jones was completed, he later backed off those plans, in part because of the turmoil in the ad market.
Unfortunately, most other outlets weren't as lucky and they had no "backup plan" to rescue their business models. We may not realize the value of what we're losing now, but over the long term, we'll all come to recognize the societal value that news organizations provide. Let's hope that by then someone's figured out a way to make the financials work.