Capitalist Chaos at the Grand Rapids Press
1. Remove any policy impediments that would halt massive layoffs.
2. Hire a hatchet man to replace your old-guard management. Give him a hatchet.
3. Start by eliminating your most experienced (and therefore best-paid) workers.
4. Make hollow promises that those who take on more work will survive another round of layoffs. See who can stand up to the stress.
5. If possible, re-form your company so you can pretend that changes are being made because of a major business shift, not to fatten your bottom line.
6. Put the hatchet into overtime. Get rid of everyone above a certain pay grade. Cut middle management to the bone. Keep your youngest and cheapest employees.
7. Under the banner of the “new” company, hire in young workers at a pittance of what you used to pay and give them two or three times the workload that people in their position formerly had. Also, sell off expensive assets.
8. Preserve the salaries and bonuses of your top executives. But put any executives you want to get rid of into jobs in which they will clearly self-destruct.
Welcome to the remade Grand Rapids Press, run by its “new” owner, MLive Media Group. Have we just seen the capitalist step-by-step “reorganization” plan above used as its road map? Judge for yourself:
According to Rob Kirkbride, a former reporter who blogs about newspaper topics, the Press used to have two “cornerstone pledges” to their employees: no jobs would be eliminated because of the economy or because of changes to technology. Kirkbride writes, “Booth Newspapers, which owned the Press, changed its policy a couple of years after I left and they have not stopped cutting jobs since.” This was about the same time that Mike Lloyd retired and Paul Keep was brought on as Press editor.
The first staffers to go were some of the most popular reporters and columnists, like Tom Rademacher and Ruth Butler. Other familiar bylines started to disappear, returning occasionally to freelance. The hatchet fell like a guillotine, however, when the “new” MLive Media Group made cuts in all eight of its newspaper staffs: 550 jobs were lost across the state, including 146 here in Grand Rapids. As Dan Gaydou, formerly publisher of the Press and now president of MLive Media Group, said adroitly in a statement, “We’ve been clear since the moment we announced the launch of MLive Media Group that we’d be a smaller company as a result of the transition.” No kidding.
And to twist the knife in even deeper, Gaydou added “…all these employees are eligible to apply for new jobs within MLive Media Group and Advance Central Services Michigan, and we have and will continue to encourage them to do so.” I’d interpret that as: it may be possible to get a job again, as long as you’re willing to put up with a massive pay cut and probably be forced to take on additional responsibilities as well.
Those saying “no thanks” to the offer included Ed Golder, an award-winning op/ed writer for the Press, who packed his bags and accepted a job directing communications at the Department of Natural Resources in December.
So, as the blood is mopped up, what will the new Grand Rapids Press look like?
The Press has put Julie Hoogland, a former education editor, into an equivalent of Paul Keep’s job. Instead of a managing editor, there are going to be three “managing producers of content” who will be taking stories from reporters and transferring them into online media and print.
Paul Keep has been named executive editor of the print versions of all eight newspapers now controlled by the new organization. Given the MLive Media Group’s emphasis on their web presence, this job appears to be the equivalent of the Inuit putting one of their elderly onto an ice floe to drift off and die. After all, it’s clear to everyone in the business that print newspapers are on life support.
Who’s left to do the reporting? The Press has retained a few of its most skilled writers, including Shandra Martinez, Jim Hargar, John Serba, and Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk (probably one of the best writers the Press has ever employed). John Gonzalez, who used to be the overlord of a whole entertainment department, has been bumped to an entertainment reporter position. But many of the survivors are the greenest (and therefore probably less-well-paid) of the former staff reporters.
These include Troy Reimink, who often seems incapable of separating objective reporting from personal commentary and injects frat-boy humor into news stories. The surviving staff also includes Garret Ellison, who last year posted a story about an Occupy Grand Rapids protest that some attendees claimed was false or exaggerated. Even after posted film footage showed that certain details of Ellison’s story did not seem to match what happened at the event, the Press allowed the story to stand—probably because Ellison’s spin appealed greatly to its conservative readership base.
Ellison has also thrown notable online tantrums when readers try to tell him that he has misspelled something. But he won’t have to worry about his lack of grammar and spelling skills any longer. That’s because the Press staff no longer includes any copy editors.
Anyone who has ever worked in any kind of publishing knows that writing without editing is madness. And with a young, inexperienced staff, it’s a kind of madness that truly points to how low costs are much more important now at the Press than any kind of journalistic integrity. Although the suits like Gaydou and Keep are lining up to crow about their new, improved product, details are already leaking out about the craziness of the business model these capitalists have created.
A retired reporter from Lapeer, who runs an excellent blog site called Free From Editors, wrote on January 9, 2012 about an applicant for one of those MLive reporting jobs. At the interview, the prospective employee was told that driving the Press’s web traffic was the job’s focal responsibility. He was also told, “Reporters will self-edit.”
I admit, when I read that line, I shuddered. There are very few people left at the current Press who are even capable of self-editing, and they are seasoned enough to know that it’s a bad idea. There are also plenty of prima donnas who seem to believe that even their typos are marks of their genius, and now they’ll never get a chance to hone their craft.
According to the blog story, MLive reporters will be given backpacks, laptops, and smartphones. They are expected to shoot videos of every source on the smartphone, and then shoot the whole bundle with an article to HQ to keep feeding the website. And—this really shows how the stated MLive “commitment to print” is a string of empty words—the interviewee was told that the print version of the paper was not a priority and would “just end up filling itself.”
It was also made clear in the interview that reporters were expected to work themselves into a frenzy, not writing and filing carefully investigated stories but “producing content.” There is also a hint that the compensation was dismal when balanced against the amount of work expected. Or, as the interviewee noted, the whole thing is “a nightmare, honestly…the stress level is through the effing roof up there.”
Brand-new staffers will not even work in a newsroom. The Press sold its newsroom/office building downtown to Michigan State University for a cool $12 million. What they have provided for employees is an office they are calling a “hub,” although from the video of the place, it’s clear it’s nothing more than a drop-in way station. Its sterile blue and white rows of countertops are reminiscent of a robot-run factory from a 1960s cartoon like The Jetsons. I suspect that the true Press hub will probably be some hipster bar like Hopcat, where exhausted reporters will be downloading their stories and videos over beers and crack fries.
More freedom in a job is always desirable, but there’s also value in connecting with and learning from more experienced staff members. In the chilly atmosphere of the “hub,” it’s hard to imagine anyone will want to hang around for long. So consistent, casual interaction there seems unlikely.
Many readers sense that worse days are coming. In comments made on a Sunday column by Paul Keep in which Keep sings the praises of the print editions he’ll oversee, one reader from Kalamazoo sarcastically noted that he dropped his Gazette subscription when his paper “had been blown down the street by the slightest of breezes.” Another savvy reader pointed out that there would no longer be any investigative reporting, just AP wire stories and stuff rehashed from other web sites. “You have hurt the local communities,” the reader told Keep. “They are angry. You expect them to be grateful?”
For years, the Grand Rapids Press has been, in my opinion, a mediocre paper at best, with an occasional news series or reporter standing out from the rest. I’ve often wondered what it would look like at rock bottom. With no copy editors, few experienced reporters, the cheapest available staff overworked to the point of collapse, and an emphasis on quantity over quality, it appears I’m about to find out.
MLive Media Group hub photo used by permission from Ari B. Adler from his site Here Comes Later: