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Capitalist Chaos at the Grand Rapids Press

February 1, 2012

When you’ve got a failing business, what’s the classic solution, according to capitalist wisdom?

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: http://aribadler.wordpress.com/

6 Comments leave one →
  1. randy zylstra permalink
    February 2, 2012 3:11 pm

    1: Good to finally see analysis from GRIID on all of the changes happening over at the Grand Rapids Press and Mlive, it is long overdue. It’s clear that these are major changes that I would think will impact the work GRIID does.

    2: I read this article twice, but I can’t really figure out what the key point of it is. Maybe in the future things like this could be split into multiple articles: i.e. one about the business model, one about specific reporters failings, one about what they are looking for… it would be a lot easier to digest.

    3: I do also wonder about what the logic is that motivates this article. You criticize the Press for being capitalists (to be blunt: duh) and letting several reporters go, but at the same time, you say the Press has always been a mediocre newspaper (I would agree). I can’t pin down whether we should be upset or happy about this (both based on your article and my own thoughts). The Press, like the mainstream media as a whole, will always be and has always been biased in favor of the status quo (or “capitalists” as you would say). If you ever look at an old newspaper talking about labor issues, civil rights, etc you can see this. To me this article came across as longing for the old days of journalism when newspapers did investigative reporting. But if we’re looking back to that, aren’t we just yearning for mainstream media hegemony?

    4: What does all this mean for GRIID? Will media monitoring be adjusted? Is there a plan to step into the void left by the Press? Will there be more of a focus on interacting with reporters from the Press when they mess up rather than just posting about it since they are now tasked with interacting with the “community” on Mlive?

  2. kswheeler permalink
    February 2, 2012 4:16 pm

    Randy:

    1. Thank you.

    2. The business model appears to be driving decisions like leaving less talented but cheaper reporters in place; by offering a waystation instead of a welcoming place to work where people would at least have an assigned area of their own; like leaving the print editions of the paper to “fill up” on their own; like firing under the guise of the Grand Rapids Press and hiring under the guise of MLive Media Group for the same exact jobs…etc. I laid out the model and then told readers to assess the steps I set out to see if they thought there was a match between the two. I’m sorry if the connections weren’t clearer to you.

    3. The article was written to inform people of information that is not being offered by the Press itself. My intention was not to analyze the specific content of the newspaper but to show how capitalists change a business to make it more profitable. The model I laid out in the beginning was used by Steelcase when they axed half their workers here in West Michigan, as just one example. The model justifies steps like overworking people to wring the last drops of work from them and seeing which of your staff can stand up under the increased stress they will face if they maintain their jobs and have to take on double workloads, as one example. The model also rationalizes taking away promises made to workers, lying to workers, and usually preservering intact the salaries, bonuses, stock options, etc. of the executives. You can say “duh” if you like; a lot of people who have not been through corporate “reorganizations” don’t understand the complete humiliation, sickening concessions and fear that is inflicted on workers just to fatten the bottom line of a business.

    4. What it means for GRIID is, I think, yet to be decided. It’s of course a question that is being considered.

    • BJK permalink
      February 2, 2012 7:15 pm

      Yes Capitalist change businesses to make them more profitable. That is their job. Whether they do so in a way that is fair, reasonable, respectful, etc. will be clearly shown based on whether or not anyone is willing to work for them any longer. Don’t like working there….move on and find another opportunity. Willing to find the good and change your attitude and get to work under the new business model…..than keep working there. The press is a business like any other and is changing rapidly. People just don’t buy the paper or take in new information like they used to. It is all changed now and it isn’t going to come back. Businesses like they either make hard choices and change (which is always emotional for many) or the go out of business entirely.

      • kswheeler permalink
        February 2, 2012 8:33 pm

        What a vicious, compassionless answer! Really, BJ, is this your idea of what Jesus would do? .

        Leave the business and go where, exactly? Have you checked the unemployment ratie in Michigan lately? In some cases here we’re talking about people who literally gave their entire working lives to the Grand Rapids Press and then were tossed out like trash without a blink of an eye.

        The Press could have held with its former prormise not to lay people off due to changes in the economy or technology. But it didn’t, because there was more money to be made by taking the easy way out. It just wasn’t easy for the 550 families who just lost their income, or the hundreds of families who lost their income prior to the big “changeover.” So is job security
        something that only executives should experience? Is that your idea of equality?

        It’s so easy for people like BJ. Talk radio has given them the
        “if they don’t like it, they can go somewhere else” answer and these people apply it to everything. “If you don’t like Snyder, move to another state.” “If you don’t like the Iraq War, move to Cuba.” Etc. It’s glib, it’s easy, and it requires no compassion whatsoever.

        Yes, that’s capitalism. It’s cruel, it’s unecessary, and it’s time for it to go..

      • kswheeler permalink
        February 3, 2012 2:54 am

        Sorry for the typos in this. The reply system locked up on me and was overwriting everything I typed. Some extra letters got left in, and so did a few random punctuation marks. GRIID could use a copy editor!

  3. stan roth permalink
    February 2, 2012 11:48 pm

    I totally agree. I have been a frequent contributor to the letters to the editor over the years and now i see reader opinion totally disvalued. Instead we get ads from birgit klohs weekly telling us how wonderful something will be when intuitively we know it won;t.
    The job losses are enormous and gov synder is not bringing them back.
    I feel for any legitimate journalist…and the disrespect that they have shown to the ‘old readership”. Oh well, they are gonna die off anyway attitude I have heard expressed is discrimnatory and shows a lack of concern about the readers> In the end, it is about greed,just like OLD Kent Bank.

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