Sunday, December 07, 2008

Gannett, Gays and Alberta

December 8, 2008, 6:40 a.m., plus other changes throughout the day; a revision of and numerous updates to the entry of December 7, 2008, 12:10 p.m.

Gannett's Disastrous Decisions
(A Blog Entry of

A CEO's gotta do what a CEO's gotta do.

But there's a right way and a wrong way to go about it. Given the choice between the two Gannett has chosen the wrong way.

These are tough times for the newspaper industry -- along with everybody else.

"Venerable newspaper chain Knight Ridder was swallowed in June 2006 by rival chain McClatchy Co., which has since watched its stock price lose 90 percent of its value. Over the same period, shares of The New York Times Co. are down more than 60 percent, while shares of The Washington Post Co. are down more than 40 percent." So the Washington Post reported in the body of its story about what appears to be the Tribune's impending bankruptcy. Frank Ahrens, "Debt-Ridden Tribune Co. Considers Bankruptcy," Washington Post, December 8, 2008, p. A1. ("The Chicago-based company owns a coast-to-coast empire with television stations and newspapers in most of the nation's largest cities. Its holdings include the Los Angeles Times; cable television super-station WGN in Chicago; the Baltimore Sun; and WDCW-50 in Washington, the CW affiliate. The company even owns the Chicago Cubs.")

Gannett, which owns the Des Moines Register and Iowa City Press-Citizen newspapers in Iowa as a part of its media empire, has not been immune from Wall Street's pressure for newspapers to show ever-increasing profits in a downward-spiraling economy, with rapidly declining advertising revenues, along with declining readership, and the lack of a successful business model for making sufficient profit from the online editions that make the companies' multi-million-dollar content available for free. Gannett's third quarter earnings per share were down from $1.01 in 2007 to $0.69 this year, although operating revenues for the quarter only declined from $1.8 to $1.64 billion. Broadcasting revenues were actually up 3.9% for the quarter (from $189.5 million in 2007 to $197 million this year).

Gannett's response has been to apply an across-the-board 10% layoff policy to over 80 newspapers including our Des Moines Register and Iowa City Press-Citizen. OK, I understand why some cost cutting might be preferable to Tribune's choice for how to deal with $13 billion in debt. And I understand that you can't really sell off printing presses and stay in the newspaper business -- at least not without a business model for economic survival online. So you have to let some folks go. But who you pick, and how you go about the layoffs, not only tells volumes about your character, but also about your business smarts.

Craig A. Dubow, Chairman, President and CEO of Gannett, who
even looks a little bit like Robert Morse (see "How to Succeed" video, below), has been chair for seven years. You will probably not be surprised to discover that while Mr. Dubow has been laying off workers by the thousands this Holiday Season, he has also seen to it that he will get the lion's share of some $79 million worth of golden parachutes when the day comes that he gets laid off. (See former Gannett editor Jim Hopkins' "Gannett blog, "Golden Parachutes? The Answer is $79 Million", July 20, 2008, and "Bulletin: Gannett laying off 10% of newspaper staff; Dickey warns in memo: 'fiscal crisis is deepening,'" October 28, 2008.)

The corporation's first mistake was its choice of who does, and does not, get laid off -- as the Press-Citizen's Bob Patton illustrates:

[Credit: The Press-Citizen's nationally recognized, distinguished graphics artist and editorial cartoonist Bob Patton, December 2, 2008.]

Judging by the absence of a Patton editorial cartoon in yesterday's [Saturday, November 6] paper, I fear that he may be among the 11 said to have been laid off at the Press-Citizen.

Hopefully not, because if so it's just one more classic example of big business shooting itself in the foot, getting rid of irreplaceable top quality professionals in times of economic downturn while hanging on to easily replaceable mediocre executives -- like Detroit's shrinking "Big Three" have done, bringing about their own demise.

[Credit: "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying."]

Dubow has lived inside America's premier example of the commercial riches created by graphics in the marketplace -- television. He started his career by selling TV commercials and worked his way up through the broadcast side of Gannett. He is now the chair of a corporation that made itself famous as well as rich by creating the first newspaper that epitomizes color and graphics surrounding paragraph-long stories (and is purchased from a box that looks like a television set) -- USA Today. You would think that Dubow, more than most corporate executives, would see the necessity of retaining the corporation's best graphics and editorial cartoon professionals.

Editorial cartoonists and graphics designers are on the front lines of the newspaper's hope for winning back readers. They should be the last to go in a newspaper's restructuring.

What scares me is that the precipitous, forceful, crude and rude removal from the Des Moines Register of beloved Iowa icon and 25-year Gannett employee Brian Duffy is now a matter of public record as a result of the KCCI-TV report last evening [December 6] and gives further reason to believe Patton may be gone as well. I understand that corporate executives are sometimes as boorish and cruel as they apparently were in this case in man handling Duffy (it's often just in their nature and training), but I've never been able to understand how they can be so stupid. ("[Duffy] has been working as a cartoonist and illustrator for more than 30 years. He has received two Best of Gannett awards, two World Hunger Media awards and was a finalist for the prestigious John Fischetti Award for editorial cartooning. His two books are A Decade of Duffy and More of Duffy, published in 1995. His cartoons are syndicated by King Features Syndicate.")

And be sure to read the comments, and the original post, on Gannett Blog, "Des Moines: Laid-off Cartoonist's Exit a 'Stunner,'" December 7, 2008. The Iowa Independent now has a story, Jason Hancock, "Duffy Speaks Out on Register Layoffs," Iowa Independent, December 8, 2008, 11:27 a.m.

Here's video of the WHO-TV interview with Duffy December 6:

If Patton is in fact also gone it is a great tragedy for this community, Iowa, Gannett and the newspaper industry -- though hopefully, given his rich talents and job opportunity elsewhere, not for him.

Gay Marriage

The Iowa Supreme Court will be hearing the gay marriage case, Varnum v. Brien, next Tuesday, December 9, at 10:00 a.m. -- a matter I wrote about here a couple weeks ago. Nicholas Johnson, "Gay and Lesbian Marriage" in "Gays, God, and Plaques," November 24, 2008.

The case takes on national significance because Iowa stands on the threshold of becoming only the fourth state in the United States to recognize gay marriage, and the first in the Midwest.

Recognizing this, the Iowa Supreme Court, to its credit, is making special arrangements to handle this national interest. General Information about the oral argument, including how you can get access on your laptop to live streaming of the lawyers' presentations, is available on the Iowa Supreme Court's special site.

Obviously Americans' attitudes and arguments about gay marriage are shaped by many factors and come from many directions. But among those approaches are the ones of relevance to the Court: the legal arguments. If you're curious as to what they are, the Court has made available for you the legal briefs filed with the Court by the parties on both sides.

I began my commentary two weeks ago,

That gay and lesbian couples should be permitted to enjoy the status of "marriage" has always seemed such a no-brainer to me -- whether as a matter of constitutional law, public and social policy, basic fairness, or even economic policy -- that I've not bothered to comment about it.

Now that the Iowa Supreme Court case is putting the issue back in the local news -- including Editorial, "A Case of Civil Rights," The Gazette, November 23, 2008, p. A9, and Jeff Charis Carlson, "Don't Listen to Straw Men," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 23, 2008, p. A9 -- it's probably appropriate to remove any possible ambiguity as to my position.
Nicholas Johnson, "Gay and Lesbian Marriage" in "Gays, God, and Plaques," November 24, 2008.

And see also the Register's page one story this morning, Grant Schulte, "Gay marriage goes before Iowa high court this week," Des Moines Register, December 7, 2008.

Of course, these issues don't always go the way of the GLBT community, as they recently discovered in California with Proposition 8. But, being Californians how did they respond? Why with a musical, of course:

See more Jack Black videos at Funny or Die

K-12 Education

Well, Linda Lantor Fandel and the Register have done it again.

It was only a couple of weeks ago I was writing in praise of the paper's presentation of Finland's educational system, Linda Lantor Fandel, "An academic star: Finland's focus on education translates into top achievement," Des Moines Register, November 23, 2008, p. OP1 -- with links to the 15 or more additional stories on the subject in the special section. Nicholas Johnson, "Satisfactions of Lively Learning," November 23, 2008, a blog entry about what we can learn K-12 education generally from "alternative education" and showcasing Mary Vasey's Gazette column, "Why Involve At-Risk Students With Theater?" The Gazette, November 23, 2008, p. A10.

This time the paper looks north to Alberta. Linda Lantor Fandel, "Alberta Keeps Pushing to Improve Its Schools; Standard Curriculum, Development of Teachers Drive Excellence," Des Moines Register, December 7, 2008, Special Section, pp. OP1-8, including Editorial, "Muster Will to Reform Education." (There are many other articles and data in the special section which can be found, along with prior education coverage by the Register, at its overview "World-Class Schools for Iowa?" site.)

These have been wonderful contributions to Iowa's efforts to recapture its once proud status as one of America's best K-12 systems -- if only school board members, superintendents and teachers will read and act on them, or better yet write the equivalent for themselves.

What do I mean by that? As I have often said, "With 15,000 school districts in the United States there is virtually no challenge confronting any one of them that has not presented itself to another district, which identified, addressed, solved and then wrote it up and put it on the Internet for others to use." In addition, of course, are the reports and research from the U.S. Department of Education, Presidential task forces and commissions, Congressional committees, national foundations and research centers, the NEA, and 50 state departments of education, as well as the education "trade press."

We don't need to hire consultants, go to winter conferences in sunny climes, or even read the Register to find out how to improve Iowa's educational system. It's all out there, available to all. Three hours on the Internet by an educator who is proficient with Google will produce more ideas than three days at a conference or with a consultant.

But given the results the Register reports from the global "Program for International Student Assessment" we need to look to other countries as well -- as the Register has been encouraging us to do.

In 2003 Finland scored first in science and reading, and second in math. Canada scored 3rd in science and reading and 7th in math. The U.S.? We were 29th in science, 18th in reading, and 35th in math.

When I was writing bi-weekly columns on K-12 education as a school board member I would occasionally write about what was going on in other countries, e.g. Bulgaria ("Much is Accomplished with Little," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 28, 1999), Germany ("A Good Model for Education," Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 29, 2000, p. 11A), Switzerland ("Swiss Education Runs On Time," Iowa City Press-Citizen, June 5, 2001, p. 9A).

The Register has provided Iowa educators, students, parents, legislators, local leaders, and the business community that depends on an educated work force a running start at educational improvement with its continual drumbeat about education -- including these two special sections on Finland and Alberta. But with all the Register does, even if we read it, that will no more solve our problems than buying a diet book at the bookstore will result in our sheding pounds.

Now it's up to us to act, in the realization that the rich rewards from improvement make "the pain of change" seem petty by comparison.
# # #

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

According to a friend of mine who works at the P-C, Bob Patton was indeed a casualty of Gannett's recent layoff binge.