Commentary
9:00 am
Fri October 11, 2013

Media Critic | Changes (Lots of Them) Come to the Louisville Courier-Journal

The Courier-Journal building on Sixth Street and Broadway
Credit Joseph Lord/WFPL

We can all think of companies that announced significant and unpopular changes to their signature products: Coca-Cola, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft, just to name a few. Sometimes the company sees the error of their ways (Coca-Cola) and backtracks; sometimes they push ahead anyway (Facebook), knowing that consumers don’t have much of a choice and will eventually get used to the changes.

Gannett and The Courier-Journal fall into the latter category.

Many things have changed at the C-J in the past year: experienced reporters and popular columnists left for other local media outlets (or were simply let go); the front section merged with the Metro section on every day but Sunday; some Forum pages were eliminated; Bennie Ivory stepped down and was replaced by Neil Budde (who chose to compare the Courier-Journal to the bridges project; an analogy that probably seemed inappropriately apt to many C-J readers).

Furthermore, some of these changes appear to be driven by cost-cutters at Gannett, where money is so tight that longtime employees were offered buyouts last year (to be fair, a small number of the laid-off employees were graphic designers who were immediately rehired in Gannett’s Louisville-based design department). Apparently there was enough change in the couch cushions to purchase Belo Corporation, owner of WHAS 11.

I don’t want to kick dirt on the newspaper, so in light of all these significant changes, I’d rather ask an important question: What do all these changes mean for Louisville residents who rely on The C-J, directly or indirectly, for in-depth coverage of local news?

Publisher Wesley Jackson told me that The C-J is “one of the leading producers of local online news video” and “the most trafficked local website holding more relevant local content than any other local media source.”

If that’s true, then that’s good news, in the sense that a venerable institution of local journalism will likely be around for years to come. But if it means that the print product will continue to diminish (and perhaps eventually go the way of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer or the Kentucky Post), then it’s very bad news.

Jackson characterized the changes at The C-J as a “shift” from print to digital as a result of a larger audience shift in the same direction, but the question is whether or not the quantity and quality of content will also shift from print to online. Jackson cited the recent Adam Himmelsbach story about U of L lacrosse coach Kellie Young as an example of a popular, widely shared story published across multiple digital platforms: the C-J’s website, Twitter, mobile apps, Facebook, online videos, and so on. He also pointed out that The C-J’s news operation (digital and print combined) reaches far more people than any individual TV or radio station in town. That may be the case, but the print product itself has unique qualities that other media can’t match.

A strong community newspaper is important for a variety of reasons. First, newspapers are nonlinear, portable, low-tech and affordable; hardly any other news medium can boast of those four qualities. TV, radio and the Internet all require their users to purchase additional devices and services, but literacy is the only technology a newspaper audience needs.

But the most important aspect of any newspaper is its ability to serve as a permanent public record of community stories, important events, and significant changes, not to mention its role as a consistent community advocate and watchdog. It should go without saying that these functions are harder to fulfill with fewer resources: fewer pages in the paper, fewer investigative journalists, fewer experienced columnists, fewer editors and fewer beat reporters.

I heard from one former C-J reporter who said that the many changes described above mean “there's no way the breadth and quality of the newspaper's coverage is anything close to what it once was.” The same ex-employee said The C-J “still has good people and good editors who can turn out good stories,” and I agree. (Toni Konz and Matt Frassica, for example.) But the reporters and editors still working for Gannett can read the writing on the wall; better than anyone else, they know what the changes of the past year or so might mean.

Another former C-J newsroom employee said the paper is staffed with a “skeleton crew” and struggles with “very little news hole.” There’s only so much multimedia multitasking the remaining reporters can do in order to fill in the gaps left by so many departures. It’s clear that Gannett is transforming the C-J (excuse me, I mean Courier-Journal Media) into more of a web-based company than an old-fashioned print newspaper. Maybe that’s why videos—and the commercials that precede them—on the C-J’s site now play automatically as soon as readers load the pages. (By the way, here are instructions for disabling autoplay of videos.)

Certainly there’s no denying that the Internet is a force to be reckoned with (just look at its impact on the music and TV industries), but it doesn’t necessarily follow that media corporations like Gannett must whittle away at their print products while bulking up their websites with clickbait and multimedia. It’s still possible to run a profitable newspaper without cuts and layoffs — just ask the Orange County Register, which surprised the news industry last year by hiring dozens of reporters at a time when most newspapers were shedding staff. Editor Ken Brusic’s quote is worth reproducing here:

“If each day you went into Starbucks and plunked down $4 for a latte, and the cups got smaller and the content got weaker, chances are you’d stop going to Starbucks. That’s basically what newspapers have been doing as a way to deal with decreases in advertising revenue.”

That is precisely the problem that Gannett and The Courier-Journal are facing. The shift to digital journalism may be inevitable and it might even be profitable, but fewer reporters and a smaller print product cannot be fairly described as good for our community.

As a subscriber, a journalist, an educator and a freelance writer (full disclosure: I write book reviews for The C-J), I am definitely rooting for our hometown newspaper. I cannot envision myself rooting quite so enthusiastically for a hometown website.