Q&A: Louisville Courier-Journal Editor Neil Budde Discusses High-Profile Newsroom Layoffs

Last week, The Courier-Journal laid off its managing editor, metro editor and other prominent newsroom managers, shocking the newspaper’s reporters and others in Louisville.

Before becoming The C-J’s executive editor, Neil Budde was a noted veteran of web publishing whose career included senior managerial roles at The Wall Street Journal and Yahoo. Budde chatted with WFPL media critic James Miller about the layoffs and the future of Louisville’s newspaper.

Here is an edited excerpt of their conversation.

How long were these moves in the works?

It’s actually been a plan that I’ve been working on and refining over quite a period of time. Because the approach I took was to say, obviously we needed to trim our budget some. So, that was kind of a starting point. The approach I took was rather than what we’ve done in the past— which is identify somebody here, somebody there — was to step back and say: If I had “X” budget and that’s the new budget and I was creating a news organization today from scratch, how would I do that? What would that news organization look like?

So, that’s a different approach than saying, how can we find “X” amount of savings. It really is about what should this organization look like if we want it to still be producing great content and to be digitally focused and still be able to focus a good newspaper. What kind of organizational structure should that look like? What kind of people should we be investing in?

Can you tell me a little about the future of the newsroom and the vision of how that would look?

What we tried to really focus on in building this structure is our journalists. Giving them the opportunity to continue to do great work, to find, report and tell great stories. At one point I used an analogy: “a network of bloggers.” I think some people misunderstood that in the sense of what some people think of bloggers. I’m not thinking of it in the derogatory view of bloggers as quality. But I am thinking of them as people who are experts in their field, who are passionate about their field, who connect with their community, who operate a little bit more independently in finding and identifying the stories they want to bring forward. In a world like that you need fewer layers of management. Then turn it into products we produce: the newspaper, the website, you know, all of our products.

A lot of the current and former reporters that I talked to said that even though no reporters were laid off that the editors were a big part of their reporting. They said that they believed that not having this layer of assistance, supervision, whatever you want to call it, would be detrimental. When you have reporters out in the field and they need to call in and say, “I have this problem,” who are they going to be calling?

There is a role in this organization labeled as content editor. In some ways I might think of it more as content coach. Somebody who will be working with the reporters, helping them shape their stories and their ideas along the way — probably, less hands-on editing. Although, obviously, some part of it will be editing. But I think in the past we have had editors who were fairly aggressive in reworking stories for reporters. There is a little more expectation that the reporters are more independent and produce stories that are in better shape and with some work, a lot of that is also in the coaching process.

I think that the layoffs have hurt morale; I think it’s fair to guess that. That’s what I’ve certainly heard. How do you plan to rebuild confidence for the future? Not just with the newsroom staff, but also with the audience.

I think it’s somewhat similar to a question that someone in the staff asked about the brand. I think my response was that our brand largely lives on the quality of what our journalists are turning out. We need to report and tell stories that are different, unique, that add context, that you’re not finding anywhere else. This structure in my mind is designed to do the best job of giving them that opportunity to continue to do that great work. We’re trying to reduce the amount of time and energy that we put into taking that into a physical newspaper, because that consumed a lot of our time. So, I think as long as we can continue to support our journalists and let them find and tell those stories, we can continue to have the brand that we have.

Now the second part of your question was rebuilding morale internally. I know that’s a long process. When I got here morale was fairly low, because they had gone through a previous round of layoffs and early retirements and other changes. Then they lost the prior executive editor and were without one for a good period of time. It wasn’t something that happened immediately. I understand that it takes a while to get people to understand some of the new realities and get comfortable living in that. It’s going to take time.

What will be the metrics of success for the organization going forward in terms both internally and externally?

One is to continue to grow our digital audience. It has been growing. If you look at things like comScore that measures us versus other news organizations in the city, we are moving forward in that sense in terms of our digital audience in even the local market and nationally.

Continue to grow subscribers on the digital side, which has been growing modestly. I think there are a lot of opportunities still to grow that and drive more revenues out of digital. The second piece is to continue to put out a great newspaper that readers want to continue to subscribe to. We’ve made a lot of investment in print in the last year. In terms of the last time you and I talked, it was right at the time we were rolling out the new edition of USA Today, but more importantly beefing up what we were doing with local news coverage in the A section.

So the focus is not so much on trying to rebuild the subscriber base, the print subscriber base, but to grow the digital audience and digital subscribers?

At this stage, I think turning around circulation numbers would be challenging. I think slowing down that level and certainly there has been some pricing increase so that the revenue coming out — and that’s a reason some of those circulations has continued to decline somewhat — is that were asking people to pay more in most cases for what they’re getting in print. But I think by doing that were able to continue to keep that at a pretty healthy level and continue to produce a print newspaper. So I told the staff that when some people were asking if digital is not that big a part of our revenue why are we putting such a push on it? The real opportunity is there, that’s where the growth is.

You mentioned there’s been a modest growth in digital subscribers. Presumably there hasn’t been enough growth, because if I remember correctly from Andrew Wolfson’s article, one of the reasons that was cited is that revenues are not were they were expected to be.

Yes, I said in the beginning this did begin as a budget issue. So part of what we did is — I was trying to look at creating an organization that was very forward-looking. We were also fairly forward-looking in saying, what are the trend lines for primarily advertising revenue but circulation revenue as well, and look out more than a year, more like two years and say if these lines continue, what size organization can we afford? Because we didn’t want to constantly be cutting away as we had in the past.

I think a layperson might think there’s a connection between cutting back on staff and decreasing revenue and that they begin to chase each other’s tails. What’s the plan to stop that slippery slope?

I think part of why I took a large step backward is to say, if that’s the case then what we have to maintain is our focus continuing to put out great content. We have to tell stories, find things that no one else has, we have to differentiate ourselves and that’s why the focus of this organization, its structure, is really around the journalist and those who are out developing the content that we deliver. Because I think you’re absolutely right. If there’s a perception that you’re continuing to let the quality of the product slide, that can add to why some people are discontinuing subscriptions and revenue declines.

Disclosures: James Miller previously worked for The Courier-Journal, as did Joseph Lord, the editor of this piece. John Mura, the Courier-Journal’s former multimedia manager who was part of last week’s layoffs, is the father of one of Miller’s students.

Miller will have more on his conversation with Budde later this week.

Miller is WFPL’s media critic and a journalism teacher at duPont Manual High School. You can find his past work here and find him on Twitter at @jaymills.

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