Education reporter Toni Konz’s decision to leave The Courier-Journal and join WDRB is a terrible but predictable blow to the local daily newspaper. Konz, who announced her move Monday, broke big stories, frequently contributed to the front page, and is very popular on Twitter, where thousands of JCPS students, parents and teachers follow her every word (especially when it comes to school closings).
Getting Konz is a coup for WDRB’s general manager Bill Lamb, who has publicly predicted that his station is “going to be the dominant digital address” in the Louisville area. Lamb seems to understand that people want content from journalists they know and trust, which is why he hires veteran local reporters instead of either scooping up cheap newbies fresh out of journalism school or bringing in reporters from other cities with plenty of experience but no sense of our community.
As Konz described it, the “seemingly endless waves of layoffs, restructurings or reorganizations” at The C-J have had a terrible impact on morale and on the company’s news product. The recent layoffs of metro editor Mike Trautmann, managing editor Jean Porter and others no doubt made Konz’s decision much easier. Back in October I wrote that “the reporters and editors still working for Gannett can read the writing on the wall.” Konz got the message after Trautmann was laid off. Will the rest of the experienced journalists at Gannett get it too? Nine months ago, I mentioned Konz and Matt Frassica as examples of “good people … who can turn out good stories,” and now both of them are gone, along with several other people who really did make the Courier-Journal worth reading.
When it comes down to it, no amount of web videos, social media outreach, or cross-platform promotion can replace solid local journalism produced by experienced, knowledgeable human beings. The C-J is now sliding down a slippery slope: as readers find their news elsewhere, revenue decreases, which means staff layoffs (and departures due to low morale).
Fewer staffers with less experience means a decline in quality and quantity of content, which in turn means fewer readers, and the whole cycle starts over. The C-J’s executive editor Neil Budde and publisher Wes Jackson must find a way to halt this downward spiral as soon as possible.
Step one should be a public acknowledgment of The C-J’s problems, written in plain English—not Gannett public relations doubletalk. Step two should be to set public goals for success that, once achieved, will let the Louisville community know that The Courier-Journal is no longer in the process of slow-motion collapse.
In his interview last month with me, Budde wouldn’t discuss goals, but how else could the public know and trust that The C-J’s health is improving? Clearly Gannett’s stock price is no indicator of local quality. All types of politicians, athletic directors, CEOs, school superintendents, clergy and other leaders set public goals in order to build trust and demonstrate progress. The Courier-Journal should do the same, because our local newspaper shouldn’t be just another shameless, attention-harvesting media conglomerate. It should be the memory, the conscience and the imagination of our community, and it cannot fulfill those functions while its editorial and news departments slowly crumble before our eyes.
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.