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Why your ex-staffers could be your worst competitors

12 January 2014 · By Anette Novak

The verdict is in: Showing your best and boldest employees the newsroom door — via layoffs and buyouts — doesn’t help your bottom line and creates formidable opponents on the revenue battlefield.

If you are a news media executive, chances are you have been, are in the process of, or soon will be laying off newsroom staff. Or maybe all of the above.

With all eyes on the downward spiraling print curves, you feel obliged, muffling your guilty conscience with the “requirements of the owners” speech.

And, yes, staff costs. Yet, the costs are no longer your problem. And this respresents the one New Year’s resolution you need to make in order to make 2014 the turn-around year.

The downsizing of newsrooms has been a contagious disease all across the Western Hemisphere for the last two decades. In the early ’90s, it was a way of keeping profit margins high. Today, it’s the last resort to keep afloat.

It has proved difficult to find reliable statistics that reflect the overall, international picture. The 2013 State of the News Media report, however, tells of 40,000 full-time, professional employees lost in the United States since 1978. A Pew Research from November 2012 report, meanwhile, states one-third of U.S. reporter jobs have disappeared in a little more than 10 years.  

Worst hit have been photographers. But that does not mean we have fewer pictures in media; quite the contrary.

The reporters have been given that task, along with many others. More channels, more versions, more interactivity with readers, listeners, and viewers. But very little – if any – help with redefining the work and its priorities.

So we now have fewer people doing more. This has obvious effects on trust, morale, and job satisfaction – facts that have been proven scientifically in several studies, including this one.

Let’s complicate the picture by looking at the methodology used in many of the downsizing processes: Buyouts.

By offering those who leave voluntarily severance packages, you get a natural selection. Chopping this argument roughly, the bold and the entrepreneurial people leave. And in the newsroom – along with the never-ending demands of change – you are left with the stable, security-thirsty folks.

The ex-colleagues, on the other hand, are eager to start their new venture. To their advantage, they have:

  • Personal brands known to your community (built solidly during all the years of co-branding with yours).

  • Starting capital (that you handed them).

  • Time.

With this full house on hand, they are turning into your worse competitors, even as we speak. Depending on how the layoff process was carried out, they might even be vindictive.

To make matters worse, your overworked, multi-tasking newsroom staff might no longer be able to produce the caviar content you need to turn your digital subscription offer into a success story.

Your ex-staffers, meanwhile, can produce that content. They can afford to take on long shots, spend those extra hours needed to follow up on leads, do the extra checkup calls to yet another source, and create that stylistic finish that is the trademark of quality journalism.

Already in 2004 , Tom Rosenstiel and Amy Mitchell (of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism) established the vicious circle: Dis-investing will lead to decline, while investment in the newsroom leads to long-term growth and profitability.

You do not solve the current situation by serving your audience the content equivalent of candy and liquor. Sure, it will result in short term click-fixes. But ultimately it will yield long-term brand catastrophe.

It is time to stop. Time to do something completely different.

Stop treating this industry’s ailment as a mere cost problem. You have work to do and competent ex-staffers and netizens outside your company. Ask yourself how you can create a mutually beneficial model from this starting point, instead of slowly cost-cutting yourself to your own death.

Research how your staff’s job satisfaction is linked to how well you serve the overall purpose of community building, of democracy. I don’t believe that your audience is any different than your staff.

More than half of Americans have resolved to make a change in 2014. If you still have not, here is the only New Year’s resolution you need: Stop treating the wrong disease within your company.

It’s not analogue costs that’s the bug. It’s digital revenues. And those only will come rolling your way when you return to your core business – not non-verified rewrites, cleavage-edited pictures, or constructed quiz click-monsters.

It’s taking seriously your task as democracy builders and purveyours of storytelling that inspires, that changes society.

Promise to help build a better world – and your community will help you help them.

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About this blog

I am Anette Novak, CEO of Interactive Institute Swedish ICT, which conducts world-class applied research and innovation, creating groundbreaking user experiences. Also, I am an international media consultant, World Editors Forum board member, gourmet, long distance runner and Francophile – mainly because the Parisians walk and talk as fast as I do. I am former editor-in-chief of the Swedish regional media house Norran. I believe in digital opportunities for publishers, open innovation. The future belongs to media companies that are able to maintain the trust of the audience, who define themselves as active community players, and who are able to create amazing experiences.


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