If a dead tree falls in the desert…

When news broke on Thursday that the Las Vegas Review Journal was — at that very moment — handing people their final checks and escorting them to the door as part of cost-cutting layoffs, it sent a little chill up my spine. As most regular SCS readers know, I’m a former journalist. But this news means a lot more to the community than just how journalists and news junkies feel about it.

But first thing’s first. Lest you think my bias on this story ends with being a former print journalist, let me give you some “full disclosure,” as they say in the business. I used to work for Stephens Media (twice), which owns the RJ. Indeed, in my decade’s long career in print media, I spent six years working for publications owned by Stephens. (One time former publisher Sherm Frederick came to my lowly newsroom cubicle to talk to me about my personal career plans, in fact. Um, long story.) So, the news that there were layoffs at my old company had me checking Steve Friess’s blog regularly for the last few days to keep track of new names added to the list. (What will we do when Friess is gone and no one is watch-dogging our local Fourth Estate?) And yes, I saw names of long-time colleagues and friends on that list. To those people I say: You will land on your feet, even if it doesn’t feel like it right now. And, getting laid off really, really sucks. (I know from personal experience, when my husband was laid off several years ago… when we were in escrow on our house… and three weeks before Christmas.)

So, as you might imagine, this news feels personal to me, even though it was not my job. (That is one nice thing about my new life as a blogger. I am a company of one, unless you count my syndication contract. No one can fire me. But on the flip side, no one picks up the slack for me when I’m sick or on vacation.) And even for those who still have their jobs, I can only imagine the culture of fear and bad morale going on at the RJ compound.

All of this is very interesting to the local journalist community, of course, but does anybody outside journo circles — aka the real world — even care? Or notice? I suspect the answer is no. (Sorry, friends.)

After all, the RJ’s daily circulation is reported at 166,000 and 190,000 on Sundays (as of March 2011). But as others have already reported, the real story about the newspaper’s recent circulation decline is that decline has been the overall trend for the past 10 years. That is an amazing chronicle of long-term failure. How could the leadership of the RJ fail to capitalize on a huge population boom — growth that made headlines as Las Vegas was one of, or often THE, fastest growing city in the nation with a school district that eclipsed the LA school district in size, and with record drought conditions and legal wrangling over Colorado River rights that had an impact on seven states? And, even now, how could the RJ leadership fail so miserably at capitalizing on the news potential in the economic collapse that our city is feeling in this recession — with our record foreclosures, bankruptcies and unemployment rate? As if that’s not enough, Nevada also hosted the hottest Senate race in the nation! (It’s possible their single-minded agenda pushing against Senator Harry Reid didn’t help.) That is a spectacular failure by the leadership to capitalize on the money-making opportunities where they were then and the needs of the community now.

And all of this has happened in an industry that favors the corporation making money on the backs of workers who often make less than the starting salary of a school teacher. (Oh wait, I forgot that the RJ thinks that educators are fat cats.) As an industry, newspapers benefit from the fact that there are so many people who want to work as writers, photographers, graphic artists, and online media specialties. There is so much competition to get the jobs that newspapers get off easy on salaries. (I’m sure that there are exceptions and in every newsroom there may be a handful of senior reporters with higher salaries built up over time, or perhaps a highly paid columnist here and there. I’m just speaking generally now.) Meanwhile, those writers, artists and photographers give their guts, their time away from family on Christmas, their identities (because it’s their name on the byline, after all) and so much more than what they ever get monetarily compensated. (I know from first-hand experience about reporting from someone’s deathbed, staying up all night at a marathon city council meeting, or standing in the freezing cold at 4 a.m. to talk to Black Friday shoppers. And all the while, you’re in a craft that is denigrated by the public and affording you the respect level somewhere between used-car sales and practicing law.)

So, the profit margins books have to be balanced on the backs of the low-wage workers. Not a new corporate greed narrative, is it?

More than anything, the old-guard leadership under Sherm’s watch set a tone at the newspaper that they were unquestioningly pro-business with a fanatical faith in the free-market, philosophically Libertarian and politically conservative. So, how is that working out for the RJ? Perhaps the free market in Las Vegas is speaking loud and clear!

Of course, there could be a lot of other factors in declining readership. There are many studies on the correlation between newspaper readership and demographics of a community including age, income, education, and the length of residency. Typically, readership is higher in communities with higher incomes. Well, Clark County’s median income keeps dropping (consequently, our number of children in poverty keeps increasing). In terms of education, Las Vegas is now being compared to cities like Detroit and Pittsburgh, which relied too heavily on one industry (which did not require higher education) to keep everything afloat. We have had so much turbulence in our residency rates — even during the boom — that that part of the equation is practically a joke. Do I need to go on?

The hard truth is: Maybe Las Vegas is not a newspaper town, despite all the glitz and tabloid sensation of The Strip.

But wait. There’s another scapegoat in this debate: New media. And here, I have to recuse myself. I am a blogger and therefore part of that new-fangled new media problem. I listened to KNPR’s State of Nevada today as the new media boogeyman was raised during discussions about the RJ layoffs. Friess, Jeff Simpson and Ken Doctor all made good points, to be sure. But as the discussion trailed off from deciphering who is to blame for the RJ’s problems and ventured into the greater problems facing print journalism… I knew it was only a matter of time before someone blamed the bloggers, podcasts, vlogs, youtube, tablet readers and all the other stuff that encompasses new media. “Is this the death of print journalism?” someone always asks. Yawn.

Aren’t we tired of this Chicken Little dance, yet? Is new media really that threatening? MTV debuted 25 years ago and everyone in radio worried that the days of the dial were over. (I should know, my parents were radio DJs back then.) But cars are still rolling off the assembly line with radios in them today. Indeed, some people even pay for satellite radio. Who ever thought that anyone would pay for radio? Now blogs are a menace to print journalism? Ha! (she types from a laptop at the kitchen table) If the internet is stealing eyeballs, then it’s your problem to figure out how to get them back. Or, better yet, to evolve. That is, in fact, the history of print journalism. It is not the same medium it was when it started and it is not even the same medium it was 50 years ago.

And anyway, isn’t the basis of the free market that demand motivates supply? Obviously, the RJ’s customers (or should I say, potential customers) are demanding the product in a new or different way. Time to adapt or die.

In the meantime, this one goes out to all my fellow colleagues. Those who are laid off now, or in the last couple rounds of cuts. To those who are still giving all of themselves to the craft today, even if they worry that they will be next. And even to all those, like me, who’ve gone off into other avenues and dared to dream other dreams. Because the craft of journalism is a fickle mistress. She demands all of you. Like Lady Luck, she does not always play fair. And when it ends — by choice or by boot to the back — it breaks your heart.

So, new leadership at the RJ, how about a little respect for the ink-stained wretches (and shooters, artists and press workers) who are in the trenches with you? If the medium is dying, then you should at least give them some respect for going down with the last dead tree.

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