Editor’s note: this post was written in April 2014, but not published until Sept. 2014.
This week, company I recently worked for announced it was cutting the ambitious project, Thunderdome.
Thunderdome was an attempt to rival the Associated Press, centralize national news efforts for the long list of local papers who are owned by Digital First Media and be an example to the industry on how to move a paper-centric news company into the digital future.
At least, that was my understanding as a newbie at one of the small, local affiliates.
That schpeel was fed to me and my co-workers for the last three years. “Thunderdome” started as a model to be proud of. The strong corporate leaders were going to lead us into the future. And this future, determined by John Paton, CEO, was the only future that would save journalism.
Implementing Paton’s Thunderdome brought change…duh. Change is not always bad and I felt the attitude in the office was one of “might as well give it a try.” Big names in the company came to explain the updates and brought attitudes of excitement. “You are the future,” these big names said. “Your news company is already doing what we are struggling to get the others to do. Just keep up the good work.” They left with smiles and insisted these changes would be painless.
The work continued and the first changes rolled in. Consolidating printing times for the numerous publications to one printer, and shutting down the other locations. That meant, the people who ran the other printers lost their jobs. And so did the copy editors who laid out the pages that used to be printed at the other locations. But it meant more work for our copy editors, so it was a good thing!, management said.
Then came the end of the fiscal year. We’re over budget, management said. We have to cut jobs. Five people lost their jobs and a jolt ran through the newsroom. Over the next six months, many other talented journalists left, too. They saw the future. They saw the changes that would gut the newsroom. They wanted to leave on their own terms. When they still had a job.
There was no fight from management as they left. Not that the management ever made a real fight. Too proud to show their pain. But the more who quit now meant fewer layoffs next 4th quarter.
As the newsroom consolidated in the number of workers, the work load increased. New projects. More responsibility. No overtime. No pay raises; not even for inflation.
This is happening everywhere, the workers said. Every industry is tightening its belt. Fewer workers, more work. It was bound to happen here too. Nothing to be scared of. Just the new normal.
The seasoned writers and editors were replaced with green kids who made mistakes and worked for cheap.
That’s how we all started, said management when the complaints started rolling in.
Not good enough, said the community. Your paper sucks.
As subscribers left, the newsroom cut reporters…and added editors; [a move that confused the reporters]. More work, fewer workers. No time for the work they loved, only time to fill the holes on the page, the reporters said. I need ten inches on this almost-collision, the editors said.
My experience with journalism as an industry is limited. The York Daily Record/Sunday News in York, Pennsylvania gave me my first job out of grad school, and I am eternally grateful. The people I worked with — who taught me, who became my friends — were the best part of the job and I will always think of them fondly.
Which is why the axe-ing of Thunderdome is an ominous sign for the talented, hard-working journalists who fill that newsroom on Loucks Road — and the rest of the newsrooms owned by DFM across the country.
Journalism is a business. A business must make a profit to survive. And, right now, costs are greater than income. Something must go.
I do not know what journalism will look like in five, 10 or 50 years. But I am very confident in saying that the journalists who work to cover local news in York, Pennsylvania and across the country, will still be at it — in some capacity. And I truly hope they’re doing it at the YDR.