Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Post-Star: Help Wanted (guest essay)

9th in a series on the troubles at The Post-Star and its parent Lee Enterprises

by Mark Wilson

Astronomy informs us that at the end of a star’s useful life, when it has burned through all its fuel, it expands into a loose assemblage of cosmic dust centered on a collapsing carbon and oxygen core. The outer shell eventually dissipates, leaving the ultra dense, sparkless core to mark a once-bright spot in the heavens. This post-star phase of stellar evolution is known as a “white dwarf” or “degenerate dwarf.”

In Glens Falls, the Post-Star is in transition. Dire financial crises at Lee Enterprise Inc—the Iowa corporation that owns the newspaper, along with about fifty other dailies across the country—have forced another round of staff cutbacks in all departments. Since Memorial Day, the Post-Star has lost nine of the 68 staffers (13.2%) listed on the “Contact Info” page at poststar.com. The loss of editorial staff includes Drew Kerr from the Saratoga Bureau, feature writer Jordan Reardon, veteran photographer and photo-illustrator TJ Hooker, and sportswriter Alex Matthews. In the past week the paper has also lost its online editor Jonathan Davenport (particularly painful as the news organization attempts the difficult transition to an internet-based model) and Washington County correspondent Lydia Wheeler, whose name has yet to be removed from the web page.

Characteristically, Post-Star Editor Ken Tingley wrote a vague blog post attempting to spin this bad news into something positive: a portent of a strengthening business climate in the newspaper publishing industry. His implication that the missing writers left for better jobs in the industry seems not to be true in all cases. When asked, Tingley declined to identify the recently-departed editorial staff; the transparency-crusading editor who publishes the names (and salaries) of public-sector employees as a service to the taxpayers who underwrite them proves himself unwilling to even confirm the employment status of his own byline journalists as a service to the subscribers, readers and advertisers who support them.

This summer’s staff cutbacks at the Post-Star mark the second major round of shrinkage for the newspaper (and the parent corporation) since the recession took hold in 2008. In December of that year an article in the Post-Star announced the firing of four of its full-time employees. The story stated that the cuts amounted to two per cent of the paper’s workforce, reducing the staff from 161 full- and part-time employees to 157. The following March, an article announcing the layoffs of eleven more employees cited a decrease in the paper’s payroll from 147 to 136 full- and part-time staff. Using their own numbers, in the three and a half months between those two news items ten more staffers disappeared, unreported. In total, the attrition in Post-Star staff between December 2008 and March 2009 amounted to 25 employees, or 15.5% of the original 161. By comparison, the Post-Star’s parent company reported a 12.2% decrease in total employees in the fiscal year ending September 2009.

Perhaps a better measure of the net loss of Post-Star talent (that accounts for staff increases as well as decreases) is a comparison of the staff “Contact Info” pages from poststar.com at various dates. The page from September 14, 2008 lists 84 employees. (Notably vacant on this list is the position of Publisher, which would not be filled by Rick Emanuel until October 20, about a month prior to the layoffs.) The same web page today lists 60 employees. Accounting for the previously mentioned departure of Lydia Wheeler, in less than three years the newspaper has suffered a net loss of nearly 30% of the staff it distinguishes with a listing on its own website.

While Editor Tingley, may try to put some positive spin on this grim statistic, the fact remains that the Post-Star continues to shine ever and evermore dimly.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

so shrinkage is not just affecting more at the paper than just the quality and amount of the content?... with editor tingley's reputation, it's no surprise that young reporters don't stay very long before trying to get out of dodge.

Mark Wilson said...

Update: News Editor Mary Serkalow and Assistant News Editor Sean Treacy are no longer listed on the Contact Info page of poststar.com. Dave Canfield has joined the reporter staff in the Saratoga bureau. That brings the loses to 31% of the listed employees in less than three years.

Mark Wilson said...

Clarification: Characterization of Lydia Wheeler's employment status was premature. Her final day on staff at the Post-Star will be September 9th according to her twitter feed. She is contributing excellent reporting on the damage wrought in Washington County by hurricane Irene this week.

Mark Wilson said...

Further clarification:

As of Sept. 10, 2011 the Post Star lists 56 employees on its Contact Info web page. This compares to 84 listed three years ago: A net loss of one third of its full time staff. 42 percent of those losses (12 employees) incurred since this past Memorial Day.