October 25, 2016 Last Updated 2:13 pm

Let’s have an honest talk about layoffs in the publishing industry, shall we?

Earnings season is upon us once again, and with sickening regularity are the announcement of staff reductions – a sign that strategy has little to do with their occurring

The news that Gannett was going to go through another round of staff reductions, this time around 2 percent of the staff across the company, came as no great surprise to anyone who follows publishing. It was just another drip, drip, drip of bad news, in an industry that has become numb about these sorts of things.

“Actions like these are difficult, but I remain steadfastly committed to reinvesting in our employees and the capabilities required to sustain and grow our company so that we may continue to serve our customers with excellence,” CEO Bob Dickey said in a letter to employees.

Yes, nothing says commitment to excellence like a round of layoffs.

It would be nice to think that the sacrifice of some will lead to a brighter future for the industry and those in it – but come on, does anyone really think that?

Yet, the reality is that print media companies are investing in the future. Gannett, for instance, has acquired Golf Week, ReachLocal, North Jersey Media Group and invested in Digg, all in the second half of this year – and earlier this year they bought Journal Media Group, which includes not only the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, but also the newspapers that made up the print division of E.W. Scripps.

But scale is the goal, not editorial excellence. Neither, it seems, is net income, which continues to fall.

The reality is that layoffs usually occur as a reaction to performance, not as part of some grand strategy that one day will result in a reimagined publishing company. Yes, executives like to talk about building a digital-first company, or planning for the future, but rarely do they announce any concrete actions tied to those cliché pronouncements. That is why the words ‘digital-first’ when first heard is usually followed by bad news.

It is interesting that when I first entered this business I worked at several struggling companies, but didn’t have to deal with repeated news of layoffs. Hearst was in a quandary about what to do about its Los Angeles daily newspaper, the Herald Examiner. Eventually it closed it, but it didn’t strip it down before making that decision.

When I moved to Copley Newspapers we faced a similar, though not as bleak, scenario at our LA papers. Again, layoffs were not a recurring theme there. Yet, a couple years after I left the Santa Monica Outlook, the company decided to shutter it, leaving one of the wealthiest areas of the LA basin. One could, I suppose, argue that cutting the staff count might have extended the life of those papers, but I doubt it.

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It was not until I joined McGraw-Hill that I had to deal with executives who saw layoffs as a reasonable way to deal with disappointing results.

Yet, in the division having those layoffs, the results were actually pretty damn good. The layoffs occurred not as a result of disappointing earnings, but simply as a way to pump up the bottom line, and impress those further up the food chain. They were, in fact, dressed up as a grand strategy, inspired by a stupid book called Reengineering the Corporation – a book used as the excuse to cut jobs at far too many companies. It sickens me that the book still gets decent reviews on Amazon.

(The author actually came out with a follow-up book called Beyond Reengineering, but it should have been called What To Do After Laying Off The Last Employee And Realizing There Is No One Left To Answer The Phones.)

Our executive at McGraw-Hill soon was fired when results predictably tanked after so many employees were let go. It was the first time I realized that layoffs were rarely done with the goal of improving performance, but as a way for the executive to earn more of their bonus.

At the last publishing job where I reported to someone other than myself, job cutbacks were used simply as a way to cut costs, number of tax filings, and to get rid of people who might have to be managed. You get rid of the employees and you can get rid of the managers, too. Brilliant. You won’t be surprised to learn that the majority of magazines that were once published by this company have been long shuttered.

So, let’s be honest about layoffs, and those announcing them. They are not part of some grand scheme that will one day make our industry great again. They are simply a way of acknowledging a simple fact: those running our great publishing firms don’t have a clue how to succeed, and layoffs are simply a way of making back P&Ls look less bad, for a while.

But can it also be true that many newsrooms and ad sales rooms around the country are overstaffed? Absolutely, if by overstaffed you mean the cost of personnel exceeds the revenue being generated. Otherwise, I’m not a believer in the idea of something being overstaffed.

Again, going back to McGraw-Hill, when I first joined the company I felt that I was very lucky to have such a large production staff, for such a small unit. It seemed odd that the staff appeared to have nothing to do early in the day, or late in the day – that the work to be done filled about a four hour work day.

It took a while to marry that fact up with another couple of facts: the editorial team was far more talented than the actual editorial we produced, which seemed mundane, unexciting; and the display sales team had little to sell, and what it did pitch was hard to sell.

The answer was to create new products, and so we launched a magazine and a custom publishing ‘division’. By the time those layoffs were mandated by our division president, my own unit was humming along.

So much publishing production was taking place that when the order came down to eliminate the entire production department (really) I had to let corporate know that these layoffs would put a bit of a dent in our publishing efforts -– where will our magazine now be produced if not in San Francisco (answer: Baton Rouge), and where would our daily newspaper be produced if not in San Francisco (answer: Los Angeles). Because I never received an answer to where our custom publishing products would be produced it meant that I ended up having to learn QuarkXpress and produce it myself (which was a great learning experience, and something that would benefit me in other publishing positions, but absurd for a publisher to do).

In other words, the layoffs that resulted because of a change in strategy, forgot one thing, the strategy.

Today, layoffs are announced, assuming the company is public, just before earnings are announced. Gannett will announced their earnings on Thursday. Time Inc., which just announced another round of layoffs and management changes, will announce on November 3rd. It is no coincidence. Look for disappointing earnings at both publishing companies.

So, let’s be honest about layoffs – they rarely have anything to do with strategy, which is why they are announced with a sickening regularity.

I understand that some will think this is all too depressing a point of view, and that there are situations occurring where publishers really are attempting to reimagine their companies – moving them, for instance, from a reliance on print products to digital ones. I get it. I, too, would like to think that the leaders of our industry actually have a clue what they are doing.

But there is a way to test this. Earnings. And it is earnings season once again.

Photo: Untitled by Cold Storage used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

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