July 6 2011 12:00 AM

The Lansing State Journal lays off 15 employees or more amid corporate plans to cut costs. One former employee speaks out on the paper’s “atrophy.” One MSU professor talks the future of journalism.


The Lansing State Journal newsroom contains a bulletin board on which employees tack jokes and various other comical anecdotes. The notes include the dates they were posted.

One former LSJ employee, who was laid off June 21 amid news that LSJ’s owner Gannett would be shrinking its U.S. newspaper employment by about 2 percent, said the board is meant to keep things lighthearted and fun around the office.

“The last note I saw was from late 2007,” the former employee, who asked not to be identified, said. “Fun was one of our core values. It hasn’t been fun for years. The fun has died.”

On June 21, Bob Dickey, Gannett’s U.S. Community Publishing division president, sent out a memo to employees that the U.S. publishing division would be shrinking by about 700 employees, or roughly 2 percent of Gannett’s work force. The decision was all economics. Citing a slow national economic recovery, a week real estate market and “soft” national advertising and “auto ad demand,” “we need to take further steps to align our costs with the current revenue trends,” the memo reads.

The message was quick to reach LSJ employees, who received layoff notices that same day.

Local news reports, including the LSJ’s, said 15 employees were laid off “across all departments.” However, the former employee was told by an LSJ human resources employee that it was 19. The Gannett Blog, which is run by former USA Today reporter Jim Hopkins and tracks news about Gannett, also reports it was 19.

“There’s cutting fat and there’s cutting muscle,” the former employee said. “They’re cutting muscle now. When you cut muscle, you atrophy.”

The former employee said layoffs include: sports editor Mike Meyer; sports writer Bill McLeod, sports writer Neil Koepke, General Motors Co. and business writer Barbara Wieland; the regional director of digital media and marketing development, Kevin McFatridge; and information technology employee Dave Folmsbee.

The former employee wished to remain anonymous out of fear of losing “unemployment assistance” by speaking out. The employee was “totally surprised” to find out about losing a job. “I didn’t wake up that morning thinking that was even a likelihood.”

The employee recalls starting at the LSJ when the newsroom had “24 or 25” reporters. Now the local news desk has two editors, eight reporters, a columnist and a multimedia assistant. The LSJ’s online staff list does not reflect the recent layoffs; its last update appears to have been Feb. 25.

“There were 25 reporters doing a story a day on average. They just can’t do what they used to do,” the employee said. “You can’t cover the community like you could with 24, 25 reporters.”

Gannett is an international media company that owns 82 daily newspapers in the U.S., including USA Today, and 23 television stations. It also owns Newsquest Media Group in the United Kingdom, several military trade publications and investment websites like apartments.com and cars.com. In Michigan, the LSJ, Battle Creek Enquirer, Detroit Free Press, Port Huron Times Herald and the Daily Press & Argus in Livingston County are all Gannet-towned. According to figures on the Gannett Blog, the LSJ took the hardest employment hit in Michigan.

The LSJ layoffs are a continuation of a trend that started in 2008. Between August 2008 and July 2009, the LSJ cut 46 positions. The former employee said the staff total at LSJ is now around 300.

The former employee said the “tide started turning before” the 2008 layoffs.

“(Before then) I remember they showed us a video about the future of news and how by 2011 The New York Times goes to online only. It seemed like disaster scenarios.”

Looks good to Wall Street and the future of journalism

“Evidently they (Gannett) don’t value local reporting. The community needs that (local reporting),” the former employee said, adding that Lansing can expect to see less of it. “Through no fault of the people left there (at the LSJ), it’s not their fault (the reporting will decrease), it’s up to corporate.”

LSJ executive editor Mickey Hirten referred questions about the layoffs to LSJ publisher Brian Priester. Priester did not return a message seeking comment.

The former employee said “I don’t believe” the LSJ can remain a viable source of news if more layoffs come. But then again: “I don’t even know that Gannett wants to (remain a news company).”

Kate Marymont, vice president of news at Gannett who spoke to City Pulse two weeks ago about the LSJ’s weekly publication NOISE going to an online-only format, did not return a message seeking comment.

While local reporters, editors and other newspaper staff are given layoff notices and unemployment assistance, those at the top of the chain are earning more.

A proxy report filed in March with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission shows that Gannett CEO Craig Dubow took home a $1.75 million cash bonus last year, which was part of his $9.4 million total earnings (which includes base salary, bonuses, stock options and other compensation) — double what it was the year before. Chief Operating Officer Gracia Martore’s earnings more than doubled from 2009 to 2010: from $4 million to $8.2 million, which included a $1.25 million bonus. Dickey, who issued the June 21 memo, was paid $3.4 million (with a $600,000 bonus) last year. His 2009 earnings were $1.9 million.

Joe Grimm, a journalism professor at Michigan State University who also writes a column for the journalism-oriented Poynter Institute’s website called “Ask the recruiter,” was a Gannett employee at the Detroit Free Press for 18 years until 2008, when he took a buyout.

“The number of layoffs … surprised people. So did the suddenness of some of the departures,” Grimm said in an e-mail. “I worry that these layoffs, on top of others, undermine the content, the brand, and long-term success.”

Grimm added that the layoffs “are just a slice of the story. They show us what is happening with legacy media, which I believe will survive this digital transformation. To do that, changes will count more than cuts.” Survival will require them to operate in new ways as smaller companies with owners who will accept slimmer payouts.”

Rick Edmonds, who also writes for the Poynter Institute and is a co-author of the Pew Research Center’s 2011 State of the News Media report, “Newspapers: By the numbers,” wrote about Gannett’s recent layoffs in an online column.

The layoffs, he wrote, “can rightly be read as a vote of no confidence in the future of print by America’s largest newspaper company.

“Given the company’s long history of playing to Wall Street, it is no big surprise, though.”

This year’s Pew report shows that daily print newspaper advertising revenues are down 48 percent since 2006. And full-time “professional editorial staff” was at its highest for these papers nationwide in 2000 at 56,400. Those levels fell 26.4 percent by 2009, the report says.

Despite the layoffs, Grimm said there are some success stories of journalists who are making it outside of traditional, daily print media. And the “hunger and need for news is bigger than ever. … Demand creates jobs. I believe that the newspaper slice of the journalism careers pie will get smaller still, but will not go away.”

When asked what the LSJ might look like content-wise in a few years, the former employee said, “Who knows? If there is a strategy, I have not seen it.”

Grimm has his own idea about the future of journalism:

“No one can size up the new journalism job market. It’s too early. But the types of journalism jobs are multiplying and journalism will continue to be an excellent platform for learning the news-gathering and communication skills that are so essential in an age that is really no longer about computers, but about information.”