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VOL. 131 | NO. 148 | Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Gannett Plans Restructure of Commercial Appeal Newsroom

By Andy Meek

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The union that covers newsroom employees at The Commercial Appeal has begun the process of formally challenging a new series of cost-cutting and efficiency measures in the works at the paper, comparing the moves to “The Hunger Games.”

The changes – a newsroom restructuring that includes eliminating the position of copy editor – come as part of a wider effort on the part of The CA’s new owner, the media conglomerate Gannett, to right size its dailies.

On Monday, Memphis Newspaper Guild officials said it’s filed a series of formal complaints opposing the company’s position that some of the affected staffers who lose jobs as a result of the structure would get no severance pay.

The job losses are attributable in part to the decision to get rid of copy editors. The task of copy editing would be folded into the job description of a newly created position –"digital producer," which comes with a list of additional responsibilities like digital content creation and the handling of social media.

The paper is also planning cuts to its design department, jobs that will be sent to a so-called design studio in Nashville, where Gannett owns the daily newspaper The Tennessean. The axe will also fall soon on some ad design positions, which would likewise be shifted to other points within the Gannett footprint.

Commercial Appeal publisher George Cogswell managed a similar restructuring nearly a decade ago when he was the president and publisher of the Ventura County Star in California.

“We did the same thing there with the copy desk and copy editors moving into a centralized hub, if you will,” Cogswell said. “The anxiety locally is that other folks will be handling our work who aren't in the market. But at the end of the day, all that content first of all is generated here.

“It goes to the centralized location and then comes back here to be look at and printed,” he said. “Once we got the process in place (in California), there weren't any hiccups. It was very efficient.”

But the Memphis Newspaper Guild warns the moves will weaken the newspaper's proof reading and fact checking.

"This job-cutting plan would weaken our final stages of review and fact-checking and outsource much of the work to people in other cities," wrote Guild president Daniel Connolly in a memo that blasts Gannett's moves.

For those new jobs created in the wake of the changes, it’s The CA’s version of “The Hunger Games,” union officials say. Employees at other Gannett papers have described the process whereby remaining workers apply for fewer positions as a fight against each other “for economic survival,” a la “The Hunger Games.”

"A news organization needs people who know their community and work carefully on things like headlines and proofreading and page design,” Connolly told The Daily News. "We'll be a better news organization if we have a sufficient number of those people working locally."

The changes come in the wake of Gannett, a media company known for constant cost-cutting as well as chasing scale through an aggressive M&A strategy, buying The CA's previous corporate parent in October. The deal was completed in April.

The acquisition extends Gannett's Tennessee presence to ownership of six daily newspapers in the state and gives it a presence in each of the state's major markets.

Speculation is rampant that other departments, particularly the in-house printing division, will be next to see cost cutting, but company officials declined to speculate on other opportunities for reducing duplication among Gannett papers in Tennessee.

While design work is moving out of Memphis, copy editing and proofreading will still take place locally, just by different staffers who have expanded responsibilities beyond copy editing, company officials say.

Similar moves can be seen elsewhere in the Gannett chain. Gannett in recent days also said it plans to merge its Corpus Christi editing and design center with one in Phoenix.

It's not surprising to see Gannett reshaping The CA's newsroom and other operations, said Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst for The Poynter Institute, a journalism education and strategy organization in St. Petersburg, Fla.

“The sort of rationale for these (newspaper) acquisitions is a version of why you acquire anything - you think you can run it better than the folks who are doing it now,” Edmonds said. “That includes access to USA Today network content, various ad sales things and also cost reductions.”

Indeed, the company appears to him to be following something of a playbook for how it integrates newspaper properties into its portfolio - by trimming headcount and centralizing workflows, among other things.

“This consolidation of the copy desk and design functions is not only part of Gannett's playbook, but it's been around for four or five years now and is used by a lot of other people, including even the Associated Press,” he said.

The business strategy is clear: eliminate redundancies and improve efficiencies.

“It's pretty much unnecessarily duplicative to have a person at every paper laying out the pages of the national news or the inside part of the sports section and so forth,” Edmonds said. “I guess I would say having watched this now for a half dozen years, the damage - if you want to call it that - to papers, it's not as bad as some critics have expected.”

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