Vaporizing at the Daily News: Here’s to the Land You Tore Out the Heart Of
Warning: Marvel spoiler ahead.
What happened at the New York Daily News Monday was no surprise to anyone who has seen Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War.
At the end, half the cast was vaporized.
You can almost see executives of Tronc, which owns the Daily News, coming out of the theater, tossing their empty popcorn boxes in the bin and saying, “Y’know, we could do that, too.”
This image would seem less absurd if Tronc executives, the next day, hadn’t admitted to the surviving staff that they have no specific plan for what they will do next.
Check back in 30 days or so, said new editor-in-chief Robert York, fresh in from the Allentown Morning Call. We’re working on it.
Truth is, editor-in-chief York wasn’t breaking any news here. Tronc’s official downsizing memo, 24 hours earlier, had made it clear Tronc hadn’t thought much beyond the vaporizing.
“We are re-focusing much of our talent on breaking news — especially in areas of crime, civil justice and public responsibility,” said the Tronc memo, vaguely suggesting no one at the Daily News had thought of covering any of this before. “We will, of course, continue to cover local news, sports and other events, but our approach will evolve as we adapt to our current environment.”
With all due respect to the diligent Tronc staffer who crafted this memo, that last sentence could not say less if it had been written by a basset hound.
Now it’s true that strategizing by jargon is a winning strategy in boardrooms. It’s not inherently a bad thing, and the Tronc manager who hosted a 30-second meeting with the Daily News staff on Monday, executive vice president Grant Whitmore, is living proof. He’s held something like 11 jobs in less than 25 years, and virtually all of them involved “strategizing.”
This kind of hopscotching is, in fact, one of the best ways to climb the corporate ladder — come into a new place, sell a strategy, hop somewhere else.
One of the things you don’t generally stop to savor when you ascend this way is the tradition or history of the places you land. You’re just as likely to suggest that moving forward requires tradition and history be discarded.
In the case of the Daily News, Monday’s cuts pretty much nullified not one, but two traditions on which the Daily News was built.
For years, the Daily News was “New York’s Picture Newspaper,” underscored by an illustration of an old camera — most likely a Speed Graphic, favorite of early newspaper photographers — in its front-page logo.
The Daily News was also “New York’s Hometown Newspaper.”
Monday’s cuts pretty much eliminated the photography department, which means New York’s picture newspaper will be using someone else’s pictures.
Then, by halving a reporting and writing staff that had already been reduced by more than two-thirds in recent years, Tronc has made it considerably less likely that the Daily News will be anyone’s hometown paper going forward.
The following day, the Daily News story on the previous night’s Yankee game was not written by a staffer. It was picked up from a wire service.
That may change. But when the sports staff was cut from 34 or 35 to nine, it’s safe to say hometown sports won’t be covered in anything like the way they’ve been covered since the Daily News launched in 1919.
A New York tabloid not delivering saturation coverage of New York sports is like a pizzeria eliminating cheese. It’s insane. It’s also suicidal.
At this point, if I were chatting with Tronc, Tronc would undoubtedly say, “Yeah, yeah, tradition, that was great in 1928. Or 1948. Or 1968. Or 1998. But this is a new ballgame.
“People ain’t reading newspapers in anything like the numbers they used to, and advertisers aren’t buying space in newspapers anywhere near like what they used to. If we’re going to stay in business, we gotta be where the readers and the advertisers are going.”
That’s online, the “digital platforms,” and it’s true. That is where more and more people, particularly young folks, go for their information.
The problem is that most traditional newspapers, the Daily News hardly unique among them, have not figured out how to “monetize” either online readership or advertising.
What hasn’t worked, in case after case including the Daily News, is giving the reader less.
When you fire half the staff, no amount of memo jargon can camouflage the fact you’re going to be giving the reader less.
Maybe there’s a solution no one has thought of yet. Maybe the strategizers at Tronc can find it. If not, history suggests executive vice president Whitmore and his fellow managers will move on to other companies and strategize there.
And New Yorkers will be left to their own strategizing, which is already under way, about how to replace the one newspaper that actually tried to cover their city.
The Daily News didn’t always succeed. Imperfect, you bet. But despite being repeatedly crippled by staff reductions and management swings, it never stopped trying. A whole lot of good writers and reporters — some of them, miraculously, still employed — thought that was a good, valuable and even cool thing to be doing.
There’s also this. At one time, the Daily News city room was a full house, populated with writers, reporters and editors who had been there 20, 30, 40 years.
True, some of them were taking it way too easy. But others used their time and experience to build up knowledge, history, contacts and invaluable information that enabled them to really cover their corner of the city, and explain it to the people who lived there and read the paper.
I’m guessing that sort of intangible value didn’t come up in any Tronc strategizing sessions.
I should probably add here that I’m not an entirely impartial observor. I worked for 35 years at the Daily News before I got my own tap on the shoulder in September 2015. I had always hoped I could keep doing something at a newspaper, preferably the Daily News, until my brain or my fingers stopped working. As it turned out, the story had a different ending.
What I can say is I stopped for a moment when I read how Whitmore told staffers on Tuesday that Monday was “one of the hardest days of my career.”
He’s not the first manager to say that. In a better world, he would be the last.
One of the hardest days of your career is the morning after you’ve been fired, when you wake up without a job.
Vaporizing has that effect.