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Newsroom layoffs hit close to home

By Peter Weinberger

It’s been a decade since the perfect financial storm hit, when a recession and changing readership habits started the avalanche of falling newspaper revenues. The net result caused companies to continually reduce personnel in an effort to sustain profit margins.

Even though there are numerous opportunities in the digital world for reporting and publishing, there still is not a solid business model to replace losses in print advertising revenue.

Southern California has been hit particularly hit because of ownership changes, with new management thinking they have all the answers to steady the ship. If I were to grade these new owners on performance, they would all have flunked.

Newspaper companies still remain a popular investment with private equity investors, since these businesses have are selling for a fraction of their 2007 value. Unfortunately, many of these new owners have little to no experience in publishing, the end result being mismanagement contributing to the downward spiral of the industry.

The worst example of blind leadership came from the hands of billionaire Sam Zell, who bought the Tribune Company, owner of the Los Angeles Times, at peak value in 2007. A transaction he would later call “the deal from hell.”

Understanding little if anything about the business of news, including building a productive newsroom with smart investment in digital resources, Mr. Zell ran the Tribune Company more like a frat house. He filed for bankruptcy less than a year later reporting $8 billion to $13 billion of debt, and the company was for sale again.

Back in 2010, the Orange County Register staff thought the future was bright when a private equity firm purchased the company. Led by CEO Aaron Kushner, who proceeded to lock down the Register website (subscribers only), the Register hired hundreds of staffers back to their old jobs.

His thinking was that decision alone would bring subscribers back in droves. This attempt sounded great to journalists, but really had no chance of success. Just like Sam Zell, after one year and millions of dollars lost, Kushner was gone and eventually sold the paper to Digital First Media.

Fast forward to 2018, Digital First Media now owns 11 Southern California newspapers, including publications from Long Beach, Los Angeles and Riverside. They are more experienced publishers. This sounds great given all the ownership issues of the past, but the revenue reality is just as harsh, which is why last month they announced significant layoffs are coming at their properties, including all departments. They made it clear nothing is off the table. The process has just begun, so employees have plenty of time to mull over a not-so-bright future.

As the former director of photography of the Register back in the 1980s, these announcements impact not only myself, but also members of the COURIER staff. These are people we know and,  in some cases, worked with.

Even with the struggles of the industry as a whole, the COURIER continues to excel because of strong support from the Claremont community. Our experienced staff cares deeply about the product we deliver to readers, regardless of the format. Budgets are always tight, but if there’s a story out there that needs reporting, we jump right in.

A perfect example is staff photographer Steven Felschundneff, who has also become an excellent sports writer. And Steven is not the only person working numerous roles to make sure we deliver accurate, unbiased news coverage in a timely fashion.

Steven’s work is just one reason why the feedback we receive is enormously positive. And why we are still in business.

So after much consideration, in the coming weeks the COURIER will be raising subscription prices $5 a year. The increase for seniors will be $4. It’s been years since our last increase, and this small amount is needed to offset increased costs, mostly from the print side of the business. The single copy price will remain the same at $1.50.

I’ve said many times the COURIER’s key to financial success starts with our subscriber base. Without these supporters, Claremont’s community newspaper would be just a shell of the 2018 version. Unlike most newspaper companies, my promise to you is we will not cut costs simply to increase profit. The payments you send go right back into the business.

The digital age may be driving tough times for the industry as a whole, but it’s also motivated the COURIER staff to continue to provide relevant news and features. And that is good news to celebrate.

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