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Edmonton Journal, Calgary Herald to shed more staff as newspapers everywhere struggle to survive

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Edmonton Journal Editor Lucinda Chodan

The newspaper industry was officially pronounced a dead man walking on Sunday, July 8, 2012.

The declaration was made by no less an authority than the New York Times, the world's remaining newspaper of record, which hopes to be the last newspaper standing when all the others have fallen at its feet. So it should know, eh?

Times journalist David Carr began his gloomy story with a terrific lead -- worthy of those days of yore when good newspaper leads were still appreciated, and not just by journalists: "While the rest of us were burning hot dogs on the grill last week, the newspaper industry seemed to be lighting itself on fire."

He went on: "Between operational fiascos and flailing attempts to slash costs on the fly, it's clear that the print newspaper business, which has been fretting over a looming crisis for the last 15 years, is struggling to stay afloat. There are smart people trying to innovate, and tons of great journalism is published daily, but the financial distress is more visible by the week."

Back in the day, local newspapers in Alberta often picked up stories from the New York Times News Service. No so much any more, though. Costs too much.

But even if my local newspaper, the Edmonton Journal, did use the New York Times News Service, you wouldn't have seen this story -- it ran on a Sunday and the Journal has just stopped publishing its Sunday edition. Costs too much. The last one rolled off the press on June 24.

Oh well, at least they kept the New York Times Sunday crossword, although they had to move it to Saturday for obvious reasons. And there are still a few journalists worthy of the title drawing paycheques at the Journal and the Calgary Herald, the two Alberta papers owned by Postmedia News, which not so long ago used to be Canwest Media, and which before that used to be Southam News as generations of owners cut their losses.

However, there will be fewer soon. Buyouts are again being offered again to staff at both papers, in several departments, with a plan to eliminate 25 jobs at the Journal and about the same number at the Herald. Work will be consolidated somewhere else in the chain -- for example, at Postmedia's combined editing and production unit in Hamilton, Ont.

Lucinda Chodan, editor in chief of the Journal, confirmed the target is for 25 jobs (or full-time equivalents, as is said in the jargon of human resources departments) to be eliminated at her paper.

Chodan said Journal management has not yet determined how many people will be left in the paper's newsroom when the dust has settled, and she took pains to mention names of the "strong staff additions" she has made over the past year. What's more, she added, Postmedia will launch "an exciting new project based at the Journal" headed by multimedia journalists Karen Unland and Brittney LeBlanc. We'll see the first results of their efforts on the Journal's website today, Chodan promised.

But the fact remains that despite these efforts to attract readers to the Journal's website, the paper's newsroom will be a much shallower pool than it used to be and it seems likely that many of the journalists who accept the voluntary package will be veterans of Edmonton news who know the city and its secrets best.

Other sources familiar with the Journal say management is having trouble finding volunteers to take the buyouts. Demand for the packages may have run out after about five staffers took similar packages in the spring of 2011 and another 18 or so in the fall of 2010.

So there are fears among Journal staff members that, since neither Alberta paper has a union, it will be easy for managers to push journalists who aren't ready to retire over the side. But Chodan was firm that this is not the plan. Positions for which volunteers cannot be found will be eliminated by attrition, she said. "That is to say vacant positions that will not be filled."

Regardless, however the journalists involved may feel about it, these deep cuts are bad news for the rest of us. For all their imperfections, the Herald and the Journal are both still pretty good newspapers. After the dust settles from this latest round of layoffs, it's hard to see how they can amount to much more than their dreadful principal competition at Sun Media.

Carr's sombre story in the New York Times was short on analysis -- it's not at all clear why the author thought the straits the newspaper industry finds itself in are so dire.

It's one thing to blame the industry's troubles all on the Internet, but by the sound of it the Internet news business isn’t doing so well itself. Leastways, Reuters News Service reported Monday "the bottom is dropping out of the online ad business."

And not just at online newspapers -- which increasingly, like the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and most days of the week the New Orleans Times Picayune, used to be print papers -- but at big-name online outfits like Microsoft and AOL that set up Internet advertising ventures that had no historical links to print.

The culprit, at least according to Reuters, is the success of features like Facebook and Google advertising that have replaced on-line display advertising on newspaper websites -- not surprisingly, one supposes, since the newspapers were simply trying to reinvent the profitable display ad business model of yore that appeared in the pages of their traditional paper editions.

Turns out that was another idea that didn't quite translate to the Internet the way the great minds of the industry assumed it would.

"Marketers today have more choices than ever, as Internet penetration swells in emerging markets and popular websites like Facebook multiply the amount of available online pages," said the Reuters report. "Advertisers now question the performance of display ads more as Internet users train themselves to avoid such marketing."

Declaring the newspaper business all but dead in the summer of 2012 may be overstating things a bit. But if another recession hits, as the Journal's business columnist prognosticated Monday may be about to happen, it's hard to see how the newspaper business as we have known it can survive for long.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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