Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Decline and (Possible) Fall of the Bluefield Daily Telegraph

I'll preface this post by letting you know I worked for the newspaper in question for nine years. When I left in 2007, it was on good terms and I'm still friends with many people there.

That said, the Bluefield Daily Telegraph has become a mediocre shell of its former self, for a variety of reasons. It saddens me because I remember how things were just a few years ago. So, what happened? There's a laundry list of things, and not all of it has to do with the management of the paper itself. The finger of blame can also be pointed at the owners of the publication.

In 2000, Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc. purchased the Bluefield Daily Telegraph from Canada-based Thomson news. CNHI has a less than stellar reputation in the industry. In essence a moneymaking venture funded by retired Alabama education professionals, their speciality is buying small local papers and squeezing them for maximum profit, while cutting staff and investing as little as possible in facilities, equipment and software.

Life under CNHI went from "okay" to "absolute shit" in just a few years. People who left weren't replaced. Different sections of the paper were downsized or outright eliminated. (Case in point, when the business editor left, the entire Sunday business section was simply done away with. It's now just a page or two tacked onto the end of Sports.)

We were told to make do with old, obsolete computers and applications. Goals were not clearly defined or well-implemented.  You were basically expected to work and keep your mouth shut.

Being chronically short-staffed meant you got used to working overtime and weekends on short notice, for department managers who themselves still managed to leave by 6 during the week, and were never around on weekends. Leadership by example, all right.

The paper's long-time executive editor died suddenly in 2009. More than anyone else in the company, Tom was the heart and soul and guts of the paper. He didn't just run the newsroom, he was our public face (even more so than the publisher), and an influence on virtually anything we did in print.

Tom demanded quality reporting. There were no excuses for sloppily written and poorly researched stories. A staunch conservative himself, Tom didn't let his personal political beliefs affect news and editorial content. In the opinion section, he'd run an editorial from a liberal writer just as fast as he'd run one written by a conservative.

The paper never attempted to fill his position, probably to save on payroll. Or perhaps they understood that Tom was irreplaceable.

I left the company in December of 2007. Shortly after that, as a cost-saving measure CNHI dictated mandatory days off without pay for nearly all salaried and hourly employees at all of their publications - one week per quarter.

The workload did not decrease correspondingly; employees were expected to do the same amount of work despite missing a week every three months. Pay raises were also made a thing of the past.

I began to notice a decline in quality as I read the paper. There were fewer stories written by the staff reporters and more stuff pulled off the wire. Articles were rife with spelling and grammatical errors.

Editorial content shifted sharply to the right. Of course, an editorial is what it is - an opinion - but when you give only nodding service to the opposing view you are doing your readers a disservice. As I mentioned, Tom was a conservative but made sure to present both sides of a political argument.

Even in an editorial, a good writer will fact-check as they write. The Bluefield Daily Telegraph's columnists shamelessly repeat discredited stories as truth, and they show a heavy reliance on questionable sources such as the Heritage Foundation.

In one memorable column a few years ago, the writer blasted the EPA for wanting to regulate spilled milk - a tall tale long discredited before he ever wrote his column.

Rather than focus on improving the core business of news and addressing a declining subscriber base, the paper continues to raise subscription and advertising rates to offset an ongoing slide in revenue.

It's worth noting that in the midst of employee furloughs and other cost saving measures, CNHI still managed to move their corporate headquarters to a brand new building in Montgomery, Alabama, to the tune of millions of dollars.

In 2014, a mandatory paywall went up on all CNHI newspaper sites, including the Telegraph's. While it's fair to expect people to pay for the paper's content, the pricing is more than you would shell out to read a leading paper such as the New York Times, for at the most five new stories a day (and usually only 3 - 4).

All of this bothers me greatly. The paper was a part of my life for many years and I made friendships there that are still in place. During the salad days it was a challenging but fun place to work. We all took pride in delivering a top-quality product to our readers.

According to my many friends still there, the malaise that has set in may be incurable. There's little sense of pride in the product, only the sense of urgency to get more done with less resources and a smaller paycheck, for the benefit of indifferent management.

This malaise isn't specific to the Telegraph, either. is chock-full of employee reviews of many CNHI-owned papers, and precious few of them are positive.

Is there a fix for the Telegraph, CNHI or the ailing newspaper industry as a whole? I don't have an answer for you, I'm afraid.

Lee Clow, one of the greatest creative directors of all time, says, "Newspaper is a special medium. It's urgent, not yesterday or tomorrow but today. Sitting with a newspaper and a cup of coffee in the morning will always be one of the most intimate media experiences there is."

I really hope the fix is out there somewhere, and implemented before it's too late.

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