The Media Meltdown Accelerates

by James A. Bacon

First Norfolk’s Virginian-Pilot merged with the Daily Press in Newport News. Then, the parent company, Tribune Publishing Co., closed the Pilot’s Norfolk office, telling reporters, editors and other employees they could work either at the Pilot’s press operation in Virginia Beach or the Daily Press office across the river. Then, Tribune shuttered the press operation. And now, reports Virginia Business, Tribune is closing the Newport News office.

It seems that Tribune has violated the terms of its leases by failing to pay rent and other charges since May 2019. Pointe Hope LLC, owner of the property, sued the newspaper for $110,000 in June.

The COVID-19 epidemic forced many employees in the Virginian-Pilot and Daily News news staffs to operate from home, and it now looks like the “virtual newsroom” for everyone will become permanent.

The response of newsroom employees is simultaneously understandable and clueless. Virginia Business quotes the Pilot’s public safety reporter Margaret Matray, as saying, “Journalism doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and Zoom is not a permanent replacement for collaboration. Some things can’t be done on Slack. And I can’t conduct an in-person interview with a sensitive source at a Starbucks.”

Matray complained that Tribune won’t reimburse work-related expenses such as power bills, internet access, and printers. “It costs us money to work for @tribpub,” she wrote.

Everything Matray said is true. Collaboration suffers when reporters and editors work virtually. Newsrooms were the original “open offices” long before open offices became a thing. They were large open rooms with desks crammed together — reporters didn’t even get cubicles. It was noisy and distracting, and the ubiquitous cigarette smoke (long ago when I was a reporter) was annoying. But the arrangement facilitated communication and the rapid exchange of information. Zoom and chat and other Microsoft collaboration tools cannot replicate that. The Virginian-Pilot and Daily Press, or what’s left of them, definitely will lose something by going all virtual.

At the same time — and this is where Matray appears clueless (at least as quoted) — they have no choice. Ad revenues are shrinking. And the Tribune, unlike the Washington Post, doesn’t have the financial backing of the world’s wealthiest man. Expenses must be brought in line with revenues, or unpleasant things will happen, like landlords suing to collect unpaid rent.

If commercial newspapers are to survive as the print-newspaper model melts away, two things must happen: (1) They must develop paid subscription and online advertising revenue streams, and (2) they must bring their cost structures into alignment with that (much smaller) revenue stream. If newsrooms can operate virtually, then they must. If something is lost in the process, then that’s a price they must pay.

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9 responses to “The Media Meltdown Accelerates

  1. They have to print news, not opinion passed off as news. Not just the highlights, print real stories about what is going on here.

  2. GOOD Post! So is the choice is what do we want to pay for – a building or a reporter and if we don’t like THAT reporter, no way?


    I actually KNOW a reporter who informs me that he has been working out of his townhouse for months…

    I think in the days before the full robustness of internet, centralizing computers connecting to printing presses necessitated bricks and mortar news operations.

    That’s no longer true and the pandemic just accelerated a trend already headed that way.

    We no longer have a dedicated school board meeting reporter and big things happened at the last meeting. It got reported in the “paper” by a non-dedicated reporter viewing the recorded meeting online then emailing/calling some of the folks involved.

    It’s still journalism and it’s still not the work that many, including bloggers will go to. The ones that do exist usually have an agenda and usually only report the things they are part of their agenda.

    As far as I can tell, the reporter had no axe to grind. She interviewed folks on both sides of the issue and I found no bias in her reporting.

    Folks familiar with IRS regs know there is an expense category called “home office”. I suspect we’re going to see an uptick in those returns.

    I don’t think someone can claim expenses if they are doing it for “free” though!

    And we’re going to see more and more independent contractors – where the employer does not pay FICA but the contractor does.

    The economy is changing as we speak.

  3. “The COVID-19 epidemic forced many employees in the Virginian-Pilot and Daily News news”

    Daily Mess. Daily Press to be correct, albeit less accurate. The merger would best be described as the Messy Pile-up. Sadly, these were really fine publications that have fallen victim to cable news and the availbility of immediate internet news.

    It will be sad. When they are gone, and with DeJoy’s destruction of the USPS, I will be forced to collect sticks from the yard as kindling rather than having it delivered to the door.

    Four dead in Newport News.

  4. Maybe, just maybe, the idea that journalists should “educate” their readers or viewers as to the journalist’s views of the world and values might not be a good business strategy.

    As far as Bezos is concerned, I don’t know why he puts major effort into ensuring Amazon meets customer needs irrespective of their race, ethnic background or political/social/economic views, while allowing the inmates to run the Post.

    • no not educate, inform. It’s up to you to get educated by NOT relying only on those who say what you want to hear and confirm your own biases.

      Some say similar things about Murdoc and FOX and the WSJ – Reason, etc…

      I’d say if you don’t like a publication – why continue to read it but claim you’re not but then spout off about the latest “outrage”? 😉

      I notice that Bacon does this to for some reason.

      As soon as he rants about some bias he’s linked to… he writes yet another! 😉

      • So how much media coverage has there been about Senator Harris’ attempt to apply an unconstitutional religious test on a federal district court judge by the MSM? Had a Republican senator done something similar with an Obama-appointee, holy hell would be raised for months.

        The problem is when one presents themselves as a professional reporter or broadcaster, which presumes some general level of content neutrality, but instead acts as a whore for this or that Democrat.

        It’s like the different roles lawyers play. If a client asks for advice as to what the rules are, lawyers walk the straight and narrow, pointing out the considered view, but also laying out counter-arguments and risks. But when the lawyer is advocating for the client, she assembles the best arguments supporting the client’s position. But even then, a lawyer is obligated to disclose precedent to the contrary.

        The Post’ motto should be changed to “Sexual Assault and Blackface Is OK When Practiced by Democrats.”

        The more layoffs, the better.

  5. What a shame! The Daily Press is the only paper other than the RTD that has good coverage of Virginia government and politics. (I don’t follow the Roanoke paper, so that might be an exception.) And I think the Daily Press is better. It looks like the Daily Press may be going the way of the Virginian Pilot. I recently cancelled my VP digital subscription; I was paying twice for essentially the same coverage.

  6. Dare I mentioned Scientific American openly campaigning for Biden. Is this the solution or the problem?

  7. short answer. Nope.

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