Strictly Business: Industry changes hit close to home

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

Published:

 
photoGordon Oliver, Columbian's business editor

The worlds we create for ourselves seem to turn slowly most days, and then one day the future arrives with full force.

That force hit last week at The Oregonian, where I worked for more than two decades, with the newspaper's announcement that it was laying off an undisclosed number of employees and cutting home delivery to four days a week.

The announcement was sudden, kept secret even from top newsroom managers, I'm told. But it had been coming for years as the newspaper's corporate owners, New Jersey-based Advance Publications, tested non-daily deliveries and even non-daily publication in New Orleans, Birmingham and Ann Arbor, Mich. So no one who works at the newspaper could say they were surprised that it came to this.

At a gathering in a Portland bar Thursday night, journalists had counted more than two dozen of their colleagues as having received pink slips. By Friday, the number reportedly had reached 35. The list included some of The Oregonian's best journalists, including one married couple and many in their 50s and 60s -- hardly an optimal age to be reentering the job market.

Those remaining will face new marching orders to push their work more quickly onto the company's website, and they'll deal with the euphemisms of a corporate mind-set in which the job title of editor is replaced by "managing producer." (The Columbian will continue daily publication and home delivery, although publisher Scott Campbell says he hasn't ruled out possible changes in the future.)

It's beyond debate that the newspaper industry needs to adapt, and quickly, to technologies that offer a treasure trove of information about every topic and from every viewpoint. The industry has been slow to change, in part, because most of its revenue comes from print advertising and subscriptions.

Most newspapers continue to give away content for free on websites, and Web ads make a fraction of those on paper.

Meanwhile, newer versions of increasingly sophisticated smartphones and tablets are turning more readers away from print.

But what struck me last week was the painful personal cost of adjusting to the technological changes that race into our lives.

Postal employees understand all too well; so do those working for retailers losing sales to Amazon and other online sellers. It's easy to say that workers need to find new jobs and careers. But when change hits close to home, affecting you and your friends and family, the easy-to-spout adage about simply adapting isn't so easily swallowed.

I've been watching for Facebook messages from friends and former colleagues who were called in for bad news Thursday and Friday. Their messages were a mix of sorrow, bravery, and -- in some cases -- optimism for the future.

I'm told of newsroom horrors: Some reporters bursting into tears upon learning their careers are over, others doing their best to remain stoic.

Perhaps, some will say, those of us who work in print journalism should have left long ago. Many of our former colleagues now work in corporate or government communications or have changed careers entirely.

Most who remain love the profession's excitement (sometimes), its constant challenges and its capacity to do good.

It doesn't really matter to us how our work is delivered to readers; but, like all professionals, we need the skills and the salaries to offer more than marketers, publicists, partisans, or the blogger next door.

There's growing evidence that people are willing to pay for news that comes in forms other than print. Perhaps advertisers will follow.

Journalists love a story, but this one needs a happier ending than what we saw in Portland last week.

Gordon Oliver is The Columbian's business editor. 360-735-4699, http://twitter.com/col_goliver;http://www.columbian.com/weblogs/strictly-business, or gordon.oliver@columbian.com