ST. LOUIS (Oct. 3) — Even before the St. Louis Post-Dispatch announced its latest round of layoffs, on Sept. 26, the paper’s business news team was down by about one third this year due to a steady exodus of experienced editors and reporters.
Given the broad reach of the national financial meltdown, the loss of talent couldn’t have come at a worse time, but the Post isn’t the only major newspaper that’s been caught short-handed. In newsrooms across the country, business news departments have become major casualties of the industry’s declining fortunes.
Still, what’s happening at the Post seems unusual, given a sudden spate of resignations — and it doesn’t bode well for the remaining staff, which is forced to redouble its efforts during what is, essentially, a time of crisis.
“We’re just all under more pressure to produce more frequently and cover more things,” says a veteran Post business reporter who spoke on background.
In recent months, the paper eliminated the business editor position held by Andre Jackson, who quit earlier this year to join the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, while four staffers quit voluntarily and one editor was recently fired.
An opening for an aviation, defense, and telecommunications reporter — advertised in December 2007 — was never filled.
Assistant business editor Jack Naudi quit in July to return to Chicago, citing personal reasons. Naudi kept writing his personal-finance column for several months; in his last, published Sept. 14, he wrote, “I still believe in newspapers, but my fear is you don’t, which is a pity.”
Two reporters — Rachel Melcer and Riddhi Tivedi-St. Clair — left to work for Monsanto; Mary Jo Feldstein quit to work for the St. Louis Area Business Health Coalition, a group that represents large employers on health-insurance matters.
Melcer left the paper in mid-August; Tivedi-St. Clair in early September; Feldstein quit at the end of September.
And at the end of September, assistant business editor Ed Kohn became one of 17 newsroom casualties of the latest round of firings, which were announced in a terse memo sent to staff by editor Arnie Robbins and managing editor Pam Maples.
Robbins and Maples blamed the difficult economy for the firings. “We are sorry to have to give you this news,” they wrote. “Please take care of each other.”
Kohn, who had been with the newspaper since 1976, didn’t return calls, but his partner, Staci Kramer, posted a complaint about how the firing was handled on the Web site paidContent.org.
Kramer wrote: “The memo announcing the layoffs unfortunately was all too typical: not one word about the departed employees beyond listing their names and departments — not even an acknowledgement of their contributions to the paper. This morning, they were employees expected to give their all for the company. This afternoon, they’re cost reductions.”
The resignations and firing at the Post leave a business staff of eight writers, including veteran columnist Dave Nicklaus, and three assistant editors: Doug Wong, Greg Cancelada, and Irvin Harrell.
Harrell, a newsroom veteran and the paper’s director of recruitment, is a recent transfer to the business staff, filling the job vacated by Naudi.
The paper, which has imposed a hiring freeze, is in contract talks with the Guild — and it’s unclear how and when the vacancies will be filled. Worry about the future is palpable — and was a factor in the resignations, especially Melcer’s and Trivedi-St. Clair’s.
“There’s concern about the newspaper industry in general,” a senior reporter says. “They wanted to try something different while they’re still young enough.”
“I worry about our industry”
Robbins says he’s troubled by the fact that talented Post reporters are leaving the news business.
“I worry about our industry — that good, smart, talented people are leaving — and it’s difficult to replace those good, smart, talented people,” he says. “People are exploring options that they may not have considered five years ago, 10 years ago.”
“It used to be that a reporter might leave to go to another city, to another newspaper. That seems to be pretty rare right now because not many newspapers are hiring. Instead people are thinking what else is out there — and thinking about other careers.”
“There’s obvious anxiety in the room, there’s uncertainty, and I worry that there’s even fear.”
Uncertainty was a factor in the decision to eliminate the business editor position, Robbins says.
The paper identified strong candidates for the position, but Robbins says the Post was unable to give those applicants a clear idea about what kinds of resources they would have to work with. At the same time, Adam Goodman, the assistant managing editor for metro news, was broaching the idea of adding business news to his responsibilities, Robbins says. His successful direction of the Post’s coverage of the Anheuser-Busch takeover — Robbins says the business staff did a “kick-ass job of covering A-B and the economy — convinced Robbins and Maples that Goodman, who had worked as a business reporter and editor in the 1990s, could handle the broader responsibility. In August, he was promoted to deputy managing editor for metro and business news.
Robbins acknowledges that business news staffing at the Post has taken a hit, and it’s something that he intends to address.
“In some markets, business news does get short shrift, but right now, the economy is the biggest story in the country — there’s no question about that in my mind,” he says. “Business news is really, really important for our readers and for our region. . . . It’s incumbent upon me and other editors to figure out how we use our resources.”
But Robbins acknowledges his options are limited. He oversees a newsroom that’s seen overall staffing drop dramatically in the past couple years — down from about 285 people two years ago to 230 now, according to Robbins’ calculation — and with recent layoffs and the uncertainty of labor negotiations, it’s hard to recruit.
He won’t talk specifics, but it’s likely that some current reporters will be reassigned.
“We have to look at the room and what we have,” Robbins says. “We can’t wash our hands of it — we’ve got these seven or eight people [in business] doing a really good job; we have to figure out how to give them more support.”
“Sometimes I feel like we’re just faking it”
What’s happening at the Post is mirrored across the nation at major dailies — and it has the nation’s top financial journalists wringing their hands.
Bernie Kohn, who joined the Baltimore Sun as assistant managing editor for business in 2004, says the business staff there has dropped from 21 to seven. As a result of reorganization, his job was eliminated and he now oversees investigations for the paper.
What’s driving this shift is a drop in revenue, not news coverage priorities, says Kohn, who also serves as president of the 3,500-member Society of American Business Editors and Writers, based in Columbia, Mo.
“Editors who have tried arguing for their sections in the way that they had are just finding those arguments don’t even get them out of the gate anymore. You would present it in terms of ‘here’s how important business is here, and here are the companies and the sectors we have to cover’ — you present the arguments in terms of coverage, but it just doesn’t seem to get you anywhere because you’re trying to make those arguments in the face of this kind of desperation about revenue.”
“If you’re not drawing ads into the section, it really doesn’t matter what you’re covering or how well you’re doing it. That’s the message you get. And even if you’re trying to draw up thing that in the past would attract revenue — like a consumer section or a tech section or workplace — nobody can sell ads for those things anymore.”
Sports, by contrast, seems to be Teflon-coated because it can count on “tire and strip club ads,” Kohn quips; similarly, the main news section can draw on cell phone advertisers and, ironically, bank advertising, among other sectors. “Because of that, business, I think, ends up content-wise getting short shrift because it’s perceived as being unable to pay for itself.”
That’s not necessarily true of St. Louis, Robbins says, where the Post has made a concerted effort to create business content “that we really think works for readers and that can also work for advertisers. We’ve done some really good health care packages, we’ve done some personal finance and real estate — we’ve worked very hard at that.”
Still, Robbins says the paper is forced to make hard choices about what it covers, and retain the flexibility to cover major breaking news. “We have to give up some things — it’s just not right or fair to keep piling work on people,” he says. “It’s about choice, priorities — and what we give up.”
Kohn says it’s possible for smaller papers to be smarter and more flexible, but at some point, when faced with a complicated, unfolding story like financial meltdown, newspapers will find they just don’t have the staff to do the job well.
“Newsrooms do have this amazing ability to be resilient when there’s a big story — people just dive in from wherever,” Kohn says. “You can beg and borrow and steal people from other departments, but it is hard if you happen to be at a place with three business reporters and your budget has six stories that require knowing something about finance. There just aren’t many of those people left in a lot of newsroom anymore.”
“We’re throwing a lot of people who really are not business reporters into stories that are inherently about business and sometimes I feel like we’re just faking it,” he says. “Frankly, I think that’s happening at a lot of place.”
In March 2007, Dave Kansas, Kohn’s predecessor as SABEW president, sent a letter to newspaper editors in general, making the case for business coverage.
The letter read, in part: “Please consider the vital need for our free society and market economy to have a vigorous, independent and vibrant business press.
Everything these days revolves around money, including stories on other beats. No one is better equipped to report and write those stories than your business staffs.”
Kansas, president of FiLife.com, an online personal finance site, says he received some feedback from the note, “much of it extolling the importance of business coverage.”
Subsequently, however, the squeeze on business sections has only increased. With the elimination of stock tables at many publications, some business sections have simply gone away. Given the headlines dominating our country today, primarily the attempt to solve the massive problems in our financial system, the reduction of business coverage strikes me as a bad move for readers and a bad move for newspapers as businesses.”
Kohn says SABEW “may have been a little late” in sounding the alarm.
“I think it truly does pain newspaper editors — the top editors in general — to have to do what they’ve done to business staffs. I don’t really think top editors devalue business coverage. If they did, they certainly don’t now.” — Roland Klose (firstname.lastname@example.org)
An updated version of this story appeared in the October-November edition of the St. Louis Journalism Review (published Oct 29, 2008).