A little knowledge on the USA TODAY layoffs

I’m trying to spend less time refuting people who are wrong on the Internet or elsewhere. It’s not productive.

Sure, they say all it takes for evil to prevail is for good people to say nothing. But that doesn’t mean I need to gripe about every political thing that a lot of people are already challenging more effectively. If we all spent all our time confronting idiocy and evil, we wouldn’t get anything done.

But every once in a while, you may find yourself in the position of knowing parts of a story that someone else has attempted to tell with negligence or malice. And it’s time to step up and confront that person.

So today’s topic will be this piece: Why USA Today will be the first major web-only newspaper – MarketWatch.

It sounds like an interesting topic, and that’s surely how Tim Mullaney, who apparently worked at USA TODAY from 2011 until he was laid himself a few months ago, pitched it. Instead, it turns into a snarky rip on the paper’s latest layoffs. I have no idea what motivated Mullaney — perhaps an attempt to feel better about his own dismissal? Who knows?

Here we go:

Unlike The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, USA Today loses money. It was always subsidized by under-profitable community newspapers and local TV stations that print money when the economy is good.

USA TODAY made about $40 million in 1997. Big hotel circulation, small-ish staff. On the “dotcom” side, we were profitable for a while before the bubble burst and we all merged together.

(That said, sure, I wouldn’t be surprised if the print edition was de-emphasized down the road.)

The biggest reporting cuts came in Life, where the list reads like a guide to Things that Don’t Draw Many Hits Online. A books reporter in his 60s, music writers who apparently did one little-read story too many, a wellness and parenting writer. The exception was a film critic, but USA Today has a better-known one.

This is the most problematic paragraph. That’s a nice way of saying it’s ridiculous. Mullaney’s experience with USA TODAY was apparently too brief to realize that some of these “music writers” were also doing online content.

I worked there from to 1999 to 2010. (I was lucky enough to leave voluntarily, mostly to reclaim my weekends as family time.) I started doing online content. I wound up doing all sorts of crazy technical things — the resident guinea pig for new software, a coder for automated sports stats, a project manager for Olympic results, etc. And yet I gradually moved into writing more and more for print — soccer, Olympic sports, then mixed martial arts.

It gets worse ..

Brutal, but true: On the list of 20 people laid off that leaked late yesterday, I had to Google nearly 15 because they didn’t do anything distinctive enough, or vary from the formulaic enough, to make me know their names. And I worked there.

I didn’t know many of Money’s editors. It’s a big building.

That’s OK. What’s not OK is assuming you know what other people are doing. That was the problem with Gannett Blog — you had old-timers griping that the young online staffers were leaving at 4 p.m. They had no idea that the online staffers in question had been there since 6.

If you Googled me, you’d get the stories I wrote. Not everything else I did.

So I’ll flesh out some of the bios here. Among those laid off:

– A terrific boss who was among the first to realize the “dotcom” staff had some writing talent worth using.

– The first viral journalist at USA TODAY, someone who balanced production duties in Life with a nascent blog-and-chat presence and built a massive community online.

– A couple of editors who took it upon themselves to learn how they can better move their content online.

– Writers who always created good online content.

And those are just people I happened to know. Everyone who left has a story. Sure, every now and then, a layoff removes some dead weight. But I can tell you that’s not the case here.

So I say “a little knowledge” in the headline here because of the old saying that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Mullaney didn’t know what was behind the layoffs, particularly of those who didn’t fit the “old, overpaid, stubborn print-only” mold. He did a little Googling and assumed he knew enough to write something. And MarketWatch published it.

And THAT is a sad commentary on the state of American journalism.


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