It’s the best of times, and the worst of times, for the Florida Times-Union.
The positive, first: the paper just had a who’s who of Jacksonville history celebrate the retirement of columnist Ron Littlepage.
There was a party, where local dignitaries told Littlepage stories, and coverage throughout the local media.
Littlepage, whose column ran for decades, represented the outer fringe of what Jacksonville’s political consensus would accept during his era.
Writing this as someone who has done columns in the local market since people thought the Iraq War was a good idea, I can say this: it’s rare to get star treatment on your way out.
Rare for Times-Union columnists even: two others left in the last fourteen months.
Tia Mitchell — who also handled Tallahassee coverage for the paper, a void as yet unaddressed with a dedicated hire — left for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she is on the suburban DeKalb County beat.
And Tonyaa Weathersbee left for Memphis, where the Commercial Appeal is showcasing her column, on Sundays and throughout the week.
Neither got saturation news coverage of their departures.
But Mitchell and Weathersbee moved on of their own accords, so that can be seen as a mitigating factor … even as questions are raised as to why Weathersbee or Mitchell weren’t groomed to take Littlepage’s place as the paper’s flagship columnist, given that his departure was an open secret.
The world doesn’t stop for columnists who move on, of course, but at least they are recognized.
The same won’t be said for the nameless “approximately 50 people” who are going to be out of a job in a couple of months, as the T-U outsources printing operations.
See, the printing equipment is old. It would be expensive to replace. The employees are welcome to get jobs elsewhere in the GateHouse media family. And the print circulation is shrinking anyway.
The Florida Times-Union has a daily circulation of 45,000 and Sunday circulation of 70,000. That’s down from 106,000 and 158,000 in 2013.
This, despite the paper being in a renaissance of news coverage. Nate Monroe, Chris Hong, Steve Patterson — all of them dominated the Corrine Brown coverage.
And arguably the best reporter on the paper, Tessa Duvall, offered a deep dive recently into the end of the Jacksonville Children’s Commission — one informed by years of reporting on the subject.
As a blogger, I know my limits and my silo; while investigative journalism is great, it’s also time-consuming, and doesn’t guarantee page views in the way that more immediate, reaction-driving pieces do.
If a local paper doesn’t do what it calls “accountability journalism,” who does?
Television reporters have two turns a day — at least. Sometimes, they can do four.
Investigations have to be shoehorned in, assuming there wasn’t a shoot-em-up at an apartment complex, or an explosion somewhere, or wacky weather.
Still, as good as the work is that local journalists — named above and otherwise — are doing, the fact is that fewer people read the daily paper in hard copy form all the time.
Changes were made even under previous ownership; last December, Morris Communications rolled out a “centralized news design” operation in Augusta. Copy editing and page designing moved out of state. Jobs were lost then; people were “encouraged to apply” for gigs in Augusta, etc.
And this holiday season: “approximately 50 people” and their families becoming newly acquainted with economic insecurity.
Do people move for new gigs? Some will, sure. And a few will be with GateHouse, the company that took over from Morris this year.
Some others will have to jump out of the business altogether. And some quite likely won’t get any gigs, anywhere, at least not anytime soon.
We won’t know about it, of course.
The Florida Times-Union won’t report on the job search of its former production staff … though it would be interesting if it did, perhaps reporting on one person a day, and what the job search looks like for someone negotiating the death throes of a clearly all-but-bygone print model
These are just more quiet casualties in an industry facing a paradoxical, non-negotiable truth; namely, that even if a newspaper delivers in its core mission of creating compelling news, market forces are such that the people who put together “the paper” are ultimately as ephemeral as Black Friday sales circulars.
Having worked corporate jobs, I know how that goes. All the team building and rah rah claptrap adds up to little when the parent corporation decides that a re-org will drive shareholder value for a really key quarter or two.
Good luck to the production staff — the “approximately 50 people” who right now are scouring Indeed and LinkedIn and Journalism Jobs, hoping against hope that the transition isn’t too painless.