Gannett Lays off 1,400; Time for a G.I. Bill for Journalists?

Last Updated Jul 2, 2009 7:19 PM EDT

Gannett Co. is axing 1,400 newspaper jobs. Fitz & Jen published an internal memo that explains, "Unfortunately, we must take these steps because the advertising environment remains challenged. There have been some promising signs of a recovery, but the reality is the improvements are not broad-based and the economy continues to be fragile."

Most of the reductions are to occur by July 9.

The size of the job cuts will attract a bit of attention, but they are surprising to nobody. Most layoffs in the newspaper business go unannounced these days, events about as remarkable as news that the sun has, once again, set, or that another ripe plum has dropped off the tree in my backyard.

You might expect the newly jobless, experienced professionals to be able to go into business for themselves, but the one thing most journalists know nothing about is how to run a business. We're talking about reporters, writers, and (some) editors here, mainly folks who have spent their careers on the far side of the so-called "church-state line," where never a contact with an advertiser was to be had.

Accordingly, when someone like me suggests ways to integrate advertising and content, say on a hyper-local level, traditional journalists become uncomfortable. "Isn't that a slippery slope," one editor responded to me recently.

No, it isn't.

On many of my other blogs, sponsored links including Google AdSense appear next to the content I produce. These are triggered by keywords in my blog posts; I have nothing at all to do with these advertisers other than using words they have purchased the right to advertise against.

For those journalists facing a new future, one that may require them to build their own brands in an online environment utterly unlike their old world of print, these issues -- however obvious to the business side execs -- are truly perplexing and disorienting. We therefore have a lot of unemployed talent wandering around right now searching for options.

As much as unemployment benefits and Cobra health insurance, what these guys need is access to retraining and education. I'd never support a government subsidy for newspaper companies that some, like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has endorsed, but a modest effort along the lines of a G.I. Bill for retraining print journalists in online and social media techniques could go a long way to helping some of them (especially those with 20 years or more experience in the old industry) make the transition.

  • David Weir

    David Weir is a veteran journalist who has worked at Rolling Stone, California, Mother Jones, Business 2.0, SunDance, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, MyWire, 7x7, and the Center for Investigative Reporting, which he cofounded in 1977. He’s also been a content executive at KQED, Wired Digital, Salon.com, and Excite@Home. David has published hundreds of articles and three books,including "Raising Hell: How the Center for Investigative Reporting Gets Its Story," and has been teaching journalism for more than 20 years at U.C. Berkeley, San Francisco State University, and Stanford.