The news came last Wednesday, and it had to be shocking to those who watch the media – specifically those who believe the digital and TV worlds are immune from the poor print saps who cling to an outdated model.
Not only was USA Today announcing forced weeklong, unpaid furloughs for most of its 1425-person staff, but Yahoo! was cutting 2,000 jobs – nearly 15% of its workforce – one link in a chain of tumultuous moves that will continue in the coming weeks and months. We also learned that The Mtn., the six-year old TV network that served the Mountain West Conference, will go dark in June.
The decision by Gannett – USA Today’s parent company – to cut labor costs was predictable; the print giant has suffered losses in each of the five years and watched a profit erosion of 22% in 2011. Ad revenues are down, as they are at nearly every newspaper in the country, and though Gannett won’t report specific figures for USA Today, it’s hard to believe the national publication isn’t suffering, too.
The Yahoo! announcement wasn’t quite so expected. Knocking 2000 people off the payroll is the largest staff reduction in the company’s history and came courtesy of a stock price that has been tumbling for a while. The move should save about $375 million and give shareholders some hope that the company will reverse its slide. On the surface, this sounds like what has been happening with businesses of all sizes across the country. Cost-cutting measures designed to assuage cranky boards and investors are daily occurrences.
But not in the world of digital media. And not for a company that has the most-viewed sports web site in America. Then again, Yahoo!’s actions show that no matter how flush a company may be or how much it earns from its IPO, nothing is safe in the media world these days. It also proves that even the most successful companies can get in trouble by overextending themselves. Of course, Monday’s news that Facebook had bought the popular photo-sharing app, Instagram, from Yahoo! for a cool $1 billion should help the Yahoo! bottom line a bit.
The message to those in the media is that times are as uncertain as ever. One day, USA Today’s new sports group is announcing an alliance with Major League Baseball Advanced Media, and the next it is informing some members of its decision that they won’t be paid a week’s salary. (Many of those in USA Today’s sports department will continue on full pay.) Yahoo! is a definite must-stop site for sports fans, but it will make due with fewer employees after the pending cuts. Though The Mtn. shuttering didn’t register the same level of shock as the Yahoo! announcement, it is somewhat surprising, since Comcast was behind the network’s launch, and the recent spate of conference-based media outlets would lead one to believe The Mtn., with deep pockets behind it, had the momentum necessary to continue.
So, nothing is safe, not print, Internet-based media or TV. That’s how it goes today, and it sets up a pretty interesting next few years, as NBC, CBS and Fox try to gain market share against ESPN, and websites attempt to navigate the need-it-now requirements of sports fans. We can be pretty certain that USA Today and its print buddies are in for continued rocky times, and it’s generally accepted that newspapers will be extinct some time in the next 20 years – if not sooner.
But the rest of the media landscape is not so easily forecast. Although The Mtn. was done in partly by the Mountain West’s loss of its primary schools – BYU and Utah – it was the first conference-based network in the country. Just because it is closing doesn’t mean the Big Ten Network is at risk, although as conference realignment continues, the Big Ten must be sure to keep its footprint strong and expanding. As times change, media outlets must adapt. It’s hard to justify The Mtn.’s existence when the MWC lost a lot of its appeal, but those outlets that become too ambitious (Yahoo!) or fail to understand the changing landscape (newspapers in general) are going to struggle or fail altogether.
The advent of Twitter as a news delivery system is changing the way consumers get news. The ability to follow specific reporters, analysts, teams, leagues and networks provides people with personal AP newswires, through which they can gain the information they desire. Further, the growing on-demand nature of video allows them to program their devices to suit their needs. The control is out of the providers’ hands.
Despite a 24/7 news monster that needs constant feeding, there is only so much content available. What was once a world of opportunity is now a tight, cutthroat market that knocks even the most established entities backward. Last week’s news crossed platforms and hit some big names hard. The future seems more uncertain than ever, and those in the business had better be sharp and adaptive. Even then, they face some big challenges as consumers demand more content, more quickly.
Sports journalism continues to be a dynamic field, but part of that dynamism is an uncertainty that can be quite damaging. Last week’s events brought that home dramatically and taught everyone in the business to remain ever vigilant.
Michael Bradley is a writer, broadcaster and teacher headquartered in suburban Philadelphia. His written work has appeared in Sporting News, ESPN the Magazine, Athlon Sports, Hoop and Slam, among others. He is a host on 97.5 the Fanatic in Philadelphia and contributes analysis for Yahoo! Sports Radio and Sirius Mad Dog Radio. He appears on CSNPhilly.com, writes a weekly column on Philadelphia Magazine’s “Philly Post” and has authored 26 books. He teaches sports journalism at Saint Joseph’s, Villanova and Neumann Universities.