Leave it to the cost-cutters at MediaNews to try to sell their East Bay readerships a newspaper makeover that will improve the quality of journalism with fewer journalists.
Last week, local management sent its employees — well, those who survived the recent buyout purge — at the company's 23 East Bay newspapers, which include The Contra Costa Times and the Oakland Tribune, a memo detailing a bold restructuring plan.
According to the March 12 memo, the key feature of the so-called "NewPaper Project" will be a task force of newsroom employees who will ask a series of fundamental questions about journalism in order to design an "innovative newspaper blueprint." The task force will question such elements as design, coverage priorities, and the breadth of coverage areas. In the memo, Kevin Keane, the executive editor of the Bay Area News Group (BANG), MediaNews' local consortium of papers, said he expected to roll out the NewPaper makeover by the end of the year.
While most employees are eager to reinvent the noble trade of newsgathering, some say the project's jingly title causes confusion and raises its own questions: Will NewPaper be softer, more absorbent ... quilted, perhaps?
The NewPaper concept comes at a time when BANG is downsizing.
But despite the recent shedding of 107 employees at the BANG papers — including 53 newsroom positions at the dailies — Keane's memo insisted that they will be able to improve quality with less. "What we did before was very good, but we can be better," wrote Keane, who did not return phone calls.
One veteran Trib reporter says it's nice that management is making an effort to include the rank-and-file in the process, but she has experienced these question-driven retooling efforts before. "What you do is replace all the question marks with periods, and then you know what they are planning to do," she says.
Using that formula, we can look at some of the NewPaper questions and get a good idea of what to expect:
• "What are our story priorities?" Translation: We're going to rewrite more press releases.
• "Do we develop a more professionally trained and reliable network of freelancers?" Translation: We're going to publish more stories written by unpaid journalism students.
• "What elements of design should we embrace?" Translation: Expect to see garish ads on the front page.