This post has been updated.
The Washington Times is readying itself for staff reductions. New Editor David Jackson sent his staff the following memo today. It comes after a pointed set of questions posed to Jackson by the Erik Wemple Blog about plans for reducing the paper’s newsroom.
The official words from Jackson are heavy on candor and empathy, though skimpy on details about the impending cuts.
“I can’t give you the details of any decisions about the workforce because nothing has been finalized yet,” notes the editor.
However, a source familiar with the Times’ plans helps out a bit on that front. The initiative, says the source, could potentially slice around a quarter of the existing newsroom staff. Informed sources consulted for this post say that the current newsroom tallies around 90 people. Jackson has not responded to the questions, nor has the Times responded to a request for comment about the staffing cuts.
An immediate impact of the cuts would be to reduce the size of the daily print edition of the Times. The shrinkage, according to the source, is likely to fall disproportionately on the culture/arts and sports sections of the paper.
Sports coverage was at the center of the Times’s last round of major cutbacks, which started in December 2009 and took place over several weeks. Those cuts stripped the paper of 40 percent of its newsroom positions, leading to a focus on “investigative reporting and coverage of national politics, geopolitics, international and domestic business and economics, and cultural issues,” according to a Times report.
Something odd then took place. In 2011, the Times began restocking the newsroom, initiating a hiring spree to beef up anew its coverage of sports, arts and local news. “We’re starting a two-month push to hire up to 50 people,” a top Washington Times editor told U.S. News & World Report.
This roller coaster approach to personnel management raises the bizarre prospect that certain Times staffers may be downsized, upsized and downsized again over the course of three years.
UPDATE (4:00 p.m): In an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog, Jackson declined to comment on the possibility that sports and arts would absorb a goodly portion of the staff reductions. “It’s true that we haven’t made all the decisions,” he said. “It’s not an easy process. It takes time to look at what we have.”
In the next breath, however, Jackson said this: “We can’t do everything, but there are a few things we can do better than our competitors, and one of those is clearly politics, national issues and things that the Washington Times has traditionally been identified with.”
So where does that leave the paper’s metro coverage? “What I’ve told the staff every day is that, in the online world, our audience is national and even international. That’s not to say we’re not interested in local stories but it is to say that a story about D.C. or Maryland or Virginia has to be written in a way that uses the . . . story as a peg” for a national issue. That way, says Jackson, “our online readers in California and Texas and Florida and New York will have an interest in it too.”
Discouraging words for hard-core local reporters. That story about Vincent Gray’s shadow campaign or that piece about the Woodley Park Metro killing — those stories really have no “national angle.” Trying to saddle them with one makes for awkward journalism.
Whatever the considerations, Jackson has a singular purpose as he moves forward with restructuring: “I want to make this paper successful and profitable. That’s not a novel goal for any editor,” he said.
Those comments unfolded over an open and extensive discussion, an absolute precedent for the Erik Wemple Blog. Over months and months, this reporter attempted to reach Jackson’s predecessor and other executives at the Washington Times, with the almost uniform result of silence.
Jackson responded fully to all questions, a promising development at a news outlet that has never acted like one regarding its own operations. “It’s really hard for me not to talk to a journalist,” said Jackson.
More coverage to come.
Here’s the entire memo from Jackson to the Times staff:
Since we’re all journalists, I know you’re well aware that newspapers are making significant adjustments everywhere to accommodate our changing times.
Every news organization that distributes its content on paper is going through a transition that is designed to help it compete in a world where free news is widely available on the Internet. It will soon be our time to go through such a transition.
When I took this position I knew this was coming, and I know it will not be easy for anyone. I once worked for a newspaper that folded. But The Washington Times is not folding. It’s changing with the times, as all newspapers must. And we will be stronger when we get through this.
I want to make it very clear that The Washington Times is not abandoning print.
There are no plans to stop the printed edition. And there are no plans to reduce our publishing schedule.
The transition that we are working on is going to require significant changes in the way we organize and present the news, and it is going to require a re-organization and a reduction in our current workforce to give us the new skills and new structure that we will need to grow our audience online and make our content widely accessible in today’s digital marketplace.
I can’t give you the details of any decisions about the workforce because nothing has been finalized yet. When it is, we will announce them to all of you as soon as possible. I can tell you, though, that the reductions in staffing that we expect will be a one-time only process. We do not intend to go through this again. And as we begin this process, our end goal will be to transition into a new digital-first news organization that will be distinctive, profitable, and clearly focused on the kind of stories, and analysis, and perspective that our current audience and our target audience expects of us.
I believe The Times has an excellent opportunity to not only compete but thrive online, while also publishing a printed newspaper. We have a unique and established identity and perspective that stands out from our competitors in the marketplace. And we have a loyal audience that has stuck by us through challenging times in the past.
Serving those readers in paper and online will always be our primary focus.