Pain and promise in the Citizen-Times ‘newsroom of the future’

This week, national and local journalists took a closer look at Aug. 6 news that media company Gannett — owner of the Asheville Citizen-Times — is restructuring for what it is calling the “newsroom of the future.” At the company’s Asheville publication, the changes mean that about a half-dozen staffers will likely lose their jobs, while others who fill the new positions may cover news and events from Western North Carolina to South Carolina (Gannett also owns the Greenville [S.C.] News.)

“The biggest change for us is going to be a hugely expanded [team of] digital producers,” Josh Awtry, regional executive editor for both the Citizen-Times and the News, told Corey Hutchins of the Columbia Journalism Review in an interview published Aug. 7 (“Gannett’s Changes Bring Excitement, Some Pain, and A full-Time Beer Beat“) “Readers are going to notice very quickly that we’re not just shoveling out printed copy up on the website,” Awtry said.

Awtry was one of several Gannett editors who spoke to their respective subscribers and employees Aug. 6 about the organization’s focus on the “newsroom of the future.” Editors from Asheville to Nashville, and Pensacola, Fla., to Asbury Park, N.J., used that term in describing changes their newsrooms will undergo.

The “newspaper of the future” dates back to the prior millennium, when newspaper managers worldwide looked ahead to the year 2000, but it was resurrected in 2006 by former Gannett CEO Craig Dubow, who used it to describe changes designed to halt the decline of newspaper revenue, circulation and stock prices. It was part of Gannett’s strategic plan to reconceptualize newsrooms as  “Information Centers.”  “The Information Center, frankly, is the newsroom of the future,” DuBow said.

Gannett and the Citizen-Times have, since 2006, undergone a series of restructurings and layoffs (as have many media outlets, including Mountain Xpress). Most of the Gannett papers’ editing and page-design functions have been consolidated into five regional centers (both the Citizen-Times and the News are designed and edited in Louisville, Ky.)

Three years ago, Gannett underwent a restructuring that resulted in a burst of local and national layoffs; and almost one year ago this month, the company revamped again, laying off eight people and requiring many staffers to apply for new positions.

Ashvegas blogger (and a former Citizen-Times reporter whose position was one of those cut last year) Jason Sandford wrote on Aug. 8 that “newsroom employees have had to reapply for their jobs Thursday and Friday [Aug. 7-8]. The result will mean fewer jobs and the regionalization of some coverage areas between the Gannett-owned Citizen-Times and Greenville News in [South Carolina]. Over at [the blog], there are Gannett job descriptions posted. The ones posted are for Gannett’s Pensacola newspaper, but they’ve been standardized and will be used across Gannett.”

Those jobs emphasize digital-first, from “community content editor” to “producer 1 (print or digital),” Romanesko reported. “There are 16 job descriptions. Each newsroom employee at each Gannett property must be in one of these positions. They are all digital-centric and aligned with Gannett’s new ‘Picasso’ initiative, in which journalism is driven solely by metrics and journalists are expected to be marketers and ‘community connectors.’”

Hutchins noted that in a letter to Citizen-Times readers, “Awtry wrote with excitement about changes at his paper, with the caveat that such ‘realigning will come with some pain.’ He’s genuinely excited about his overhaul of the two papers he runs, and he puts on a bold face for Gannett. But he’s also frank about how the changes will affect lives and careers.”

“Really it’s about finding the right structure and finding the perfect people who are going to do the perfect jobs in those roles,” Awtry told Hutchins. “And I hope that those people come from within the organization if they have the right skills.”

Hutchins also quizzed Awtry on other recent corporate news that Gannett “is splitting up its publishing and broadcast divisions. What’s up with that?” Awtry replied that the two actions “are not tied together in any way.”

Awtry emphasized, “I want to make a difference in our community,” but he said that in Asheville “the biggest change for us is going to be a hugely expanded [team of] digital producers.”

He added, “We’re affecting lives here, and we’re affecting jobs, and we’re affecting people. And if it were another company going through this, we’d want them to just spit it out and say, ‘Are you shrinking?’ And the answer is: We’re smaller. I wish I didn’t have to tell people that, but if I think if I don’t do that we’re holding ourselves to a double standard.”

Of course, Mountain Xpress has not been immune to changes in the industry, either, starting with staff reductions during the 2008 recession and more recent restructuring last year.

UPDATE: reports four long-time Citizen-Times’ employees won’t reapply for jobs. Four decide not to reapply.

UPDATE: reports email circulating among business leaders notes worry about changes. Concern about the impact of smaller, reorganized newsroom.


Editor’s note: Mountain Xpress staffer Grady Cooper is an Asheville-area native and a former Gannett employee who last worked for the company’s Florida Today publication until 2011.


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One thought on “Pain and promise in the Citizen-Times ‘newsroom of the future’

  1. Dionysis

    ” journalism is driven solely by metrics and journalists are expected to be marketers”

    RIP, Fourth Estate. You used to be important in helping to maintain an informed citizenry. At least everyone can stay up-to-date on celebrity updates, sports events and what’s new in breweries. That is what drives the numbers these days, isn’t it?

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