I hate to say this, but I am losing confidence in Mark Zieman as publisher — and ultimate leader — at The Kansas City Star.
My colleague John Landsberg of Bottom Line Communications reported yesterday that there will be another round of layoffs at The Star. I can’t keep track of how many rounds there have been in the last few years, but I think this will be at least the fifth.
This latest news is particularly maddening and frustrating not because The Star’s staff apparently will get even thinner, but because of Zieman’s optimistic tone when he announced the previous round of layoffs last September.
Back then he said The Star was approaching the end of the year “financially strong” and that the industry was at a “turning point.”
To me, that not only was irresponsible, it was misleading and showed Zieman was indulging in wishful thinking. While such words might buoy employee morale temporarily, the words make it all that much harder for employees to swallow another round of layoffs. The real danger of statements like that is that they spread a sense of false hope and paint the publisher as someone trying to buy time before something even worse happens.
Employees of every organization like to hear words of encouragement and hope from their leaders, but, more important, they want a candid assessment of where things stand. Zieman has failed miserably on that front, not just in September but with unrealistically optimistic words with each round of layoffs.
So, now, unfortunately, it’s like the boy yelling fire in the theater. Except it’s the reverse because there is a fire and Zieman keeps trying to convince his troops it’s just about extinguished, when it’s obviously out of control.
I mentioned that something big could happen. Like what? Well, how about a decision to drop the print edition several days a week. That seems like the next likely step to me.
Zieman probably won’t admit it until it happens, because he’s obviously reluctant to take off the rose-colored glasses. But it could easily happen, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see one or two weekday papers — maybe Monday and Tuesday — dropped within a year or two.
Several papers around the country have already dropped some or all print editions, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch took a step in that direction last year, when it dropped single-copy sales — in boxes and convenience stores — of the Saturday paper. It still puts out a Saturday paper, but it goes only to subscribers.
In reporting the story last October, the Riverfront Times, the St. Louis alternative paper, asked Editor Arnie Robbins how long it would be before the Post-Dispatch would cease putting out a print publication altogether.
“I’m not feeling particularly clairvoyant this morning,” Robbins replied. “But I think in the next 10 years you could see the elimination of the weekday paper, with the Sunday still coming out in print. The rest of the week would be online or delivered through niche products and phone and e-reader apps. We’re working on a few of those projects right now that we’re excited about.'”
Well, let’s credit Robbins with some degree of candor. Ten years very likely is an overestimation of how much longer the daily P-D will survive, but at least he doesn’t have blinders on.
Now, compare that statement with what Zieman told employees in the September memo announcing that round of layoffs:
“I know that weathering this recession has been exceptionally hard for each of you. But we will begin next year with a steadily improving revenue trend. We are posting record online traffic and revenue, we remain the dominant media company in our region, our presses and readership metrics are among the best in the country and our news products are recognized nationally for their journalistic excellence. The Star won’t die, but this recession will.”
Metrics. Journalistic excellence. The Star won’t die. Uh huh.
This is really a desperate situation in my view. I think The Star’s owner, McClatchy Co., is headed for bankruptcy.
As I reported in June, Morningstar, the independent investment and stock research company, had a grim outlook for the company. An article in Morningstar StockInvestor, a periodical available to Morningstar members by subscription, said this:
“Our fair value estimate on McClatchy shares is $0.”
Are you listening, Mark? That’s zero. Nothing. Worthless shares for the stockholders.
At the time, McClatchy’s stock was selling at $4.28 a share. The stock closed Friday at $4.89 a share, but that’s no indication of a significant upswing. Sprint, as difficult as its situation is, has a much better chance of surviving than McClatchy does.
The company paid too much for KnightRidder in 2006 and bought the KR papers at precisely the wrong time.
Do you remember when Payless Cashways senior managers, led by then-chief executive officer David Stanley (fondly known to some as Minnesota Dave because he flew back to his home in Minneapolis every weekend) took the company private in 1988? They paid too much ($900 million); the company muddled along for about 10 years and then rolled over and died.
McClatchy, too, is going to roll over and die, I believe…or get bought out for a song. I can hear the late “Dandy” Don Meredith singing from heaven, “Turn out the lights; the party’s over.”
And what will happen with the papers McClatchy owns? I don’t know. But it isn’t a bright picture, and I hope Zieman doesn’t weigh in with more irrationally optimistic statements when he officially announces the newest round of layoffs.