Hold Still, Little Catfish

A long time ago a friend related the story of a little boy and a catfish.

“Catfish, as you know,” my friend wrote, “are extremely lively and can be dangerous. Well, this little boy one day was attempting to clean this catfish and the catfish finned the little boy.

” ‘Hold still, little catfish,’ the boy yelled. ‘I ain’t going to do nothing but gut you.’ “

It’s that story that comes to mind almost every day when I read the newest release from a newspaper telling about the latest cuts in staff and in space.

Hold still, little newspaper, we ain’t going to do nothing but gut you.

It’s also the story that comes to mind every time I read a column by an editor or a statement by a publisher telling readers that we are slicing and dicing staff and space, but we are going to give you a better newspaper.

Hold still, little newspaper, we ain’t going to do nothing but gut you.

The new design is going to thrill you. Of course, we are cutting inches off the web size. The shorter stories are going to give you more time to do other things. Of course, there will be less watchdog and public service journalism because that takes a lot more resources to do. And the combined sections are the right way to go in the rush of today’s world. Of course, we will have to eliminate some of your favorite features to make it work.

Hold still, little newspaper, we ain’t going to do nothing but gut you.

I understand the need to reassure readers that you are going to do your best to give them the best you can given the fact that double digit, and sometimes triple digit, job reduction announcements have become commonplace in our industry.

I understand the stomach-wrenching stress editors are dealing with these days, more stress than perhaps ever before. I spent 47 years in daily newsrooms and experienced many roller coaster economic rides, but none like this one. So I don’t envy any editor today, or publisher. It’s not surprising to see some of the best say enough is enough.

I understand what is happening to the economic model with which we have operated all these years, and the perfect storm which has hit us — a recession, home sales in the dumpster, classifieds fleeing to the Craiglists of the world, trading the dollars of print advertising for the pennies of online advertising, the pressure from Wall Street, and a lot of other thunder and lightning.

What I don’t understand is this business of not leveling with readers. You can’t eliminate 30, 40, 100 jobs and produce the same quality of journalism, in print or online, that you were producing before the avalanche of cutbacks overwhelmed the newsroom.

The reader is not dumb. It doesn’t take an advanced degree to recognize that less is not more. It’s simply less. You can pretty it up with a new design, but that’s like telling the little catfish that he will look better dressed in cornmeal.

If you do that, you deserve to be finned.

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