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Monday, December 10, 2007

Layoffs at CL

Friday was a rough day at the Loaf, perhaps even rougher at our new brethren papers in Washington and Chicago.

In Atlanta, we laid off four sales people, a marketing assistant, a sales assistant and our wonderful assistant distribution manager -- seven employees total. No Edit staff member was among those cuts, but that’s partly because we have a couple of open positions right now.

The edit departments at the Chicago Reader and the Washington City Paper -- altweeklies that Creative Loafing Inc. bought last August -- were hit a bit harder. Reader Editor Alison True had to lay off John Conroy and three other highly respected, longtime staff writers on Friday. City Paper editor Erik Wemple laid off four writers and an editorial assistant. (Even though he mocked us as "unfortunately named," NYT media columnist David Carr, who happens to be a former City Paper editor, had an interesting take on the Chicago and D.C. layoffs.)

Why is this happening? Did CL overextend when it purchased City Paper and the Reader?

Not according to CL CEO Ben Eason. Eason’s always argued that small players such as Creative Loafing Inc., which he runs out of our Tampa headquarters, will only be able to compete in today’s highly competitive media environment by becoming effective platforms for national advertisers, in addition to the local advertisers who traditionally provide the bulk of the revenue for altweeklies. In his view, he had little choice but to seek out the financing to expand. And the merger gave CL a presence in three of the country's top 10 markets.

It’s no secret that City Paper and the Reader already were struggling before the purchase. Neither is it a mystery that our existing papers -- Atlanta, Tampa, Charlotte and Sarasota -- face a lot more competition than we have in the past both in print and online.

We’re not alone. CL’s going through the same sort of difficult transition that’s hitting other media companies. For the last few years, ad dollars have been moving at an accelerated pace to the Web. Classified ads, which must now compete with free online sites such as Craigslist, are in the toilet. Now the economy’s soft (to put it politely), which has particularly hit real-estate advertising.

You hear a lot more about such struggles at the dailies -- because, well, they’re much, much bigger, so they make bigger news. The AJC’s print circ keeps dropping and despite pretty strong online numbers, it’s been forced to undergo some drastic restructuring. As CL’s Scott Henry reported, AJC Editor Julia Wallace cut her staff by around 80 people last spring.

The real question for me, and I suspect for most readers, is how we can do as good or better a job under such circumstances at giving Atlanta the great journalism it deserves -- whether that’s in the form of investigative stories, local news coverage, great criticism or basic listings. And tied to that: Will all the effort we’re putting into blogs, podcasts, reader-submitted columns and other Web-only content help us serve our readers even better?

From an audience-building perspective, I’ve seen some encouraging numbers recently: Our October page views jumped 58.6 percent over last October’s numbers, and November’s year-over-year growth topped 90 percent. How that audience growth translates into ad dollars is the business question that Ben and the folks on the sales side of our business are going to have to grapple with for a long time -- and continuously.

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