By Adam Weinstein
The capital of Florida used to have a good newspaper, I’m told. It’s hard to know, because by the time I started working there — 2006 — Knight Ridder had sold the Tallahassee Democrat to Gannett, the cigarette-perfumed, drunken used-car salesman of media corporations, and the paper was a ghost of itself.
There was always a handful of talented, dedicated writers and reporters who dodged each successive set of layoffs and furloughs and dumbing-downs of stories (which came to be called “content,” in the newsroom, which came to be called the “information center”). But their number was constantly shrinking.
Three or four of those good people, but no more, even survived the latest and worst bloodbath: On Tuesday, cost-conscious Gannett ensured its profit margins with stealth layoffs. It had made the existing staff compete for a limited number of new jobs with Orwellian titles (“content coach”?) and sent the rest packing.
This is how journalism in the capital of the fourth-largest state in America ends: in a corporate game of musical chairs. But the story of the Democrat’s decomposition is a deeper cautionary tale on how monopoly media can turn a vibrant, growing community into a cloistered cultural backwater.
As I’ve suggested before, if you’re jonesing for the Seminole Boosters party line, Comcast cheerleading, godawful grammar, action shots of the Florida State cowgirl’s cleavage, or good birdcage lining, you’ll love the Tallahassee Democrat.
If you have enough brain cells to rub together, you won’t love it — and for that, you should blame the musical-chairs maestro: Executive Editor Bob Gabordi, who carpetbagged into town in 2005 and set about turning a once-mighty community and state news organization into a clearinghouse for deep-pocketed flacks and hacks.
Always quick to offer his newsroom — sorry, information center! — up to the Gannett execs as a test rodent, Gabordi captained the Democrat through years of stiff cuts and furloughs. At one point, some staffers — including a reporter who had penned a New York Times bestseller — were deigned to work a sixth unpaid day per week, and to take an unpaid week of leave per quarter. Environmental reporter? Who needs one! Politics? Local news? Photographers? Copy editors? We’ve got too many of ‘em! Let’s get another underpaid FSU sports reporter!
The paper’s state and local coverage was slashed to the bone — replaced by school lunch menus and filler from USA Today. Much of the paper’s pages and blogs were given over to PR reps, marketers, and lobbyists to write.
News stories gave way to puff pieces about nonprofits and Chamber of Commerce members that the Democrat’s publisher and executive editor had dealings with.
Gannett’s position was that this was ingratiating itself to the community that it served. But that’s a pretty narrow, if profitable, definition of community: Gabordi basically relieved the paper of its duty to investigate and inform the residents of Tallahasse of anything those corporate interests didn’t deem important.
It’s dropped the ball on local government malfeasance and corporate encroachment. The Sunday after a nationally renowned FSU law professor was murdered in daylight in his driveway this summer, shaking the entire community, the Democrat’s front page had nary a word about it — instead genuflecting on a mayoral candidate who was expected to win his upcoming primary by about a million points.
The death of that professor, Dan Markel, is still unsolved and largely unmentioned in the Democrat; for updates, you’d do better to check the Globe & Mail up in Markel’s hometown of Toronto.
Gabordi and Gannett talk a lot about the future, but strangely, the Democrat’s website has never been an especially attractive or navigable beast. It slipped behind a paywall in 2010, never to be seen again.
Not that it mattered; other papers in the state were regularly scooping the Democrat when real news happened, and Gabordi’s was filling the homepage with photo slideshows of attractive women at FSU basketball games to goose traffic.
In announcing the latest round of layoffs, the Democrat included a snapshot of its web traffic. It showed that the whole paper essentially gets less traffic than a single underperforming post at my current employer’s site. I’m pretty sure it gets less traffic than this blog.
Multiple sources tell me that in the latest round of cuts, Gabordi kept some staffers on a safe list: They didn’t have to reapply for new jobs. They included senior managers and editors who toed the company line, as well as the paper’s FSU sports staff, which distinguished itself in the past year by getting consistently scooped on the Jameis Winston investigation, slut-shaming his accuser on Twitter, and playing homer to the worst elements of the local team’s fan base.
The paper’s FSU cheerleader-in-chief, who pooh-poohed the Winston investigation and poisoned his readers from the start, left the Democrat shortly after to run Warchant.com, “Your Ultimate Seminole Sports Source.”
Some of those reporters took the stenography part of the job a little too seriously. Last week, Natalie Pierre, one of Gabordi’s FSU sports writers, was caught plagiarizing an article about a Seminole football player and chose to resign. On her website, she explained the move — and her apparent guilt about the situation — this way: “My decision to resign from the Democrat came in part because of the current climate of the newsroom. The majority of my former co-workers were all required to re-apply for their positions on Monday and Tuesday, while I was exempt from the process that will result in a number of great journalists being laid off.”
Sounds like a great newsroom — sorry, information center! Perhaps Gabordi learned how to drive a paper into the ground on the job, while working on his long-distance MBA in “marketing and innovation.” During the years he was in that program, 2009 to 2011, Gannett cut an estimated 8,600 workers — which was pretty innovative, considering they’d cut 10,000 in the two years before he went off to get his marketing degree.
Gannett’s top six execs, the ones who control Gabordi’s destiny, made $22 million in 2010, while the economy was still smarting and they were still slashing jobs. Because this isn’t a news organization: It’s a money-sucking leech, looking for spare change to siphon in communities like Tallahasssee.
You’d never imagine that flesh-and-blood human beings could be enticed into cutting talent and gutting lives and dumbing a metropolis into a money-obsessed ‘burb, all so they could snag some company awards and preserve insane bonuses for far-off corporate bigwigs. But here we are.
Gabordi’s cheery bloodletting this week, coming as it did on the heels of that plagiarism scandal and scads of blown chances to hold FSU and local police accountable for multiple bunglings, would be cause enough for greater men to commit hara-kiri. But then again, we’re talking about a man who once tried (and failed) to get me to spike a story about the hilarity that ensued when his paper gave out a state Spelling Bee guide to contestants that was rife with spelling errors.
His survival — and his ability to pick favorites with the staff, and jettison the rest — stands as a testament to the heights mediocrities can reach in today’s dismal media landscape.
Gannett’s newspaper business may ultimately do a fatal belly flop in the stagnant pool of bad ideas. The Democrat may go quietly into that good night. Tallahassee itself may grow ever more reliant on corporate and political string-pullers for its community “information.” But even if it all goes to hell, there will still be Bob Gabordi, live-blogging his walking-laps around Lake Ella with the town’s “movers and shakers.”
Adam Weinstein is a Tallahassee-based senior writer for Gawker. He has worked for the Wall Street Journal, Village Voice, and Mother Jones.