A new kind of newspaper severance: Help laid-off journalists be entrepreneurs and partners

As I was packing for a trip north to speak at the Maine Press Association convention this weekend about our Newsroom Cafe project in Connecticut, this story came across my Twitter feed this morning.

The Portland Press Herald, my hometown daily, is laying off 38 employees and eliminating 23 additional jobs through buyouts, with the “majority” coming from the newsroom. I’m guessing that’s going to have a severe effect on the mood at this conference.

The size of this layoff is dramatic for a paper its size – (Portland’s newsroom has already been winnowed significantly during a rocky ownership change from the Seattle Times to a group of investors). And the Portland newsroom is one full of veteran, longtime journalists. We’re not talking about layoffs of just-out-of-college J-school grads.

This is huge. And it’s a good opportunity for the industry as a whole to stop and reflect on how we do this.

I’m not questioning the need for these cuts. I wouldn’t anyway without knowing the financial circumstances the Press Herald is facing, but as a community daily newspaper publisher myself I know how difficult of a print advertising environment they must be facing.

But what if a newspaper such as the Press Herald engaged the journalists affected by these cuts in an entrepreneurial brainstorming session on the news and information gaps that exist in Maine?

What if they – in a formal process – helped them use their severance checks as seed money for new, independent journalism enterprises?

There are niches and opportunities out there better filled by the start-up culture this would create than the legacy media brand.

It’s bound to happen with a layoff like this anyway. Check out Connecticut, where former legacy media journalists have launched enterprises such as CT Watchdog, CT Mirror and CT News Junkie.

So why not help set them up as “competitors” that could really function as independent partners to the Press Herald? Use your legacy base to aggregate and curate the work of these new efforts. Help sustain them – and your own operation – by taking on part or all of their advertising sales for them.

If the Press Herald doesn’t do that, the Bangor Daily News should, or one of the Portland TV stations.

The ideas here are straight from the preachings of Jeff Jarvis – and there are more and more resources these days for stoking entrepreneurial journalism, including Jeff’s one program for that at CUNY.

Portland – or the next legacy media company to lay off journalists – should reach out for help and pursue an approach like this. It will be good for journalism, good for your community and may be your only chance at spinning a cutback into growth for your brand.

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