Most journalists live under the threat of layoffs and cuts.
Jim Kirk ’90 is one of those doing the cutting.
The Vidette alum and Chicago newspaper veteran was named senior vice president and editor-in-chief of the Chicago Sun-Times in 2012, taking over a newspaper whose former ownership sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2009.
Kirk made national news in May when he laid off the newspaper’s entire full-time photography staff, including a Pulitzer-Prize winner. His decision to replace seasoned photographers with freelancers and do-it-all reporters could be a sign of the future at bigger dailies where large—some would argue, bloated—staffs have been the rule.
While Kirk did not comment directly on the layoffs, he did offer insight into the ongoing struggle within newsrooms. The questions have been abbreviated.
What are the causes of the industry’s problems?
“This is a business that has been losing circulation for four decades. That necessarily hasn’t been the major issue. It has been more about how advertisers are choosing where to spend their money. What the Internet has provided advertisers is a way to reach people across a wider spectrum. The number of advertiser competitors we have has multiplied. That has put pressure on the business.”
Speak to the morale of journalists in light of the industry changes.
“Newspapers are trying many different things to see what works with readers and advertisers, and therefore it can be unsettling. I think across the spectrum, people feel unsettled. Some rise to the occasion under those types of circumstances and some don’t. Some leave and find other industries to go to. I think that’s where we are at right now.”
You took a job in which you knew you were going to have to make difficult decisions, including those regarding layoffs. In general, how do you rationalize what you are doing?
“Nobody wants to see anybody laid off. This business is at its best when it has a big, robust news staff that can cover everything. But that’s not the reality of the business anymore. The economics aren’t the same as what they were 20 years ago. I look at it as, ‘How do we best serve this audience, this city, still doing journalism that makes a difference?’”
What must reporters do to be successful?
“It’s not enough to write a story. You have to be a multimedia journalist.” Kirk is also looking for reporters who have branded themselves using social media. “If you come to a newspaper looking for a job and you already have a specialty or an audience with you to bring, that is going to be valuable to a newspaper.”
Do you think corporations will continue to be a dominant ownership force in the newspaper business?
“I do because I think that content is still king. And if you produce enough compelling content, there are business models out there that can support that because you will get viewers and you will attract advertisers to those viewers or readers.”
What does the future hold?
“We’re in a stage—I call it the Great Transition—where you have to be very flexible in terms of the newest technology coming down the road … I think 15 years from now we will all be getting our information in a much different way than we are today.” Kirk also predicts some newspapers will cut back on the number of days they print, but will likely keep profitable days, like the Sunday edition, for the foreseeable future.