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Some McClatchy papers are taking the cuts worse than others

Things are never equal in the world of corporate journalism, and the announcement of major cuts by McClatchy, owner of four dailies in Washington and two weeklies, will not have the same effects across the board.

That’s because the two larger dailies, the Tacoma News-Tribune and the Tri-City Herald, are part of the old McClatchy family and the two others, the Bellingham Herald and The Olympian, came to McClatchy three years ago already starved and abused by earlier chain owners.

McClatchy had a great reputation among reporters, because it cut staff only through attrition, avoiding the nasty ax wielding of Knight Ridder and Gannett. That reportorial tradition built the investigative team that this week is publishing a hugely important series on abuses of prisoners in American detainment in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay. At a local level, that reporting philosophy was felt in Tacoma and the Tri-Cities. Strong newsrooms were built.

So a 10 percent overall cut won’t mean the same in Tacoma as in Bellingham, because the News-Tribune prospered under the McClatchy philosophy before it yielded to Wall Street hucksters and decided to grow by buying the Knight Ridder chain of newspapers. But for the smaller papers, McClatchy is only the latest pounding of many. Both the Olympian and Herald set their pattern under Gannett. Their layouts, their emphasis on sports, leisure, and entertainment, and their fixation with calendars and lists can be traced to the bottom-line Gannett managers of 20 years ago. Gannett used its small papers as cash cows, and in the days before Craigslist, the cows were milked early and often. Nothing changed when Knight Ridder acquired them in 2005, or McClatchy a year later.

So the stronger papers in Tacoma and Tri-Cities absorb less than 5 percent newsroom cuts (the Tri-City Herald will cut no news positions because of an earlier reduction); but in Olympia and Bellingham the cuts will be 10 percent on already-skeletal news teams. Feelings are running pretty high in Bellingham — Executive Editor Julie Shirley hung up on me when I tried to ask how many positions the newsroom had before absorbing the four cuts it announced Tuesday. Judging from its published staff list, it’s about 40, making the Herald cuts 10 percent compared to 4 percent in Tacoma.

But that’s only part of the story. Gannettizing in Bellingham and Olympia have produced news staffs heavy on sports, entertainment, and flashy presentation. Reporters actually covering local “beats” are scarce; the Herald lists only six on traditional local beats such as schools, local government, and crime. It will be interesting to see where the four cuts are made.

Three years ago, commenting on passage of Bellingham and Olympia from Gannett to Knight Ridder, I quoted longtime Knight Ridder editor Davis “Buzz” Merritt: “The difference between Gannett and Knight Ridder disappeared a decade or more ago. For both companies, the newspapers they own, the people who work at them, and the communities they pretend to serve are simply fungible assets, undifferentiated except by the level of profit demanded.”

It would be bad for Washington (both Washingtons) if McClatchy slipped into the slot described by Merritt. It hasn’t happened yet, but the slope is slippery.

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