POTTSTOWN PA – Veteran journalist and editor Steve Buttry, and more than 40 other people, lost their New York City-based jobs Wednesday (April 2, 2014) in a round of big-business cost-cutting. Few residents of Greater Pottstown know Buttry. Even fewer are aware of the work he’s helped accomplish locally, but industry observers think his departure means that, sooner rather than later, The (Pottstown PA) Mercury and other area newspapers will go up for sale.
Buttry held the title of digital transformation editor for Digital First Media. It’s a corporate manager for 21st Century Media, the company that owns The Mercury, The (Norristown) Times Herald, The (Phoenixville) Phoenix Reporter & Item, and The (Boyertown) Times News. His influence has been a major factor, editors of those publications have said, in remaking delivery of their news products from print to online.
News industry analyst Ken Doctor quickly predicted the layoffs of Buttry and the rest raised a flag for Digital First to put groups of its companies, including those in the Philadelphia region, up for sale. His remarks played prominent roles in stories published last week by USA Today, The Huffington Post, and Politico.
Digital First officially declined comment in those articles, but company CEO John Paton wrote that “increasingly our focus will be in local where we are the news and information leader in our markets.” He did not specify which markets would be targets of that new focus.
The Mercury and its companion papers have been bought and sold several times in recent years. Some of those deals were in declared bankruptcies. All have continued to publish, although with dramatically smaller staffs. If another sale occurs, their readers remain unlikely to see any interruption in service.
Readership and circulation revenues traditionally account for only a small portion of a newspaper company’s total income, however. The bulk of the money it brings in depends on advertising, and for newspapers across the country ad sales are still falling below both needs and expectations.
Buttry, in an online post, announced the scythe had swung his way. The layoffs were forecast a day earlier (April 1) in an article at the Columbia Journalism Review. That story speculated the cuts were part of Digital First’s attempts to save $60 million on an annual operating budget of $1.15 billion.
Reportedly behind the expense-trimming is Digital First’s owner, an affiliate of a billion-dollar investment group called Alden Global Capital.
Buttry was part of a team named Project Thunderdome, which provided national and world news coverage to supplement local stories. He also encouraged Mercury Editor Nancy March, her reporters and photographers to pursue live blogging of municipal government and school boards, to use crowd-sourcing when appropriate for comments and information from social media forums, and to increasingly invest time and resources in online video reporting.
He was an often vocal advocate of changes being made at The Mercury, heaping praise on March, reporters Evan Brandt and Brandie Kessler, and online editors Eileen Faust and Dianne Hoffman. Buttry’s guidance, and Thunderdome’s presence, were being closely watched by other newspaper owners as a model for the future of news collection and distribution.
Now Thunderdome is being dismantled, Buttry is seeking a new employer, and speculation over the fate of Digital First, The Mercury and its sister companies has been renewed.