In Laying Off Staff, Columbia Daily Tribune Condescends and Insults Reader Intelligence

Pruning limbs. That's how the publisher of the Columbia Daily Tribune decided to describe the firing of long-time employees in a column Saturday. 

The newspaper outlet, arguably Columbia's newspaper of record until Saturday, had apparently let several staff members go this past week.

I don't know the particulars. Based on my Facebook feed they include political cartoonist John Darkow. Joe Walljasper, with a history at the paper dating back to 1994, had his final column with the paper published this weekend.

I hope the newspaper's publisher didn't give these employees the same condescending story he tried to give the paper's readers on Saturday night. 

The Tribune, locally owned by the Waters family for over 100 years, sold the paper last year to GateHouse Media. At the time, the Waters family stated that the sale was the best thing for the future of the paper. Enter Rustan Burtun, the paper's new publisher, who was hired from a paper in Juneau, Alaska, in January.

Rustin has been apparently studying up on things we like here in Columbia, and it seemingly didn't take him long to learn about everyone's favorite bur oak tree.

Armed with knowledge he must have assumed we would relate to and a need to defend the layoffs, Columbia and the good people at the Columbia Daily Tribune learned first hand what their new publisher thought about them.

"In 2013, the state champion bur oak tree at McBaine was given what this paper referred to as a hefty dose of TLC. Work included removing dead limbs, fertilization, soil aeration and other remedies intended for older trees," Burton said. "This story seems to have much in common with the state of our local newspaper today."

"Like the old oak tree, we have been fighting battles on many fronts," Burton went on to say. "And like the tree, every once in a while we need a bit of TLC."

Just in case you didn't get the point... "Pruning isn't as painful for a tree as it is an organization, but the result of not doing it can be just as catastrophic. A tree left unpruned can weigh itself down so much that it can break apart when the next storm hits," said Burton. "We understand that you may be unhappy that we pruned some limbs, but we hope you will be glad that we are still here with deep roots.

What a way to let them know you care. 

I'm not going to act like Burton doesn't have a tough job. Newspaper ad revenue is down. I understand, first hand, economics and tough choices. I've been a part of letting people go. It's tough and nobody likes it. But when the revenue isn't there, it isn't there, and people lose jobs.

But these people aren't limbs. I don't know a single one if them, but I know the media business, and I know from what the paper used to be that these people worked their ass off for their community and for the Columbia Daily Tribune. I know they are probably scared to death right now about what they are going to do next. What do they do and where do they go when their whole professional life has been devoted to a craft in less demand?

These are real people. And the fact that their dismissals were compared to yard work is disgusting. The fact that their dismissals were followed up with a column that was half defending the decisions and half sales job was just as disgusting.

I hope Rustan Burton will forgive me when I say that, as a result of these terminations, I just can't get too excited when he points out that, "We are making software upgrades," or that, "Our advertising team has been training intensely on an entire new suite of some of the best digital advertising products in the country."

I'll bet Joe Walljasper and John Darkow and all of the others don't really care, either.

I don't know Rustan Burton or his motivations. What I do know is that some of the people let go were devoted to this city and to their craft. 

If this column is any indication of what Rustan Burton thinks of his people, this city, and the readers of the Columbia Daily Tribune, I hope his stay is short. My advice for him if he wants to be here for the long haul is to think of the people who create his product as real people rather than excess plant trimmings, and to stop insulting the intelligence of his readers. 

Welcome to Columbia, Rustan. 

I'm a former Columbia, Mo. radio host, political blogger and advocate for better media. If you appreciated this post and want to see more like it, please follow me on Facebook here.