Monday, December 31, 2007

Not all the blame is on editors

My friend Todd has found some sad news out of Ohio and Kentucky to end the old year. Clearly newspapers are the buggy whip industry of this new century.
Two newspapers, the Cincinnati Post and the Kentucky Post, which serve the northern Kentucky and Cincinnati metropolitan area are closing their doors today. At least one of the papers has been in continuous service for 126 years.
While I believe editors could do much to stall or arrest the downward spiral by giving readers the breaking news they really want - and not the cultural crud that a few members of focus group tell them - clearly there are bigger forces at work.
Todd sent along this link, which is sad, but excellent reading for anyone concerned about the future of the home delivered newspaper:

If I don't post again today, may you all have a Happy New Year (editors included!) and may 2008 be a kinder and gentler year for everyone.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Merry Christmas

There will be a short hiatus from blogging.

Christmas is here, family and travel beckon.

From my family to yours we wish you a Merry Christmas and may you realize the joy of the reason for the season.Also remember that in giving to those less fortunate we receive the greatest gift of all.

I'll be back late next week, but before New Year's. Feel free to post away. If I get a chance and there is an Internet connection I can pirate, I'll check in.

Making my case

The Sunday, Dec. 23 Flint Journal is a perfect example of what I wrote about in a previous post.
Feature stories dominate nearly all of the front section, including a main piece of art about a sports story on a basketball player.

The feature story on domestic violence is a good story, but is it more newsworthy that the traffic deaths of two local men on Saturday? That story, the first actual news story in the paper can be found on page A-9. That's a long way to have to look for news in a newspaper.

Perhaps the biggest news atrocity in the paper is the nearly two-page feature on a tired old feature, dreamed up by a clueless editor, called "Making a Difference." The Sunday feature on the feature series starts on the front page and then takes up the entire second page of the newspaper is a rehash of people who have already had their 15 minutes of fame.

Trust me, the reporters at the paper despise doing these stories and they take away from the actual reporting that should be done. But one editor believes this feature is a vital part of the newspaper. Not so vital if you take into account the current financial state of the paper.

Please leave me a comment if the reason you buy the Flint Journal is to read the weekly "Making a Difference" feature.

Good reporters will find these stories naturally as they work a beat, but this feature is based on a quota schedule and is a forced effort to find good news. It also gives the editor a guaranteed piece of art and story for the Friday newspaper.

So literally the front page is devoid of any breaking news. So is page 2, page 3 and any other page until you get to A-9. Not much for the now $2 you must now spend for the Sunday paper.
Subscribers should demand the Flint Journal, and all daily newspapers, return to the primary mission of finding and reporting breaking news and investigative pieces. And when they have breaking news, put it up front where it belongs.

Just because an editor doesn't like breaking news, or that it gets in the way of a planned layout, doesn't mean that it shouldn't be covered or displayed properly.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Sometimes no news is hypocrisy

In the 1990s, the daily newspaper I worked for published an editorial criticizing the entire state of Arizona for not observing the Martin Luther King holiday.

It was a well written, concise logical argument on a hot story at the time. What the newspaper left out of its editorial is that no one at the newspaper observed the holiday either. In fact, Arizona eventually adopted the holiday, but the newspaper still does not give the January day off to its employees.

In September the Flint Journal, in Flint, Michigan, offered all full-time employees a very generous buyout. It is the reason I am now retired. But what is interesting is that the newspaper, which has covered buyout news from large and small companies, as well as government agencies, has ignored the news of its own downsizing.

Two local television stations carried the news with only a minimum of comment from the newspaper, which did not authorize any employees to discuss the buyouts publicly. A strange restriction from an organization that demands openness from everyone else.

So here is the story that has not yet appeared in the Flint Journal:

FLINT - In a last ditch effort to stop the financial bleeding, the Flint Journal has offered most full-time employees very generous buy outs aimed at significantly reducing the size of the newspaper staff.

Plummeting ad revenues have resulted in unprecedented losses at the Flint Journal and other daily newspapers.

The publisher met with all the newspaper staff in mid-September and announced that anyone with two years or more of full-time employment would qualify for a buy out consisting of four weeks pay for each full year of full-time employment.

A fifth week for each year was available for any employee who declined the newspapers offer of continued health insurance.

For employees over 50, health insurance benefits were offered to age 65 and for employees under 50, the health benefits were offered for two years.

Deadline for employees to take the buyout was Oct. 29. The previous year the paper offered a buyout of two weeks for each year and only eight employees accepted the offer prompting the new round of buyouts.

While the paper's editor had anticipated 16-18 editorial employees to take the buyout, more than 40 took the deal, leaving the paper in the strange position of having to rehire new employees to replace the many veteran reporters and editors who are leaving.

Flint Journal wide the numbers were more than 80 employees who will be leaving between now and July 1. A little more than 200 employees were eligible for the buy outs.

Some of the Journals most recognizable bylines have left or will leave the paper soon. The entire business desk will leave the paper by early 2008.

The buyout period was also an opportunity for the editorial management to clean house of folks it no longer wanted in the newsroom with some reporters and editors strongly advised to take the offer even though they wanted to stay.

While the newspaper agreed that its lifetime employment policy remained in effect, it was made clear that reporters, advertising and other business employees could be reassigned anywhere in the chain of newspapers following the buyout period.

New reporters and employees hired for the newspaper would be hired under a lower pay scale with different benefits.

Many of the departing employees were grateful for the generosity of the offer and wished the remaining employees well in the effort to right the ship.

In explaining the buy out, the publisher said the paper's condition was dire and that drastic actions were need to save the paper.

With the loss of so many reporters, those remaining have been told they will continue to cover the beats they currently report on as well as picking up additional beats from the departing employees.

The Journal's position is not unlike that of most major daily newspapers in the country which are financially bleeding from the new dominance of free online news web services.

(Now that's the story that should have been written by the paper, but to date is still not published.)

Sunday, December 16, 2007

A chance to vent

OK, I've had my chance to vent about editors. (And I'll do so again)

But now it's your turn. I'm hoping to collect a large number of the most egregious mistakes that happened after reporters turned in a story. In another words, those mistakes that were avoidable, frustrating and editor caused.

I'll even entertain the stupid questions that editors frequently ask reporters. Example: "Was the bus moving when it hit the man?" (An actual editor question)."What time are the Fourth of July Fireworks?" (Yes, another real editor question)

My answer: "When it gets dark."

Feel free to comment anonymously, but it might be a mistake to post from work. As we all know, freedom of the press and speech does not mean you will not be punished for exercising it, especially at a newspaper. So hold your fire until you are home, but then fire away.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Clueless bank robber leaves big clue

OK, we'll give the bad editors a break today. One of the fun things I did during my newspaper career was to start and write a weekly column on stupid criminals. It started out as "Night Beat" and later morphed into "Off Beat" when my shift changed in the late 1990s.
You can still find the column, which is now written by the Flint Journal's Bryn Mickle at, click on the Flint Journal and then look through the offerings for columns and click on Off Beat.
One of my favorites was the story provided by Flint police detectives about a man who robbed a local bank branch. Apparently before leaving home the robber scribbled his note on the back of a piece of paper and headed to the bank.
Once at the bank he said nothing, but slid the note to the teller who handed over the cash and the man fled leaving behind the note.
When police retrieved the note from the teller they turned it over and discovered the note was written on the back of a copy of his birth certificate, which led them directly to the suspect.
See you soon.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Putting the dead in deadlines

One of the great myths of newspaper journalism is how technology would speed up or improve the production of the newspaper.
As one who spanned several generations of new technology: Hot type, IBM Selectric (the worst type setting system every invented), crude computer word processors, ATEX and later Macs, the one that provided the greatest flexibility for updating and providing the freshest news in the newspaper was, ta-da, hot type.
Yes, the older technology allowed afternoon newspapers (the ones I'm familiar with) to update news and freshen its pages up to nearly noon (before I came around that deadline even extended into the early afternoon).
Now the dirty little secret is that after 8:30 a.m. at most afternoon papers there is little or no updating and for morning papers, the news is 8-10 hours old by the time it gets to your doorstep. Most of the news in your afternoon newspaper is from the previous day or the day before. If you don't believe me go to your newspaper's website and see what stories in the newspaper you received at home that day were on the paper's website early the day before. Sometimes the day before that.
Newsrooms now plan for Sunday front pages, weeks in advance. Long, boring features with beautiful stunning pictures now replace what in earlier days would be the breaking news of a Friday night or Saturday or a focused rehash of the major story of the week before.
But those long, boring features allow editors to layout the newspaper (editors love pretty pages) days in advance and then they pray that nothing major will happen that will make them cut a hole in their front page artwork to squeeze in a real news story for Sunday.
Often you will find major fires, fatalities or murders stuck in a page 2 hole or inside so as not to break up a potentially award-winning layout for an editor.
Newspapers would win back readers, especially to weekend papers if they would actually treat Saturday and Sunday like a regular news day.
The daily I worked for used to staff a regular reporter on Saturday and Sunday. The weekend shift was part of their regular responsibilities. They developed news sources and provided actual news for Sunday and Monday editions.
In later years, staff members were assigned to work on Saturday on a rotating basis, which didn't allow for the development of sources and the Sunday shift was sometimes used to punish a reporter that an editor wasn't particularly happy with.
More later on how editors rotate beats.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Real people, NOT

One of the great fads in newspaper journalism is the desire to have "real" people inserted into all stories.

That's real, as in reality television real, or in real life, not real at all. Editors love to send reporters to the nearest mall, college student union or street corner to get comments on some breaking event from a "real" person.

Back when Magic Johnson announced his AIDS affliction, I was sent to a local mall to sample opinion from "real" people about what they thought about Johnson's announcement. The first problem was to explain to people what I was asking them about.

First, many of them hadn't heard the announcement (they were at the mall for gosh sakes) so it took some time to kind of run down what Johnson had announced and what it was I was looking for. Then there were those few folks who didn't know what AIDS were (this was the early 1990s) and so the lesson continued. All this to get the predictable "I feel very sorry for him and I wish him well," said Marge Firchberger, of Atlantis, Michigan. The quote is meaningless and trite, but the editor is ecstatic because suddenly the story has a real person in it.

There are thousands of examples of this. Reporters don't like to do these stories and frankly, readers should be insulted when they read these lame quotes. Don't blame the folks who provide the quotes, they are just being polite to a local reporter. Besides, who doesn't want their name in the paper even if it is about something for which they have no expertise.

But in the hallowed editorial meeting rooms this is what passes for outstanding editorial decision making. All a national story with no local connection ever needs is for some poor slob at the mall to add his two cents. It's frustratingly stupid, but you'll read an example of this in almost every newspaper, every day. Readers deserve better.

Later we'll talk about "real" people in election coverage. That's really a hoot.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

There are editors and then there are hacks

First of all, I don't hate editors. I don't hate anyone.

Most of the editors I have known have been decent, kind people who are kind to their children and pets. My beef with many editors is not the kind of people they were, but the kind of editors they were.

In my 30 year newspaper career I had dozens of editors, some better than others, but several who were horrid. What follows is mostly about them.Not wanting to embarass anyone I will not name anyone in this blog, but if a few look in and recognize themselves, so be it.

There were those select few who knew how to edit and how to manage reporters. Specifically, three of my favorite editors were men and three were women, so there is no issue of gender here. In fact my all-time favorite editor was a woman many years younger than I, so it's not an age thing either.

Like Stonehenge and the Bermuda Triangle, the promotion of most editors is a mystery. Editor jobs are rarely posted and circulated among the newsroom. One day there is an opening, the next someone is beamed up out of the reporting ranks into an editor's chair.

If a government agency chose its leaders that way, a good newspaper would write about the secretive and unfair process. Editor hires, in most cases, is not about who was a great reporter and writer, often it was the opposite.

The best editors in my career were both great reporters and writers, but most great reporters and writers don't really want to spend their days reading the writings of others and mangling them. Hence the dearth of what I would call excellent editors.

Some bad reporters escape to editing positions to save a newspaper career in danger because of their ineptness at reporting or their desire not to work so hard. No doubt some of it is a power trip.

Reporting, especially that of breaking news, is difficult and stressful work. Many first and second line editors became editors because they didn't like or were not good at the down-and-dirty work of real news reporting. I have known more than a few editors who became editors with only a minimal level of real reporting experience. They were usually the worst editors.

Reporters, like good soldiers, respect those who have been in battle and who don't ask others to do things they themselves would not do themselves.Too many reporters who did short stints as political or government reporters have become editors without first spending four-five years mucking it up with police officers, firefighters, ambulance crews, lawyers and judges.

When bad editors worked as reporters they avoided stories where they had to approach angry and grieving relatives. But as editors they are quick to send the people they supervise into difficult circumstances with little or no knowledge of what they are asking.

Once good reporters and writers complete the hard work of gathering information and putting it together into a story, it falls to these hacks to put their inexperienced spin on it. Trust me, as much as the public dislikes the finished news product many times, we reporters and writers sometimes recoil and react with horror when we see what has become of our stories.

It is always important to remember, editors are people who didn't meet with the sources, didn't go to the scene or meeting, didn't make any of the follow-up phone calls, but despite all that, still believe they know more about the story than the person who did all those things. It is simply a display of incredible arrogance.

They take the writer's final product, rearrange, remove quotes or important paragraphs and basically change the meaning of the original work. The best editors, and as I said I have had a few, take the time to work with the reporter and change copy only when it is required or when there is an agreement between reporter and editor that the changes improve the story.

The best editors often help out and make a phone call or two to help in the process. A few of the great editors I had chipped in and did a little reporting of their own. Many editors would benefit from being assigned to cover a meeting or story occassionally to keep them sharp.

Too many hacks move around paragraphs, leave off important facts and quotes and basically change the meaning of a story to conform with what they want, and not what actually was.

Those editors are like the parent who lives through the athletic, musical or academic success of their children. They are nothing more than annoying stage parents armed with an expensive computer. If these hacks would stick to fixing grammar, spelling and news style - and we all need help with that - and leave the creative style and substance to the writer there would be no beef.

But for hacks, sitting at their desk all day simply repairing a mistake or two doesn't feed their need to feel important. What does feed their need to feel important are meetings. Long, boring meetings where nothing is accomplished except they get to run them and feel important.

"Feel" being the operative word. In the end, good reporters who are out on their beat will recognize and find stories of interest to the community they report on. Hack editors will only find and recognize stories of interest to themselves. This is why, in my humble opinion, newspapers are in the poor shape they are in today.

Reporter driven newspapers are interesting, informative and well-read. Editor driven newspapers are "award-winning," but ultimately boring, unread and likely failing.
I'll have more to say on journalism contests later.

My favorite "Shoe" cartoon had a great quote from the Professor who was talking to someone on the phone: "I'd like to do a story of interest to my readers, but first I must finish a story only of interest to my editor." That sums up what many good reporters feel.

Again, so as not to be misunderstood, editors are a vital link in the news gathering process, that is why it is so frustrating that so many of them are uniquely unqualified for the job.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Free at last, I'm free at last

For 30 years I've chased police cars, ambulances, fire trucks and politicians during my newspaper reporting career.
With my retirement Dec. 1 I will finally be free of the stupidity of editorial meetings and decisions, but I will undoubtedly still have a hunger to write. Thus this blog, which will provide a meager outlet for me to reach family, friends and those stuck in the morass of daily reporting.
Feel free to weigh in, criticize, lambast, insult and denigrate, you will join a long line of folks who have already done so. The only difference is I won't get paid for it anymore.
I'm a Christian who believes in the Golden Rule, so I won't fire back.