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.