Saturday, September 20, 2008

Flint's hope in biogas

Just read the FJ business reporter Melissa Burden's report on biogas. It was good to see the Journal commit to sending a reporter to Sweden to cover the issue and, as always, Melissa has done a good job.

One major change in her coverage from past (way in the past) Journal excursions is that she is also doing the photographic work that would have normally been done by a photographer. Clearly, this had to be a sacrifice to the current financial situation, but it's sad that a photographer didn't have a chance to go along and record the trip.

The one question I was left with is the man they (and it looks like he was wired for a television interview) talked to at a gas station said he has used biogas in his "three" vehicles since 1997.

Because I am driving the same car I purchased in 2000 and will likely drive it for several more years I am curious if he has had to recycle cars because the biogas is hard on them, or if he is just a guy who likes a new car every three years.

The story says the biogas conversion costs $4,000 to $5,000 per car and it takes two years to recoop the savings from using biogas to pay for the conversions. If you trade a car in every two or three years, it would not seem worth the money.

Biogas is made from municipal waste, which is converted to an odorless (hopefully) biomethane which can replace gasoline and diesel.

In the story, the man Anders Folkessom, said the range is less than traditional gasoline and diesel engines. What the story doesn't say is how much shorter? If I have to stop every 200 miles to refuel, I'm probably not interested either.

I was also stunned to read that this high tech technology coming to Flint is expected to bring 25 new jobs. Now any new job is great, but all this State and local investment for a company expected to bring 25 jobs seems a bit over the top.

If they're looking down the road at other businesses (the story mentions that some company will need to make conversion kits for vehicles) then maybe it's worth it.

But a 25-job crap conversion plant will hardly replace the thousands of GM jobs that have left for other parts of America or the world.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Doonesbury takes the buyout

Even Doonesbury is in the act. If you haven't been following the recent newspaper angst subject line at Doonesbury, you can at

Here's a link to my favorite cartoon panel, so far.

To see the whole series click on previous until you get to the beginning. It has also continued on a couple days past the above link.

Newspaper fads that came and went

Hey, it's the weekend, let's have a little fun. Readership in freefromeditors.blogspot. com continues to increase.

I just wish my 401k had the same upward graph as the daily readership of this blog. Since March 31 we've had more than 7,000 visits. (By the way, the reader in Estonia keeps checking back). The time people spend on the site is also increasing, so thanks for your loyalty.

On Thursday, I talked to an old friend (actually the person is much younger than I am) but someone I have known in the business for a long, long time. As a frequent reader of this blog the person reminded me of some of the wonderful, if short-lived, fads that reporters and copy editors had to live with at the Journal.

These were the fads of the moments. These were the things that were going to save the newspaper and make us more relevant to the readers. These were the things that were, frankly, one big pain in the behind.

I'm going to throw out a couple and invite you to offer your own. (Remember, when you click on comments you can leave your information safely as anonymous. Not even I know who is responding, although I really wish "inky" would let him/herself be known to me.)

Anyone who has been at the Journal five years or more will remember the metro editor's brainchild to have an "info box" with every story. These little boxes were going to be short, pithy
little factoids that readers could not live without.

They were supposed to be important information that would explain an important part of the story, pull out facts that, if written in text, would be clumsy. In some cases, they actually worked.

There were a number of times that the metro editor caught my wrath after the copy desk would cut the info boxes for space. So a story about, say police salaries, would not include the actual salaries because they had been formatted in the "info box" and then cut for space. That left the reader thinking I was an idiot, which might not be that far off, but for the wrong reason.

Or the phone number to respond to a story about an event that was included in the info box was axed. The metro editor would tell me that he was doing all he could to explain to the copy desk how vital the "info boxes" were in the scheme of things, but what he didn't provide was the actual room in the paper to include them.

I came to really dislike info boxes, not because they were a bad idea. In some cases I actually thought they were a good idea, but because in practice it never really worked or ended up causing more than a few corrections or clarifications.

Then there was another fad about a half dozen years ago, in which the same editor or one like him came up with the genius idea that every name in the paper had to be a person's full given name. That meant Jim Jones, whether that was what Jim preferred or not, had to be written as James E. Jones in the paper.

Reporters often spent long periods of time trying to call government officials or other sources to determine the formal names of people. If Pete Frankenstein spoke up at a city council meeting and you couldn't catch him before he left, you were left scrambling phone books, city clerks records or anything else to make sure you ended up with Peter J. Frankenstein in the paper.

There were no exceptions. If an unidentified body was found it had to be written as John B. Doe in the police blotter item. OK, I made that part up, but it was almost that silly. Actually, I think cop stories were pretty much the only exemptions to the edict.

It went on for a frustratingly long time until even to the geniuses that control these important things, it was allowed to vaporize into Journal history.

Now, it's your turn. There are many more examples of this stupidity and I'm inviting you to submit them to me now. If you prefer not to leave a comment but send them to my e-mail send them to: jlsmediaservices (at) gmail (dot) com. Use the actual symbols for the words in parenthesis, but I don't need the spam by printing the actual address here.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

I'm really liking Ralph Nader

At least this is a funny ad. I'm thinking that Ralph Nader is getting the short end of the stick from the media. We've heard everything there is to hear (good and bad) about McCain/Palin and Obama/Biden. It would be refreshing to maybe, just maybe, get a new perspective from a guy who has really been fighting for consumers for a long, long time.

If our system continues to lock up everything for the two major parties nothing will ever change. There's that word again.

For a little humor, follow this link to Ralph Nader talking to a parrot.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A high, hard-one pitched by Newhouse

This memor was sent to employees of the New Jersey-based Star-Ledger newspaper, which is otherwise known in Newhouse circles (the chain that owns the Booth newspaper group and the Flint Journal) as the "Mother Ship." This one is going to leave a mark.

Sent: Tuesday, September 16, 2008 1:01 PM
Subject: Update from Arwady

To: All Star-Ledger Employees
From: George Arwady
Date: September 16, 2008

Re: Update

As I have previously told you, there are three conditions that must be met in order for The Star-Ledger to remain in business under its current ownership. Although we are making progress toward meeting two of our three conditions (the Mailers have a ratification vote scheduled for September 22), we still are far from an agreement with the Drivers? union.

Accordingly, since it is doubtful that the Drivers will ratify an agreement by October 8, 2008, we will be sending formal notices to all employees this week, as required by both federal and New Jersey law, advising you that the Company will be sold, or, failing that, that it will close operations on January 5, 2009.

It is most unfortunate that we have to send out this notice, but the Drivers have left us with no choice.

George Arwady, Publisher

Let Nader debate

Look, the two-party system is a mess. It's clear that big money controls both parties and it doesn't help that other voices are kept out.

What does it hurt to let third party candidates into the fray? So I'm on board the "Let Ralph Debate" bandwagon.

You can get on the bandwagon as well at:
What are the two major parties afraid of when they lock out dissident voices from the debate?

A year ago today (or yesterday)

It was a year ago today, or yesterday if you go by days of the week rather than dates, that the publisher offered the generous buyouts that started the clean out of the "characters" from the Flint Journal.

The Journal loves anniversary stories so here is mine.

Late last week, we learned that a second round of buyouts may be offered as soon as next month. From what I understand these will require folks to be gone by the end of the year, but that could change.

And now I'm hearing reports that the New Jersey newspaper (George Arwady) Star Ledger is talking about closing or a sale in the near future. (More on that later).

For some of us, the buyout was a copper parachute, for others a brief life ring to the next job, and for others they are still waiting on that "next thing." Some of them, I know, miss the rough and tumble of daily reporting, but fully understand that under the current leadership those days were behind them whether they were at the Flint Journal or out.

I grew up in a home where my stepfather's job at Lockheed Aircraft Corp. in Burbank, California, was always at risk for layoff. I know the toll that took on my stepdad always wondering if Friday was his last day (he ended up retiring at 70 after nearly 40 years on the job).

So my heart goes out to the folks living through this again at the Journal this year. Many of them are young folks who have the same love of journalism that brought many of us into the profession when we were their age.

Knowing how bright they are I can only assure them that whatever happens, they will succeed.

Currently they are limited by what, in my humble opinion, is poor management and weak leadership. Someday they will discover what their real potential is under effective and strong leadership. But for now, I know it must, well, suck.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Talking about football, for a minute

Joan and I are still drying out from sitting at the MSU vs. Florida Atlantic game at Spartan Stadium Saturday.
Even before we left Lapeer, Joan was urging me to reconsider and stay home and watch the game on television.

"But I already bought the tickets and besides, it can't rain all day," I told her.

Wrong. It not only rained all day, it got harder as the day went on. But she was a good sport and didn't whine and sat in the upper deck shrouded in a poncho for three hours. Finally, when the score was 17-0 in with five minutes left in the fourth quarter, I looked at her and offered an escape. She gladly took it.

The score didn't change and we didn't dry out until late Saturday night. On Sunday, the rain continued, but we didn't stay home to watch the hapless Detroit Lions.

Instead we went to an RV show (yes, we may be the only people in the country looking at buying a gas guzzling truck and Fifth Wheel recreational vehicle) to look at the new models. So the fundamentals of our economy are strong.

As far as the Lions, I'm not even concerned about them. I have adopted the Buffalo Bills (it's my second home after all) and really have better things to do with my time than be concerned with the semi-pro team that occupies Ford Field.

I am going to purchase a short series of tickets for the Detroit Red Wings hockey team (Gordy Howe series - 9 games) for the coming season.

Monday, September 15, 2008

What will Booth consolidation look like?

I'm going out on a limb here. Pretty dangerous place for a guy as big as me, but let's do it anyway.

When the editor talks about consolidation and having too many editors, it is apparent that Booth (or Newhouse) is looking to save money by merging operations. One of those could obviously be running the copy desk for the eight Michigan newspapers out of one, maybe two, locations.

While that might work to produce a common Nation and World page, it is hard to imagine (and as I said before I could be wrong) how this would work for local news. One of the strengths of any copy desk is the knowledge (many copy editors are former local news reporters) that the editors have of local figures and places. Without that background it is hard to imagine how a copy desk, say based in Flint or Saginaw, could competently edit copy from Jackson or Kalamazoo. More mistakes, more loss in credibility, something the paper simply can't afford now.

The Journal always had a strong sports and features presence. Sports seems to be intact, I still see a commitment to local coverage there, but the features pages have all but disappeared. Since Cookie (and we're praying for your quick healing) left there is a marked reduction in a focus on a strong local feature section. I used to love reading the Journal feature section, I'm not even sure if there is one now. That could either be consolidated out of one location, or eliminated all together under the new plans.

Readers need to watch for a drastic reduction in what is called the "news hole." Most newspapers when I started 30 years ago used to have a pretty healthy balance between ads and news. 70/30 or even 75/25 percent news to advertising was the norm. Watch for a cutback to a 50/50 balance, which will make the paper much thinner that the skinny version you get today.

How does that save money? Couple of ways. Less space for news, less need for more reporters or reporters to work overtime to fill the "hole." Even larger than that is the cost of newsprint, which like everything else has skyrocketed in recent years. Smaller paper, less newsprint, more savings. Can't say as I blame them here.

In fact, my preference would be to go ahead and shrink the news hole, but with the same number of editorial people, that would reduce the daily pressure and allow for more long range projects.

If the Journal cut out a niche as the crusading watchdog, people might tolerate a day or two of meager coverage to look forward to a monster breaking expose on say, the Mayor being secretly involved in a non-profit group trying to bring street racing to Flint. That wouldn't be so bad if there wasn't some suspicion, or even evidence, that the city has been doing the infrastructure work at taxpayer cost to make the thing happen. That's just one example.

For newspapers it's fourth down in the fourth quarter and your team is down by 5 points. You either kneel down and surrender or throw the Hail Mary pass! Throw the Hail Mary, go for broke (literally).

Of course, I could be wrong.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

A good back and forth on the subject of the Flint Journal

A recent comment thread on a previous post has provided an interesting commentary on the current issues at the Flint Journal. Except for the first comment from “Cat Paws” the exchange between me and the second anonymous commentator has been civil, the kind of discussion I would like to promote here.

Anonymous said...
The Flint Journal is a trickle of warm pee these days. What was once one of the best papers in the mid-west back in the 1940-50s is now a PC self serving product that like almost every paper today is not near worth the delivery price. What is there in each days paper that would make me care to support it? Nothing !Cat Paws.
12 September, 2008 22:50

Jim of L-Town said...
I think, like a lot of newspapers, the Flint Journal just lost its way. Management forgot that people wanted hard-hitting, incisive breaking news coverage. They wanted to be able to pick up the paper and find out what happened in an accident they drove by the day before.

When they saw police tape around a house they expected that the paper would have the full story the next day and be confident they had the real story of what happened.They wanted reporters to attend city council, school board meetings and from them be the watchdog for the community.

At those meetings reporters mingled with government officials and citizens and learned what was going on in that community.Some new age editors arrived and decided what people really wanted were more soft features, more feel good articles about, well you name it.

They discouraged meeting coverage, they dragged reporters off the street and back into the office where they could be watched and now they are reaping the results.They decided that dramatic and disturbing photos were offending and not attracting readers. They were wrong.

On top of that the Internet exploded and started providing a free outlet (if often very wrong and irresponsible) for the kind of news people wanted. So in a panic they fired up an online version of the weak coverage they were giving in the daily and it hasn't worked, so far, to bring back readers. They try video, interactive polls, anything they can but to use a very common phrase today, you can put lipstick on it, but it's still a pig. No offense intended to pigs or anyone else.

13 September, 2008 07:14

Anonymous said...
The Journal is still doing a good job of providing the crime news and what's going on at City Hall and in communities. Granted, with fewer reporters, there isn't as much of that as in the past, but if you've been reading the paper, it's been getting all the big stories.

The last few Sundays have been particularly good with stories about who owns land in Flint, the Land Bank and about how a school district wants to put advertising on buses.

More breaking coverage includes having a good story about the Secret Service going to some body's house to investigate bomb threats.

Tell me what other news organization around the area would do all of that? The real problem is advertisers are giving up on the print product and taking there money to the Internet, but the business-model there doesn't generate the heaps of cash it did because there's so much to choose from.

That plus the fact that Michigan economy is in the toilet basically means it doesn't matter whether the paper is any good. That's the tragic part because the people who stayed have been working their butts off for the past year doing a good job with what they have, but now face more monumental change.
13 September, 2008 13:59

Jim of L-Town said...
I would agree that for the small staff that is left they are doing as good a job as possible.

It's simply not possible to do all the things that were done in the past because ownership has stripped the newspaper of an adequate number of reporters to do the job. I'm an old dog. I still think the beat system, where one reporter covers a specific area of interest provides the best coverage for the paper.

It's simply not possible to do that with the numbers of reporters on hand now. The ownership made a decision to make money, by wrecking the thing that made the product. It just won't work.

People expect more, not less for less today. There is a limit what any human being can produce and produce well. From my perspective, the paper is concentrating on quick turnaround stories that, yes, are good news stories. But where is the in depth coverage of the inner workings of Flint City Hall. What reporter is covering the weekly circus that is City Council and the Mayor. Who is looking into and requesting documents on the Mayoral appointments, their backgrounds, etc.?

Those kinds of investigations take time. That is impossible when there are assigned quotas for stories for reporters. From where I live, I really don't care who owns land in Flint. So I have to admit I did not read that story.

Where is the detailed coverage of the townships, cities and villages? Reporters have become taxicab drivers, sent anywhere and anywhere an editor needs them at any moment to fill a hole. That is the antithesis of good beat reporting.

Are there good stories in the Journal? Sure, I've acknowledged a number of them. I understand a reporter will be traveling to Sweden for a business story. That is great, that's the kind of commitment and investment that should pay dividends for readers.

My only point is that when I started there, I made sure we didn't miss any accident in which there was a significant injury. I made sure we didn't miss any assault that put someone in a hospital. We covered every armed robbery, etc.

I'm not blaming the reporters that that is not happening today. I'm blaming management for trying to save money by ruining the product. Not going to work.
13 September, 2008 21:01

Anonymous said...
Note: due to some editing (at the poster's request) I had to post this under anonymous. I posted this, but the words below are completely that of the poster. I will respond to it in the following entry. Here follows the info:


You make great points about the beat system its benefits. But you exaggerate the extent that people are general assignment. Nearly every veteran reporter there continues to cover beats and cover them well. Take higher ed, Flint schools/politics, business, cops/courts, Genesee county, southern Genesee County, northern Genesee County/Lapeer County - they all have done some great beat reporting lately.

And your point about the Flint City Hall coverage is a little off. The Journal's current reporter is breaking a lot of news. Take the coverage of the drag strip craziness. The Journal also hasn't missed the fact the feds have been busy with the super chief and his son and has followed all the dramas with the police officers who can't talk to the press.

While more resources to investigate City Hall always would be helpful, I think given the circumstances they've done well. The terrible reality, here, is the owners just can't afford the Cadillac paper Flint had 10, 20 years ago. The market doesn't support it. The paper hasn't made money in years and now with the nationwide economic crisis in newspapers, Newhouse's other properties can't prop it up like the past.

I'm not happy with the current situation and I wish the paper had more resources. The area community deserves it, but the financial situation that is forcing this upcoming round of buyouts, I believe, will transform the paper far more than what happened last year.

But I don't think this is being contemplated over greed. It's being contemplated over survival.

(Anonymous) 9/13/08

Just for information to all posters: If you send me a post that includes both on-the-record and off-the-record information it is very difficult and requires some crazy electronic gymnastics to perform. I really only have the choice to accept or to reject an offering, so when I get one that has personal information you don't want printed it is really, really difficult to post. Better to send two posts one with the good info and one with the background. FYI.
14 September, 2008 09:03

Jim of L-Town said...
Thanks for you post. Listen I don't have all the answers, but I have a lot of opinions. So I always hold out the possibility that I am wrong.

We don't really disagree. My only point is that someone who has a beat that covers all of one county and a third of another is not a beat reporter, that's a general assignment.

People who have a beat covering a specific area like courts and cops should not be doing stories (routinely) that don't involve that beat.

My only other point is that seeking survival is actually seeking defeat, in my opinion, of course.

When you fall off a ship, is it better to tread water and hope for rescue or see a light in the distance and swim for it? For me I would rather die trying to swim for help, rather than treading water and hoping that I would be found.

To me what the Journal is doing is treading water in hopes that a ship will come by and save them or that a mountain will grow out of the bottom of the ocean and lift them out of the water. From my view, which is admittedly now from the outside, I would rather see the company pour money into the product, make it something people HAD to have then continue to shrink it down, making it even more unappealing to readers and advertisers.

None of this, my friend, is a criticism of the reporters, or frankly many of the editors, who are there, but of the short-sighted management that continues to try to bleed its way to health. Didn't work for George Washington and I don't think it will work for newspapers.

But I certainly respect and welcome your point of view. I'll try and tone down the strident language for awhile. I had lunch with a few of my fellow buyoutees the other day and the one thing we all agreed on is that we want the Flint Journal to survive. For one thing, we all have a lot invested in it and for the other we have a lot of friends who are still there. Keep coming back!
14 September, 2008 09:12