Saturday, December 6, 2008

What I don't understand about the newspaper biz

In the recent meltdown of the newspaper business I have been struggling to understand the thinking of those at the top. You know, the boys who run the shops, set the tone, steer the ship, pick your favorite analogy.

Recently, reporters and editors (and ad folks) have been learning whether or not management anticipates a place for them in the new Booth system.

From the reviews I have received there are two separate - and wildly different messages - being delivered.

For employees that the company would like to hang onto, the message is "we want you to stay and as soon as we clean out some of the deadwood I think we're going to do just fine."

For a second set of employees, those the company wants to depart, a curious other message is delivered: "You know, things look very bad, we may already be dead and not know it, there is just no place for you here, yada, yada, yada."

So either we're going to be fine or we're dead reporters walking. Depends on how much you are favored or not.

But to get back to what I don't understand about the news biz of today.

In my more cooperative moments in my final years I once sat down in a quiet office (an office for a time known as "the cone of silence" - a Get Smart reference for those over 50) with the managing editor at the Flint Journal and offered my frustrations and ideas. The biggest idea I tried to get across to him is the idea that it never works to pound a square peg into a round hole. (I even used that cliche).

When you are the boss or editor, and admittedly I only have a couple years of my 30-year career where that was true, the most important thing you can do is to know the talents and limitations of your staff.

Once you know where an individual is strong, the position in which they thrive, the best thing any good manager can do is to turn them loose and leave them alone.

When I was editor of The State News, I once hired a reporter who frequently referred to editors as "goat brained." And because I was the editor that approved his hiring, I was the biggest "goat brain" of them all at that time.

Later when he and I were reporters at the Flint Journal he would often refer to his editors as "goat brained" and I would just smile. Not because I was offended by what he had once called me, but by the realization that he was one of the best reporters and writers I had ever known.

Unfortunately, some of his bosses couldn't get past the idea that the reporter thought they were "goat brains." When I was an editor I couldn't care less what a reporter thought of me or editors in general, all I was interested in was good, clean copy on a story that would knock the socks off my readers.

Good reporters are full of ego, they are aggressive, they are cynical (in a good way) and they have little tolerance for following blind authority or being cowered by it. Many are eccentrics who keep strange hours and have strange habits. That's all a part of what makes them good reporters.

Heck, I once faced off in a newsroom in an angry and public confrontation with the current managing editor. It had to do with a violent disagreement over a story I had written about the in-school slaying of a first-grade girl student by a first-grade male student in 2000. It was a story I had been working on for three weeks and a story that had drawn international attention.

A lot of us were working our butts off keeping ahead of the story as it unfolded and nerves were frayed and tempers were short and frankly the editor just lit my fuse.

I still don't remember what I said to the editor, but one of my friends said I threatened to "kick his..." well you know.

We didn't speak for nearly two years, although I did apologize to him for, well, you know, the "kick your...." remark.

For my money any newsroom that doesn't have a reporter versus editor explosion at least once every two weeks is not worth working in. But as corporate journalism has moved into the room, less of that is tolerated. Too bad too, because it was that kind of passion that made newspapers good and fun to read.

Now we have plastic editors who talk about "writing with authority," and think that passes for inspired leadership. Well, not so much in my opinion. I had a couple of great editors with whom I frequently clashed, but it was never personal and they helped me to be a better writer and reporter and they never took what I said or did personally. Nor did I hold a grudge that they asked me to "get lost for awhile" or other not so endearing comments. It was all part of a creative process.

Realizing that there was little tolerance for head to head battles, in my last years I played a kind of journalistic "rope-a-dope" where I just played the Paul Newman character in "Cool Hand Luke" where I settled into a cooperative and docile position and just did what I was told all the time (well most of the time), waiting, like Luke did in the Newman movie, for my moment to escape.

It didn't result in better journalism, but it did lower my blood pressure a lot.

The point is that some writers love and are good at breaking news, while others prefer the dogged work of investigating a story over a long period of time, and yet others like to dig into a good feature and put together prose that sings. Making a thoroughbred racehorse pull a plow, or a plow horse run a horse race makes no sense, and neither does constantly playing to a person's weakness or making a feature writer cover breaking news.

Unfortunately, the new management style is to force everyone into a newsroom jobs bank where everyone does everything, talents and strengths be darned. It's like a word assembly line and while that works in manufacturing areas, in the field of writing and creating, not as well. Many folks have learned to adapt, but I know that many great investigative stories will not be done because of it.

When the newspaper tires went flat and the first buyout was offered several years ago, a number of talented folks left. But the same leaders who guided the paper to its sorry condition stayed put.

Then last year, another round of buyouts sheared off a larger number of veteran reporters and editors. But yet, the management remained, untouched and firmly in place.

Again this year, another round of buyouts is proposed to further cut those who produce copy and ads for the paper, while seemingly leaving intact much of the upper level management that exists.

Is anyone at Newhouse awake? Or are they simply protecting their "phony-baloney" jobs (a Blazing Saddles reference for those over 45). What is this plan? To limp along for another year or two until more of the top management can retire. Cutting the meat of a business while leaving the skeleton makes no sense, at least not to me.

And if changes in those areas finally come (and I understand that some big management changes may be coming) mark my words, there will be no forced exit for those folks. New places, good places, will be found for them whether they are competent to fill them, or not, and so those who are responsible for some of the current woes will somehow come out on top.

Somewhere, sometime those who have been at the helm should also face the same fate as those they have so poorly led.

But don't count on it.

Managing Editor chimes in on charity story

The Journal's managing editor has weighed in on the controversial charity story about a 29-year-old woman with ten children ( and the nearly 200 comments (95 percent negative) about the subject of the story.

In his skinback, the editor seems to acknowledge that the readers deserved more information on the subject of the story which might have curbed some of the angry reader reaction. He also alludes to the fact that readers, not the paper, dug up the information that should have been included in the original story. He doesn't mention the woman's My Space page, which also outraged readers. (She has a My Space page with a picture of one of her children with the name "baddest b....." next to it. Also, as I suspected, this was not a story initiated by the woman subject of the story.

As always, the paper wants to put a "face" on every story. The reporter searched out someone to tell a charity's story and this was the sad result. It would be forgivable if it didn't happen almost every year. This desire to put a "face" on every story needs a management team that isn't tone deaf to the community it covers or who can't see the obvious questions that will arise before a story is published.

I didn't want comments on the woman herself, and am thankful that I didn't get any, but here is the editor's follow-up to a story that generated so many negative comments that comments to the story were eventually closed. (For the record, I actually agree with the editor that giving is a leap of faith and people in need should not be judged on the lives they have led up to that point. People who need help, need it and we are free to give, or not give, but we are not free to judge.)

Friday, December 5, 2008

Car voucher idea, no conflict of interest there

On the Flint Journal's website is a story about Flint's Mayor Don Williamson sending an aid to Washington, D.C. to convince Congress to send a $5,000 car voucher to every taxpaying household in the country.

Before I get too far along with this, for my many new readers outside of Michigan, you have to understand that Mayor Don Williamson is a very, very interesting character. A long time ago he was convicted of a felony, later made a fortune building car parts and dumping manure on picket lines during strikes at his Owosso company, but somehow later convinced a majority of Flint residents, many of them union workers, that he was the answer to pull Flint out of the doldrums.

The doldrums remain, but Don, in an effort to frighten off a coming recall election, seems to be doing what he does best, buy votes. And as you can see by the picture is planning a run for governor of Michigan. Just when you didn't things could get worse here.

My only beef is that the online story makes not one mention that Don Williamson and his wife own a large GM dealership and would directly benefit from such a voucher program. Shouldn't there have been some mention or disclaimer in a story about that?

I'm not necessarily blaming the reporter because this had to go through an editor or two, but that is a hole in the story big enough to drive a big GM truck through.

Some of the comments in the story refer to those holes. You can read them all here:

Ad artists learn the jobs are scarce at FJ

Artists on the staff of the Flint Journal were hopeful that information from the publisher that "a few" artists would be needed for some minor publications of the paper and advertiser jobs were discouraged to learn last night in a meeting with the art director that the "few" survivors are probably not them.

Many of them now realize it's buyout or nothing. For the two artists hired in the past 3 to 6 months there is just nothing.

Employees with less than five years do not get the buyout if they don't get picked up in the Grand Rapids sweep or if an open position is not found at the Flint Journal.

My question would be why would you hire artists when it's clear that you are going to down size them in just a matter of months.

As someone said in a comment recently, the wonderful Newhouse organization that we all knew and loved has disappeared.

I'm digesting some other information received on the individual meetings that reporters and editors have had with the boss and will post that over the weekend.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Do you know the way to Grand Rapids?

That's a question that many Booth copy editors will be asking themselves soon enough.

In a meeting with copy editors the Flint Journal management today laid out the scenario by which some copy editors will survive (if they are willing to commute or move to Grand Rapids, that is).

Currently there are more than 100 copy editors Booth-wide. I've heard estimates as high as 120 copy editors. The idea is to shrink it to about half of that number all working out of one location - Grand Rapids. One of the shifts being offered to the transplant copy editors is the 1 a.m. to 9 a.m. shift. Imagine that shift with a two-hour plus commute from Flint.

Weekend shifts will be more like 4 p.m. to midnight. There is some work being done on seeing if a four-day work week could help those with the long commute. Like a Wednesday to Saturday or a Friday to Monday schedule.

As one who has worked most of his life at nights, it is not a healthy lifestyle. Just ask any of my three wives. My third wife insisted I move to days before we tied the knot. Maybe that's why that one is lasting.

Local editors will become writers again - well in the sense they will be required to write lengthy memos each day (working later shifts) to tell the Grand Rapids copy desk how they want the pages delivered even though they will NOT get to see them on deadline before they are printed.

Apparently the Booth system wide software is not compatible at each paper so, at least Flint, is out of luck at getting to have any deadline input on how its pages will look before they are printed.

Can you say ludicrous? If this is the great Booth plan to right the ship and if I were giving advice to my shipmates left behind, I would say head to the lifeboats.

A broken business model

Here's a little business problem to figure out:

Your business is failing faster than a first term freshmen, you're pushing many of your most talented employees out the door, your customer base is sliding faster than White Castle hamburger, your product is smaller and provides less content than before and so what is one of the ways you crawl out of the hole?

You raise your home delivered rates for the second time in less than a year.

I'm not kidding, the Flint Journal has told its route drivers that starting early next year (a month away) the home motor delivered rate of $13.49 a month for seven day a week delivery will climb to $14.99 a month.

So is a buck and half the tipping point? Don't know, but it certainly can't help. They must be betting that the number of subscribers who keep the paper will balance out the numbers who will finally say, "enough," and cancel.

So if you are a current motor route subscriber, better to renew for a year now and save $18 bucks. It's not like this area's residents already are crimped on disposable income.

The problem is that ads were once the bread and butter of the news business with circulation just enough to cover the delivery and printing costs. Now, the model is broken and people are being asked to cover more of the direct costs of producing the paper at a time when much of what they are paying for is offered for free online.

Haven't heard if the non-motor rates are also going up, but as soon as I know, you will.

Master Singers do the vehicle code

OK, now I have found my newest, favorite group. The chanted weather forecast (below) was good, but the Master Singers have really scored with this rendition of the vehicle code.

"You're fired," by phone

Paper Tiger No More blogger Jim Carty has posted the following link on his fine blog about the impersonal lay off notices at the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

A total of 27 staffers were called...well, read it for yourself and don't believe for a minute this was done for the "privacy" of the employees.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A weather report as a religious experience

Now here's a weather forecast that will leave you feeling very mellow. This is pretty funny, especially if you stay with it to the end.

Gannett blog has more bad newspaper news

This is another great newspaper blog to check out. Lots of news here:

More from the Citizen Patriot

The Paper Tiger No More blog author has his take on the weekend notice by the Jackson Citizen-Patriot editor.

Read it here:

An idea for the 'new' journalism

Here's a website with a unique idea to do investigative reporting and make money. The idea of citizen journalism intrigues me, especially what the model will be to make money at it.

Well, here's one idea:

Not sure if I think it will work on a large scale, but at least it's a new idea.

Could a mainstream newspaper offer a subscription service where residents could pledge a certain amount to investigate a story or feature? Heck, newspapers are already charging for obituaries, birth, wedding anniversary and engagement announcements. So why not provide a similar model as the one above with daily news reporting? That really involves your readers in a very personal way.

Monday, December 1, 2008

This story got a comment or 113

Wow, the Journal ran a story about a woman who is 29 with 10 children who needs a car. I'm not going to pile on any more than the many commenters did, but there were a number of obvious questions left unanswered in the original story that prompted the nasty reaction of many readers.

This woman and her family clearly need help, but a news story should answer the questions that are so blatantly obvious and which were either not asked or not published in this case.

Here's the link:

(Note: I don't want to turn this into another thread on this woman and her dilemma, so I won't put up comments on her situation. But if someone wants to comment on the obvious holes in the story or the nature and tone of the comments, feel free. I find it interesting that readers raised the obvious questions that were left out of the original story. This note was added December 2)

One paper explains the cuts to its readers

The Jackson Citizen-Patriot editor went a little further than the legally sanitized notice published earlier last month.

Make sure you read all the comments (some of them are stupid, but some are insightful).

You can read the editor's comments here:

Lessons from an early retirement

Today marks a full one year since I walked out the Flint Journal door for the last time. At the time of the buyout announcements last year I made it clear to the editor I was ready to leave, and to leave soon.

Much of that eagerness had to do with my frustration at the lack of clear leadership in the newsroom. The editor, despite his public pronoucements to the contrary, kept his circle of influence and advice very small. He listened to only one or two male editors and the rest of us got a pat on the head for our suggested changes.

That's OK, it's his paper. But he was wrong and the product has paid the price. Too bad his bosses don't see it. And again, just so there is no misunderstanding, this is not about them being bad people, just being bad editors and managers.

I'd had my fill of his incompetence and lackluster leadership and was ready to go. So I was among the first in the newsroom (I think one copy editor left ahead of me by a couple weeks) and among the first ten to leave in the paper.

It's been an interesting year one in which I have learned some valuable lessons.

1.) The good friends I had at the paper have remained good friends in retirement.

2.) There are many more interesting things to do than I could have imagined.

3.) My wife is really my best friend.

4.) I sleep better.

5.) I worry less.

6.) I eat more (that's a bad thing).

7.) It costs less to be retired than to work full-time.

8.) I still love to write and report. The work was never the issue, I always loved what I got to do.

9.) It is true what they say: I don't know how I had time to work with all the things I have to do while I'm retired.

10.) There is life (and a good one) after newspaper work.

11.) I miss many of the people that I covered on my beat. I was never tired of the people I dealt with outside the newspaper office.

12.) My father-in-law was 100 percent correct when he said, "as soon as you can retire, retire."

Now as I approach my 61st year I look forward to the rest of my retirement. My wish is for those facing a break from newspapaer that they will discover the wonderful world of life beyond news reporting.