Friday, July 17, 2009

Walter Cronkite, RIP

Walter Cronkite died today. One of my recollections of Walter Cronkite was the tears of relief and joy he shed the day Apollo 11 landed on the moon.

New wine blog to premiere

When talked about bringing bloggers into the fold of its new (now delayed) launch, most of us assumed they were talking about experienced (well, as experienced as the new technology allows) bloggers.

The first A2 blog I've found - a wine blog - appears to be a local Ann Arbor wine expert who is apparently going to learn how to write as the site comes on line.

"It's Just Grape Juice," created in July 2009, appears to be the "wine blog" for Clearly the author is a wine expert, but the long rambling sentences and large blocks of type don't bode well for a very readable blog.

It's hard to criticize this because this is not someone I know or have ever read before, but a good editor would have been helpful in this effort. Although my blog criticizes editors, it is not because editors are not important, but because they are crucial parts of the process. That's why good editors are so important.

To be clear, it is not my intention to run down this blog or the expertise of the writer, it is clear that he knows his stuff. My point is that he has been thrust into a position of writing about it, and despite what most people think, there is a certain amount of skill and expertise involved in written communication, just as there must be in selecting a fine wine.

A competent editor would have punched up the lead of this blog, shortened the sentences and paragraphs and tried to focus the wine column in a crisp, precise way. When there is a worry about what "new journalism" will bring, it is precisely this kind of writing most of us are talking about.

Personal pronouns become troublesome in writing and there are plenty of "I's" in the wine column. Before gives the keys to the car to these bloggers, maybe they should hold a few Journalism 101 classes.

Communication, even in the new age of technology, is going to require decent writing skills.

And one other part of this new blog raises another concern. Apparently the author of this blog is a principal in a company that owns or operates a series of restaurants. Not saying he will, but will the writer slant columns to favor or benefit his own company and who at will monitor that?

Crain's on delay

Crain's put up a story on the last minute launch delay for

A more positive view of

Here's a more positive view of presented by a Poynter columnist. But he also points out that the online news organization will enter a pretty crowded field in Ann Arbor.

This was written before the effort was given the yellow caution flag today and the Monday launch delayed.

Not so fast on

Looks like a squirrel took a bite out of the acorn.

Three months ago, announced its bold new venture. Today, it announced, not quite so fast. The big day, Monday, July 20th, has now been moved to Friday, July 24th.

This can't be good. You've been hyping this thing for months and now on the verge of the launch, you announce that the weather forecast is no good and you'll have to delay.

Probably better not launch if it was going to be a disaster, but you have to wonder what they have been doing for the past three months that leaves them unable to go. I'm blaming the captain of the ship.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The stages of newspaper grief

Thanks to a reader found a new online site - - with some interesting stuff. Found this item about the stages of newspaper grief right off the bat.

You might enjoy their Declaration of Principles.

Colorado Springs newspaper outs plagiarist

This is really sad. A journalism intern, no doubt trying to make a good first impression, draws on the best to spice up her coverage.

A few years ago the Journal caught a reporter making up sources for a series of feature stories and quietly let him resign. It never did bother to tell its readers that they had been duped. As I recall, that happened during the editorship of the current chief content leader of

So kudos to the Colorado Springs paper for doing the right thing.

Latest installment from on

Former FJ editor Tony Dearing defends the new model in the ongoing "new media" series at

A quote from me is also included at the end of the story:

Retired reporter Jim Smith, 61, of Lapeer, questions the wisdom of using “old newspaper people, from failed newspapers at that,” to create a new sort of journalism. Smith was a reporter and columnist at The Flint Journal from 1989 to 2007. He has followed the development of on his blog about journalism, “Free from Editors: Editors, and how bad ones are ruining the newspaper business.”

“Do you think the captain of the Valdez gets a new ship after he runs the old one aground?” he asked rhetorically, referring to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, a devastating human-caused environmental disaster.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The latest from

Training for the bloggers for the new site that goes up Monday got its own post there today. Check out the hand held video interviews with two bloggers. Hint: Buy a tripod!

Also, if anyone knows how much they are paying the bloggers who will be contributing to the site, please post it here. I'm curious how much these folks will be making for their efforts.

The great oracle: My initiation at the Pontiac State Police Post

In my previous post on sources, I forgot one of the funny recollections of my career at The Oakland Press.

When I started at the OP in early 1984, one of my jobs was to drive around the county checking in with various police departments every morning. One of those stops was the state police post in Pontiac.

The desk sergeant would sometimes send my up the short flight of stairs to ask two detectives if anything happened overnight. At first these were quick little visits with polite, short answers.

As the detectives (Garrison and Bower, I believe) got to know me the conversations got longer and sometimes I even left with a little news. About six months into the visits, one of the detectives glanced at the other and said, "Do you think Mr. Smith is ready to be introduced to the oracle?"

Now I was confused and ready for a joke. One of the detectives stood on a chair and looked out a high window onto the roof of the building. "The oracle says, 'yes,' " the detective said. In the days and weeks that followed the detectives would stand on a chair and consult the 'oracle' before giving me the latest news.

Finally, I asked what the heck they were looking at out the window. One of the detectives invited me to stand on the chair and look out. What was on the roof was the skeleton of one of the biggest catfish I had ever seen. Apparently thrown on the roof, it had rotted away but became the "oracle" of Telegraph Road.

Not hilarious, but perhaps the way a couple detectives dealt with their stress and a way to find a connection to a then young reporter.

Sources: The good, the bad and the ugly

If an old school reporter had such a thing as a tool box, in it you would find a notebook, a good pen and a Rolodex full of sources. Today, you would also have a computer, a cell phone, a camera and maybe a Flip video camera.

But of all my tools, I always valued my Rolodex files most. Over the years, I developed hundreds of solid sources. It happened through hard work, luck and a lot of patience.

A few years ago, the editors at the Flint Journal asked all members of the staff to throw their source numbers into a common Rolodex so other reporters could access them. They demanded we give up all our inside and cell phone numbers for our sources.

Fat chance. Most of the veteran reporters picked up a phone book and entered phone numbers that anyone could already look up on their own. I never even kept my best source numbers on my desk or computer. They were at home or in my car.

Give up my best tools, not on your life. One time, an intern (the same one that didn't want to bring me and a photographer coffee when we were freezing our tushes off at an armed standoff) asked me to give her an introduction to one of my prime homicide sources.

Letting down my guard just a little, I told her to call and tell the detective I asked her to help the intern. Biggest mistake of my career. What this intern did was violate the trust of the homicide detective and printed personal information on a case that was not yet public information, which got the detective in serious trouble with her chief.

When the detective called me, she was not a happy camper and asked that I step in and get a correction or clarification on how the information was obtained. The editor in charge of the intern refused and incredibly backed up a green-behind-the-ears intern who I knew had disregarded the warnings of the detective and printed information she wasn't supposed to.

All of this was my fault for giving the detective the impression that she could trust the intern. It was the first, and only time, that happened. After that I never vouched for anyone that I really didn't know. Certainly, not an intern. That one incident closed off a great source that had provided me and the newspaper with inside information on serious crimes in the city for years.

One of the things I tried not to do was become drinking buddies with my sources. First, I don't drink. Second, when you are in a bar setting, or informal setting, guards are let down and, in my situation anyway, I didn't feel it was very professional.

Only on rare occasions did I visit with sources in anything other than a professional setting. As I described to others, I am friendly with my sources, but not really friends. Now that I am out of the business, I have reconnected with some of those folks and we are now friends.

The reason for the separation was that I never wanted to be in a position where I knew some negative information about a "friend" and then had to make the uncomfortable decision how to report it.

One of the people I was friendly with was a former prosecutor in Genesee County. I was working on a case involving a drunk driver who had his case mysteriously "lost" on the prosecutor's desk. This after the drunk driver told police he was good friends with the prosecutor and that the case would never see the light of day.

Insiders gave me plenty of ammunition and through my efforts the case was revived, but in my questioning of the prosecutor he became so angry he never would return my calls after that. Especially after the critical story ran on the missing drunken driving case. Another television reporter, who had a close, social relationship with the former prosecutor, wouldn't touch the story with a 10-foot pole. That's why I tried not to get too close.

There's a give and take in the news gathering business that involves delicate negotiations and compromises, even if journalism professors like to pretend it can never happen. Especially in police coverage, there is the balance between what I want to publish and what cops want to release for publication.

My sources knew if I was writing in my notepad, they were on the way to being quoted. If they asked me to put down my pen for a minute to give me some "off-the-record" or background information they could be assured that it would not show up in print until the reason for keeping it off-the-record or background had evaporated.

I never wanted "off-the-record" information that I could never use. I wanted background information that could give context to a story and that, at some future time, could be released to the public. My job, I used to tell police officers, is to tell stories to our readers, not just know them myself.

Often through negotiations, you could get the information you needed on the record simply by explaining how you were going to present it.

One of the toughest "Off-the-record" stories I ever worked on was the 1980s case of a man who threatened to blow up Oakland County public buildings if he didn't received $60 million from the county. Operating under the name "Shiva" the man negotiated with the county through classified ads in the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press.

An Oakland County Sheriff's detective took me into his confidence because he knew that reporters from the Free Press and News were already tracking the case. Before he gave me the information he said I had to promise not to report anything until they had a chance to track down the suspect.

Before I made such a promise, I called my editor, who said if there was no other way to get the information, make the promise. The detective laid out the case, how it was progressing and kept me up-to-date on when the ads would be appearing in the classfied sections.

This went on for six months. My editor at the Oakland Press told me to stay on top of it, and that he didn't want to get beat by the Free Press or News. So every few days, I would check in with the detective to make sure I wasn't missing anything. I even called during a vacation just to make sure.

Finally, one day I called (on a Friday) and the detective said they had pretty much wrapped up the case and were ready to charge a postal worker with the terrorist extortion plot. I appealed to him to let us run the story. "Check with the prosecutor, if he doesn't care, go ahead," the detective said.

So I called the assistant prosecutor, but waited until late on Friday afternoon to hopefully keep my competition from finding out in the event the prosecutor agreed to let me publish the information.

To my surprise, the prosecutor was agreeable to letting us publish the information as long as we didn't identify by name, the suspect until he was arraigned on Monday. Then my heart sank when he said, of course I'll have to call the other reporters at the Free Press and News to let them know also.

My hope was that they wouldn't be in on a late Friday afternoon. So I worked well into the night polishing a piece I had been writing for six months for a big Sunday splash (this was back in the day when you could actually write a Sunday story on a Friday and not plan it three weeks or a month in advance).

A final read through, a final editing and the story was ready for publication on Sunday. Now, I just had to sweat out the weekend to see if the prosecutor had made contact with my counterparts at the Free Press and News. He didn't. I kind of felt bad for them, but not much.

One of the reporters put a line in their follow story the next week that said "the Oakland Press violated an agreement not to publish information on the story...." which was a crock.

That story happened because I had a good source in the sheriff's department who was looking out for me and our paper. Any reporter will tell you that source development is about relationship building and trust.

Burn a source once and you'll not get a chance to burn them again.

News organizations have gotten nervous about unnamed sources, for good reason, but sometimes sources have a lot to lose by exposing themselves and so often good news stories and tips come from inside whistleblowers who would be fired if they were found out.

To all those great sources I interacted with for 30 years. Thank you. Your secrets are forever safe with me.

Interesting reflections over on Inside Out

For your morning reading pleasure there is a good column (post) about the changes at the Muskegon Chronicle over on Inside Out. Lots of good links to follow as well.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

What we miss: Each other

When I talk to my former newspaper colleagues we agree on the one thing we all miss. The daily interaction with each other.

Not that we all thought alike, or agreed with each other. Far from it. What is missed is the excitement of working on stories, sharing ideas, war stories and working together to produce a product that was here for a few hours and then on to the next edition.

Sort of like an intellectual disposable drink cup. There is nothing like the rush we got when we clamped onto a good story and refused to let go. Admittedly, most good reporters are adrenalin junkies. That's what makes them a lot like police officers and fire fighters.

Off blog, I've been exchanging messages with a former colleague, a photographer, about all the nasty and depressing things we witnessed in our careers. Bodies, wounds, tangled metal, mutilated lives and destroyed homes.

After nearly 18 months off the job, I have decompressed, others are in the process of decompressing. Where police officers, fire fighters and medical responders get counseling help or debriefings provided by enlightened companies, reporters who experience some of the same stress from dealing with tragedy get zip, zero, nada from their employers.

There were a few times in my career that I went to my editor (a good one, no longer employed) and told her I need a few days or weeks off from dealing with the endless string of deaths and injuries and she would take me off the death rotation. As a former police reporter herself, she got it.

Editors who rarely, if ever, dealt with the dead, dying or their families, thought nothing of asking reporters to do that very stressful and difficult work with no concern for what it was doing to their psyche. They were too busy worrying about whether desks were too messy to worry about what was going on with the mental well being of their employees.

At the same time that fewer reporters are available to do the difficult work they have to do, they are also dealing with reduced salary and benefits. A combination surely designed to increase unhealthy stress for editorial employees.

One of the things we could always fall back on was our friends in the newsroom. We could laugh together and grieve together, but with the wholesale layoffs and buyouts those support systems are largely gone.

Over the years, we exchanged tacky souvenirs from trips taken. We always looked for a cheap trinket on our trips to bring home and share with our friends in the newsroom. I still have my refrigerator magnets, Eifel Tower pencil sharpener, and miniature Roman Colisseum in my box of stuff I took off my desk during my last week. At Christmas we exchanged small gifts in groups.

During my time at the Oakland Press, I started a collection of snow globes that came, thanks to my colleagues, from all over the world. I have a box of more than 100 of them in my attic, most now without water. People loved that collection, but it eventually had to be taken home, an edict of the "clean-up-the-newsroom" crowd.

At the Flint Journal, there used to be a "ghoul pool" in which some reporters (I never participated) bet on which celebrities would die in the coming year. Sure it was ghoulish, but it was a release from the pressure and sadness we faced daily.

There were also betting pools on the Academy Awards and the NCAA Basketball Tournament. I also never participated in these, because technically they are illegal and I didn't want to be in a position where I might have to write a story about a gambling issue outside the paper while violating the same law inside it.

The annual "Bounce the Chicken Day" celebration, which included foods specifically related to chickens and eggs started when a goofy press photo of a rubber chicken being bounced up and down on a blanket made it to Page 1. Every year after that, on the same date, there would be a chicked to be found somewhere on Page 1 and a huge banquet of chicken and egg related food in the newsroom. It was great fun and it too was a release from the seriousness of what we did.

One of my favorite copy editors (although she will find that a surprise) started an annual pool and contest to pick the winner on American Idol. She made up a stage, complete with American Idol logo, and photos of the contestants on sticks that were eliminated each week with the vote.

The stage included a desk with the three famous Idol judges as well.

We looked out for each other. My buddy Kim, the one whose life I ruined by hiring him as a reporter at The State News back in 1978, asked an intern to bring me and a photographer a cup of coffee during an long running armed stand off in north Flint.

The intern, a woman, bristled at the suggestion that she should be an "errand girl" for two men just because we had been outside in below zero temperatures for more than four hours. Kim explained to her that reporters look out for each other and if he hadn't been busy on rewrite, he would have brought it to us.

In the end she didn't like it, but she dropped off our coffee. Maybe later in her career she figured out what Kim was saying. There were many times that I took coffee or relieved a reporter on a crime scene so they could get out of the cold or get a meal. It's just what we did for each other.

Heck, the bosses would cringe if they had known it at the time, but we often bought and delivered coffee to the cops and fire fighters who were stuck out in the cold with us. It was just a human thing to do. Didn't hurt when it came time to get the story either.

Once, when we had an intern that was pretty full of himself, we organized a "hat" day. The intern, thinking he looked cool, was wearing a snap brim fedora everyday like he was some character out of a 1930s "Front Page" flick.

So we all got together and agreed to wear different kinds of hats so when he arrived at the office he might get the hint. We had people wearing football and hockey helmets, every manner of ball cap, crowns, newsprint hats, stocking caps, cowboy hats (me). When he walked in the room, he noticed the array of hats, smiled and asked, "is this about me?"

We all got a good laugh from it and the young man didn't take himself quite so seriously after that. A newsroom that isn't fun, isn't really a good newsroom.

Tomorrow: A word about sources.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Courtroom fights are becoming a habit

For the second time in less than a month, a fight broke out Monday in a Genesee County courtroom. It appears the only camera on hand belonged to ABC's affiliate, WJRT-TV, Channel 12. You can see the report and video here.

MLive has a story here.

I'm now officially older than dirt

Back in my police days, we used to find any excuse to have a little fun off duty. To make me really feel old current Atherton (California) Police Chief Glenn Nielsen, who started out as a police explorer scout when I worked there in the 1970s (1972-1977), sent along some photos saved by another former scout and later police officer Ron Levine.

The pitcher is me. We had a picnic and were playing softball at the old Sacred Heart campus (we believe) in Atherton.

Tom Gantert's post finally up at

Another apology from the Content Czar as it relates to the Tom Gantert post which we posted here a couple days ago.

If this keeps up, they might want to rename the site "" There actually is such a site and it seems to be exactly what it says.

Here's more over at Arborupdate.

Letter typos bring an apology

Haven't seen the letter, so don't know how bad it was, but if the Content Czar's response to a post is any indication it must have been a bad one.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Second Internet start-up newspaper in Denver

Ex-staffers of the Rocky Mountain News are trying again to fire up an online newspaper, this time hopefully to make money.

What he said

Reflections of a Newsosaur expresses again what I tried to briefly express in the obituary to my father-in-law.

Michael Jackson was a great entertainer, but he was a flawed and pitiful person. A month before he died some of the same people who are now idolizing him were making jokes and ridiculing him.