Monday, July 31, 2006

News Judgment Takes The Weekend Off at New York TV Stations

Newscasts For The Journalistically Impaired
In just a short time of channel surfing last night, I was witness to a panoply of sloppiness and cluelessness on New York newscasts even worse than usual. Chalk it up to the summer heat, or perhaps the usual crews on holiday. Either way, it was bewildering and disappointing at the same time.
Exhibit A: WPIX-Channel 11 had a report on the New York Fire Patrol possibly being disbanded. Left out of the three-minute piece, however, was any real explanation of what the Fire Patrol does.
According to the patrol's union, it is underwritten by the insurance industry and responds to "commercial fires in the five Boroughs and risk their lives to minimize and prevent adverse consequences of commercial fires."
But that was not made clear in the report, which heavily relied on union mouthpieces. The package was more of a press release than an episode in explanatory journalism.
Over on WWOR-Channel 9 (My 9 News), a graphic for the piece on drunk-driving, Jew-hating Mel Gibson was plastered with the misspelled "Anti-Semetic Remarks."
Meanwhile, Chris Wragge on WCBS-Channel 2 led off the first segment of his sports wrap-up show with a package on the Yankees. Fair enough. But then he goes to a break and teases the next segment filled with footballl, including his non-news interview with Giants' star LeVar Arrington.
Gone begging: only the Mets, you know, the team with the best record in the National League who just happened to sweep the Atlanta Braves on the road, the first time that's happened since 1979.
Wragge would do well to his show should be full of sports not himself.

The Conundrum of Travel Guides: Obsolete Before They're Printed

During my family's recent travels to the Canadian Rockies, we relied mainly on two books, the Moon Handbook and the Dummies Guide to the region.
The former was more comprehensive and knowledgable than the latter, which took an overly liberal scattershot approach to the region -- even for dummies.
But both had the dubious distinction of having information -- particularly about pricing -- that was wildly out of date.
Of course, that is par for the course for most guidebooks. The Moon book was published in 2005, for example, which meant that most of the information was revised and verified (hopefully) in 2004. When both books tell you that a Canadian parks family pass costs $89 CAD, but you wind up shelling out $123.50, it's a bit of shock to the system.
However, the Moonies and Dummies and their ilk can't be faulted if prices change, roads close and attractions go up in flames after they go to press. Nonetheless, in this age of instant information, it shouldn't be so hard for the publishers to attempt to update some of the most salient info on their Web sites at least once a year.
Moon has a good overview of its Canadian Rockies book on its site, but with prices from the outdated book. This is especially important when Moon and Lonely Planet, its main competitor, may go 2-4 years between editions on its titles.
This is just the task to sic a few interns on, not to mention the guidebook authors. To show how it could be done, Wizard Publications, the small publisher of four excellent Hawaii guidebooks, has an update page for each of their refreshingly honest and spot-on titles. "We are the only publisher who updates our books every time we reprint them," they boast. But when that's not possible, they turn to the Internet between editions, such as the latest one for the Ultimate Kauai book. No surprises, just a lot of aloha.

Never Far From Home: You Never Know What'll Pop Up On Canadian Cable Systems

Follow The Bouncing Satellite. Want To Find Your Favorite Network Program North Of The Border? Good Luck.
Some much-needed R&R was recently completed in the Canadian Rockies. A swell time was had by all, as would be inevitable in such a setting.
We did have a little downtime early in the morning and late at night when the tube beckoned beyond the Canadian channels. Fortunately, most cable systems obliged, though in some rather unusual ways.
The usual superstations were often represented, including WGN-Chicago, WSBK-Boston, KTLA-Los Angeles and WPIX-New York, which allowed me to watch hometown traffic updates in Calgary. Ooh-wee.
But then it got a little funky when it came to network affiliates. In Calgary, we saw Seattle stations. Up in Banff, it was Spokane. Notwithstanding the fact that Alberta is in the mountain time zones, an hour ahead of Washington state.
For a one-nighter in Revelstoke, British Columbia, we were all set for an hour of Gordon Ramsay turning chef wannabes into mush on "Hell's Kitchen." Only problem: It had been on three hours earlier, as the cable system there -- which went on the fritz in the whole city later that night -- brings in Detroit stations.
Back over to Jasper, it was Seattle for the nets except for Fox, which was represented by WFXT in Boston. Say what?
Yeah, I know, you're not on vacation to watch TV, but still. Seems there's a method to the madness in a way.
That would be the Canadian Radio-and television Telecommunications Commission, which has a list of stations that may be retransmitted.
Supposedly, cable systems can have a second network feed on a digital discretionary basis, whatever that means. But that doesn't quite explain how a system would choose stations from three time zones away exclusively.
Can anybody help out a wayward Yankee on this one?

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

What The Puck? Los Angeles Times Latest Paper To Freeze Hockey Coverage

Lord Stanley Spinning As Number-Four Sport Falls Off The California Coast
The latest cost-cutting at The Los Angeles Times has put the sports section there in the penalty box. reports writers assigned to The Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Mighty Ducks will not go on most road trips. Also, hockey columnist Helene Elliott becomes a general columnist and won't write her weekly league roundup.
Instead, the AP and stringers will get to shoulder the hockey burden. So, when the nation's fourth-largest newspaper decides to curtail coverage of a still-major sport, what hope is there for smaller newspapers? Actually, little or none, as they don't make road trips either.
Hey, at least the Tribune gang in Hollywood is actually covering the teams when they're home. The New York Times has cut back to one hockey writer who covers the Rangers, although even that team was subject to road wire coverage occasionally.
As for the New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils, who between them have won seven Stanley Cups, they might as well have not even existed. Rare was a reporter sent even to a home game. That the Times relied instead on the AP was apparently viewed with little embarrassment on West 43rd St.
And with word that the Times will shrink in size by 2008, cutting the newshole by 5 percent, expect a lot more of the same.

Friday, July 14, 2006

A Wee-al Big Story: When The W.C. Isn't P.C. and Another Loo-Loo Of A Toilet Tale

Keeping The Place You Pee Ad-Free
The Daily Mirror in the U.K. offers up this advertising nightmare. Thousands of urinals and toilets destined for the new Wembley Stadium were 86'ed after it was found the manufacturer's name was on the front. Apparently, that's a big no-no. If you have to go, there can't be a logo.
And is it art, or a place to take a leak? An American tourist chose none of the above, so now a Dutch McDonald's needs to install urinals that are a touch, um, less whimsical.

Westchester Recovers From F2 Twister and So Does The Journal-News

Editors Finally Realize They Badly Misplayed The Story The Day Before
When a rare tornado tears up your backyard, it's time for the hometown newspaper to spring into action. Such was the case for The Journal-News, in Westchester County, N.Y., albeit a day late.
Today's package, including most of the front page and four inside pages was a thorough breakdown of the devastation, the aftermath and what comes next. It's a fairly thorough and workmanlike rendering of the surprise twister that had winds of up to 157 mph.
The only problem: A lot of what's in today's paper should have been in yesterday, as I've pointed out.
Sure, every news outfit plays catch-up, but not when you should have been owning the story from the get-go, and missed crucial plot lines, such as the state trooper, whose car was tossed around by the wind and then slammed upside down. A seatbelt meant he escaped with minor injuries. The car was totaled.
The trooper's story made it to The New York Times yesterday. But that thread was absent from The Journal-News, which gave the impression most of its hurricane coverage Thursday emanated from its Harrison headquarters.
Fortunately, Phil Reisman filled in the blanks on the trooper story, and today's photos were exponentially superior to yesterday's efforts, though that was mostly the fault of the layout and the scant space afforded the story Thursday, rather than the shooters themselves.
One hiccup today: A sidebar that led off "A 264-acre Thornwood property owned by the Legionaires of Christ, a Roman Catholic order, was not spared by the twister."
Which implies it was supposed to escape the tornado's wrath, but the Lord above didn't get the memo. Maybe next time.
Hopefully, The Journal-News could use the tornado coverage as an exercise for how to mobilize for crisis coverage on the day it happens, not the day after. In other words, more news, less journal.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Tornado Sweeps Away News Judgment At The Journal-News

Westchester Twister Fails To Rouse Gannett Suburban Mediocrity Out Of Its Journalistic Slumber
Residents in the tony suburban towns and villages of Westchester County, north of New York City, are more accustomed to reading about tornadoes than being hit by one.
So imagine their surprise when a funnel cloud made its way from the Hudson River near the Tappan Zee Bridge and across the middle of the county, leaving a lot of damage, rattled nerves but fortunately no injuries to speak of.
Sounds like a great story, right? Wicked weather that rarely hits the Northeast tears through the area without warning. Perfect fodder for the local newspaper to own this puppy, with lots of great photos, anecdotes and graphics. Then again, the newspaper is The Journal-News, the perennial underachiever in metro N.Y. journalism (full disclosure: I worked there in 1988-89 and left for greener pastures on good terms).
This is what the paper does, or is supposed to do, cover the big stories in its backyard, the kind everyone will be talking about tomorrow and which might actually spur higher sales the next day. At least on the former account, it fumbled badly.
True, most of the front page was devoted to the storm, but two of the three photos were shrunk down to the point of being irrelevant. The two stories on the front page should have jumped inside to be accompanied by a spread of sidebars and photos to showcase the damage. A double-truck spread in the middle -- make it up to the advertisers later, heaven forfend -- would have been appropriate for starters.
Instead, on A6, there is the continuation of a reaction story with two color photos, while a whole page of coverage on A8 had its three images in black-and-white. A dozen reporters were credited with working on the "coverage," yet The Journal-News could only muster the space for three stories and a tiny sidebar, along with a timeline for previous tornadoes in the lower Hudson Valley. A dozen reporters and scant evidence that few of them made it out of the newsroom.
If they had, maybe they would have gotten a good sidebar from County Executive Andy Spano, who related how a state trooper's car was picked up and spun around, as reported in The New York Times, which deigned to put the tornado story on page B3 and strangely, given the paper's heavy suburban readership, didn't even tease it on the front page. However, its photos of the worst damage by Alan Zale outshone those by three Journal-News photographers.
And the newspaper industry wonders why readers are abandoning them in droves for the Internet -- where the newspaper didn't fare much better. The Journal-News is exhibit A.
Now some of you in other locales might think I'm overreacting. Sure, it's a tornado, but nobody was hurt except for some roofs, trees and power lines. These things happen all the time, Steve, so chill.
Exactly, they happen all the time, except in places like Westchester. When a tornado passes less than two miles from my home and causes damage on streets I travel every day, I want to know anything and everything. So do my friends and neighbors.
Local TV stations understood this need. For example, Fox 5 had four reporters and a weathercaster up in the area doing live shot filled with lots of compelling anecdotes and tidbits that The Journal-News barely touched on, if at all. Case in point: the most severe damage was at a California Closets store in Hawthorne, where the walls collapsed.
The reaction story on the front page led with a quote from a woman who was interviewing for a job at the store and was trapped in the building, but escaped without a scratch. There's one quote from her. One. Doesn't that episode warrant further examination? We heard more from the woman, Tara Kelly, on TV. Why not The Journal-News?
That there's no good answer for that question has too often been the case at the newspaper, where the overlords are more content to kowtow to their Gannett chieftains whose priority has long been its shareholders rather than its readers. That's why the ads -- including the one unconscionably resting at the bottom of the front page -- are in color, while photos devoted to the lead story inside are not.
Perhaps not so coincidentally, Gannett released its second-quarter earnings yesterday -- down 8.3 percent. Among the reasons: higher newsprint costs.
If that's an excuse for why The Journal-News came up short today, it's a lame one, just like its tornado coverage.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

No Big Love In Borneo: A Beastly Fine For Bigamy

Our Asia desk is working overtime to find the most important news of the day. To wit, this dispatch of a Malaysian man caught on the wrong side of a marriage certificate and fined by a tribal court one buffalo and pig.
The buffalo we can understand, but the pig? Harsh!

Monday, July 10, 2006

Bridgeport Becomes Urinetown: Local Paper Gets Mayor To Pee In Cup

Who Was Grandstanding More, Mayor Fabrizi Or The Connecticut Post?
To say that Bridgeport, CT, is a city with a lot of problems is like proclaiming there are a lot of holes in Swiss cheese.
It's painfully obvious that the city, halfway between Stamford and New Haven saw its better days vanish long ago along with a lot of its viable tax base.
After all, this was a city that installed speed bumps in some of its neighborhoods, so drug dealers would have a harder time jumping on I-95 if they were chased by cops.
The same ignominy applies to City Hall, where Mayor John Fabrizi was once quite the cokehead. He came clean last month in a tearful appearance before the editorial board of the Connecticut Post, and said he had not partaken in the nose candy since 2004, and offered to take a drug test "anytime anywhere."
OK, the Post said last week, how about Thursday? To which Fabrizi replied, how about right now?
And off he went with the Post's managing editor to a lab. The next day, results showed Fabrizi's piss was clean even if his reputation was not.
So, the Post confirmed the mayor can legitimately say "Just say no." But at what cost? The Post effectively acted as judge and jury. Fabrizi may have put out the offer, but the newspaper didn't have to be the one to act on it.
Fabrizi no doubt knew what the results would be and effectively manipulated the Post into turning a contentious political issue into a media sideshow.
Then again, the Post was a willing accomplice. The unquenchable thirst to find more dirt muddied the judgment of its news chieftains, who instead got caught up in their self-aggrandizement to forget a Journalism 101 maxim -- you report the story, you don't become the story.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Chef On A Shoestring Hangs Ira Joe Fisher Out To Dry

Oversized Weatherman Gets Dissed For Dessert On The Saturday Early Show
Guess who won't be getting invited back to the Saturday Early Show? That would be cook/author Nancy Silverton, who was frantically whipping up a three-course meal in the seven-minute Chef On A Shoestring segment.
Normally, these are tasty if innocuous affairs, with one of the hosts kibitzing with a star chef -- who usually has a cookbook to push -- on how to concoct three dishes spending no more than 40 bucks.
At the end, the other host, along with normally jovial weatherman Ira Joe Fisher, come on camera to help sample the wares. Fisher is, um, plus-sized, if you will, and is always eager to plunge into the gastronomic bounty that awaits.
Today's show was no exception, as Silverton described dessert, a blackberry-yogurt soup with vanilla ice cream and blackberry compote. So far, so good.
Fisher comes in for the kill as host Tracy Smith is helping Silverton prepare dessert. She asks Silverton about the ice cream:
Smith: "One scoop or two?"
Silverton: "I think I'll do one today" and then turns to Fisher on her left, "I don't think you need two, right?"
To which the abashed but poker-faced and ravenously hungry Fisher replies: "No, but let's have two."
Of course, Silverton spoke what many people think, but this is TV, after all.
If you'd like, you don't have to blame Silverton, although where would be the fun in that?
Instead, point a finger at the segment producer,who had Silverton outside grilling burgers and being consumed by the ensuing smoke when the live piece started. Normally, the guest chefs will start a dish from scratch, start cooking it and whip out a finished version prepared earlier.
This time, Silverton was frantically tending her beef and Smith had to coax her away from the flames. She was game but frazzled.
Too many distractions set her up for a fall, and left her eating crow. And she probably didn't save a piece for Ira Joe.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Sun Sets On Foreign Coverage In Baltimore, While Newsday Has A Bad Day

Shuttering Foreign Bureaus: Cost-Cutting Because We Don't Care About The Rest of the World?
If you need to know what's going in Patchogue and Hicksville, then Newsday has been the place to turn. But Newsday was never really a suburban newspaper. It was a newspaper that just happened to be in the suburbs, in this case Long Island.
Its ambitions were always much grander, and that's why it put together a formidable Washington bureau, an office in Albany usually crammed with more reporters than the Times, and a more-than-respectable foreign report often filled with courageous enterprise reporting.
But that was a long time ago, or so it seems.
The Washington bureau has been dessicated since Newsday was acquired by Tribune as part of the Times-Mirror deal. Albany is but a shell. And now the remaining foreign bureaus, in Beirut and Islamabad (the last of six), are on the way out, a prospect that Newsday left to the wires. "The Tribune-wide staffing changes will not reduce our commitment to providing an enterprising foreign report," said Newsday editor John Mancini.
And if you believe that, Newsday has a bridge in Brooklyn that you might be interested in purchasing. Oh, I forgot. The paper got rid of most of its reporters in the city.
Now Newsday will have to rely the wires and a team of Tribune correspondents, mostly from the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, who will now be writing for the whole chain.
This is the same newspaper where current foreign editor Roy Gutman won a Pulitzer in 1993 for his unrelenting series of reports about human-rights atrocities in Croatia and Bosnia that were chilling in their detail, and remarkable given how they were written in a war zone where Gutman was constantly in peril.
More recently, former foreign editor Dele Olojede won a Pulitzer last year for his unstinting look at Rwanda 10 years after the genocide there. Tellingly, Olojede left Newsday in 2005, taking a buyout rather than reduce his commitment to foreign news, as the parent company embarked on yet another cost-cutting spree.
That's all gone now. Newsday continues its evolution as a shell of its former self. "I don't know what's going to replace them. The paper thrived on that," Gutman told the Baltimore Sun, another Tribune paper which is losing its last remaining foreign bureaus too (Moscow, Johannesburg), while its Jerusalem reporter will be absorbed into the Tribune foreign network.
Sun Editor Tim Franklin says the amount of space devoted to foreign news won't change. It just won't come from Sun reporters. The paper had eight bureaus just a decade ago.Franklin did everything but launch into "Tomorrow" from "Annie" as he spun these latest developments, proclaiming: "We'll continue to have a storied tradition of foreign reporting - just in a different form."

But Sun foreign editor Robert Ruby knows better. As he told the AP, the bureau closings were a "very sad development for the newspaper."And for anyone who cares about the news business.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Adam Pascal and Darlene Love Don't Get Any Facetime Amid Fireworks

Meanwhile, the GOP plays it safe at Ford's Theatre
If you watched last night's NBC telecast of the Macy's fireworks, it was a pyrotechnicapalooza, to be sure.
But lost amid the boom-booms was the fact that for the VIPs and the folks watching at home, there was a live orchestra and singers, including Syosset's own Adam Pascal and that ever-shimmering Crystal, Darlene Love.
At various times, they cut to an insert of the orchestra playing at Waterside Plaza, so you could see it was live, not Memorex. And we also had to watch too many shots of people watching fireworks.
Yet, at no point did we see Pascal or Love sing. No doubt, they would have appreciated a little face time with America. Instead, we got what amounted to a voice over from them. Their agents might need a good talking-to right about now.
And was the sound a little bit out of whack with the photos, or was Liza Minnelli lip-syncing "New York, New York" for the broadcast's finale?
Later on, ABC aired the previously taped "An American Celebration at Ford'sTheatre," with the Dubyas front and center guffawing and clapping with the rest of the tuxedoed crowd. Did anyone happen to notice any known Democrats during the audience cutaway shots? And was it just me, or is GOP-gun lover Tom Selleck, last night's emcee, looking more butch than ever? Just asking.

N.Y. Times' Debt Story Owes Us More Of An Explanation

Should We Be Shocked That People Owe Money and Collection Agencies Want That Money? The Horror!
On the front page of today's New York Times is a piece that goes across the bottom of the top fold headlined An Outcry Erupts As Debt Collectors Play Rough
Is this news? Collection agencies aren't exactly known for playing patsy with deadbeats, but now they apparently have been getting a bad case of the nasties.
I guess the Times felt that it's readership in Scarsdale and Short Hills, not to mention Riverdale and Murray Hill, needed to be reminded that not everyone is like them, and, jeepers, aren't able to make their credit-card payments every month.
The nub of the story, by hyper-prolific Sewell Chan, is actually contained in the 19th paragraph:

Robert J. Hobbs, the deputy director of the National Consumer Law Center, an advocacy organization based in Boston, attributed the rise in complaints about abusive collection practices to three broad trends: the rapid growth in the number of collection agencies, the tightening of bankruptcy-protection laws last year and the record level of consumer debt, now totaling $2.2 trillion, complicated by rising interest rates and stagnant personal incomes. Identity theft and Internet fraud are also cited as factors.
All well and good, assuming you jumped to B4 to read it.

What would have been a lot more helpful, not to mention, gasp, more explanatory, is for a breakout box that explains what abusive collection practices are, and the rights consumers have under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. In other words, what you can do to fight back if you're the victim of what Chan spends the better part of 1,500 words talking about.
Or maybe Joe Sexton and the well-compensated denizens on the Metro desk simply assume that if you can plunk down a buck for the paper, you and bill collectors shall never meet. How blithe of them to make that assessment.
But beyond that value judgment it's a matter of good journalism to fill in the blanks. First you say that complaints about collection practices have soared, but there's virtually nothing about how to fight back.
Time to empty the news vacuum on West 43rd St. and suck in some of the real world.