Saturday, March 31, 2007

USA Today Website Snowed Under By White Space

For a publication that redefined newspaper design and practically goaded newsrooms out of their black-and-white slumber, it's disturbing, to say the least, to see what USA looks like nowadays, or more specifically, doesn't look like.
All of its section fronts, especially the home page, reek of wasted opportunity. There are headlines running down the right side and not much else. Not only that, they are presented without rhyme or reason. On Saturday, right underneath word that former NYC Police Commisioner Bernie Kerik rejected a plea deal for various and sundry felonies, was word that swimmer Michael Phelps notched yet another gold medal at the world championships.
Further down were items about Serena Williams winning another tournament, and circus clown Bello pleading for the return of his mini-bike. Both were followed by at least two inches of white space. Gannett may be up to its penny-pinching, but is there no one around to throw in a blurb?
To find out virtually anything about any story on the home page, you would have to click on a headline, which then makes the site a must-avoid instead of a must-read for anyone with limited time or short attention span. Meaning, it's doing exactly the opposite of what it's intended to do.
USA Today became the master of effectively packaging news -- attacking the sanctity of stories that jumped to another page and offering us "news you can use" in effective, attractive packages. Sometimes, the journalism, indeed the very substance of the product fell victim to the style.
But those problems have long since been addressed, and gone are the days when you'd go bonkers when your hotel gift shop didn't stock The Wall Street Journal or New York Times, and you had to settle for the paper left on your doorknob.
Now its Web site must play catch-up in a bad way.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Ben Schott Gets Bitch-Slapped By New York Times Book Review

Almanac Guru Denies Plagiarism, Paper Kind Of, Sort Of, Begs To Differ
You can fool all of the editors some of the time, but you can't fool all of the readers.
At least that's what appears to have happened to publishing darling Ben Schott, he of the "Schott's Almanac" and "Schott's Original Miscellany," which have sold millions of copies worldwide.
An editor's note in yesterday's New York Times Book Review noted how several readers had pointed out "similarities" in an essay he wrote for the March 4 Book Review about mistreating books.
Several of the super-literate out there noticed thematic "similarities" to an essay contained in Anne Fadiman's "Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader."
Granted, it wasn't a word-for-word lift, but the opening paragraph of Schott's piece has an eerie familiarity if you know Fadiman's work.
Schott denied he had ever read Fadiman, whose essay was also brought to his attention by a Book Review reader. He blames the similarity on the "coincidental result of the narrowness of the topic."
Talk about a euphemism.
True or not, it was enough to give Book Review editors the heebie-jeebies.
"Had editors been aware of Fadiman's essay, the Book Review would not have published Schott's."
Which presumably means that Schott, who has been doing some freelance work at the Times, is now able to consider assignments from other publications.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

CNN Caught Reporting John Edwards Scoop That Wasn't

The competition among the cable newsers sometimes has a casualty: accurate reporting.
Just before the John Edwards news conference about the recurrence of his wife Elizabeth's breast cancer, CNN ran a headline on the network, its Web site and headline service that appears on that he was suspending his campaign while she was treated.
Which would have been a great thing to be in front on were it not for the fact that Edwards told the nation that just the opposite was happening. That meant CNN had to shuck and jive in its online version.

"The campaign goes on," John Edwards said at a news conference outside the couple's home, contradicting earlier media reports to the contrary.

Those reports, of course, included CNN, though you wouldn't know that from reading that dispatch.
Of course, it was easy to assume Edwards would be stepping aside given that it was unlikely he'd hold a news conference just to let everyone know his wife was all right. And he had canceled a campaign appearance yesterday in Iowa.
As the Des Moines Register notes: "Many political observers speculated this morning that John Edwards would at least suspend the campaign, but those reports proved incorrect."

Ah, speculation. Assumption. Guesswork. None of which have any place in journalism.

No matter how intense the 24-hour news cycle, speculation can't take the place of accurate reporting. Even if it was relying on outside sources, CNN should have used its own formidable resources to first verify the news. You need to get it right before you get it first.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Honolulu Star-Bulletin Dumbs Down Its Pages; Could Be A Dumb Idea

Or, It Could Be The Only Way To Get People To Read Something Besides the Ads and TV Listings. Sigh.
Stop scolding. Yes, know full well newspapers are in a cage match with the inexorable migration of their readers to the web.
The Star-Bulletin, the scrappy afternoon (yes, a few still exist) paper in Honolulu (lucky stiffs) has taken a scythe to the conventional wisdom about newspaper layout, according to Mark Fitzgerald in Editor & Publisher.
Now the S-B's front page and section fronts are full of up to 20 short items that can be viewed as either blurbs on their own or as refers to the full story inside a section. It's the paper equivalent of a click-through, which editor Frank Bridgewater makes no apologies about.

"We know the overwhelming number of readers don't like jumps, but for some reason the newspaper industry has continued to force jumps on people,” Bridgewater told E&P. “The older readers accept it a little bit, or I should say, I think they tolerate it. But the younger the reader, the more they hate jumps.”

Bridgewater may be bending to reality, having spent more time than he cares to in the Short Attention Span Theatre. But he then risks the danger of dumbing down the product, making it superficial to the point of being irrelevant, especially for the "older readers" (definition, please?) who still make up the lion's share of paid circulation.
Yes, that's the core of the problem in newspaperdom, not enough eyeballs under 40 plunking down coin for the product. But until you figure out a way to snare that crowd, don't alienate the core.
My concern is if you give people a reason just to read the section fronts, they won't go further afield, reducing the perception of the S-B as a must-read.
It reminds me of my time in network radio news, where you knew that after the commercial break on the hourly newscast, a lot of stations would dump out and not take the back minute. The consequence was the compulsion to then cram more stories into the front part of the newscast, which meant more breathless and shorter shrift for items that begged for more context and explanation.
The Star-Bulletin, which faced extinction just a few years ago, can't afford to go down that path. It trails the morning Honolulu Advertiser in circulation 143,020 to 64,305. Faced with that, it'll likely find that less does not translate into more.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Catch My Disease on the 4 Train: Sharon Moalem Likes Himself Very Much. Pregnant Women? Not Very Much

"Survival Of The Sickest" Author Takes His Own Publicity Tour on the Subway

The wife and I caught last Thursday's "Daily Show," where the guest was Sharon Moalem, who has written "Survival of the Sickest," a book whose cover proclaims him as a "medical maverick" who's here to tell us "why we need disease."

Jon Stewart took the bait. We haven't taken that leap, at least not yet. But maybe we'll find the time to read his treatise about how lots of diseases have evolutionary virtues. Turns out some genetic traits that are harmful today actually helped ancestors survive and thrive. OK, then.

For the more scientifically inclined among us, the book has received its share of reviews and avid readers, not least among them, Moalem himself.

My wife spotted on Tuesday someone on the uptown Lexington Avenue express reading "Survival of the Sickest." She then realized it was Moalem caught up in his own book.

When the train reached 14th Street, Moalem grabbed a seat to continue his self-love reverie, beating out my six-months-pregnant wife, who was forced to hover nearby. Which means he has something in common with just about every other guy who rides the 4 and 5 trains.
Maybe Moalem's next book can be about chivalry. No time like the present to start his research.

Monday, March 12, 2007

"24' Can't Tell Time -- But So What Else Is New?

The Numbers Don't Add Up As CTU Takes On Russian Bad Guys

A cracklin' good "24" tonight, much to Gregory Itzin's (right) chagrin as we got to watch ex-Prez Charles Logan flatlining at the end.

This was a rare Jack Lite episode, as much of the hour was spent with Logan trying to get ex-wife Martha -- she in the expensive loony bin with former Secret Service demigod-turned-paramour Aaron watching over her -- to call her dear friend Anya, the wife of Russian President Subarov.

Logan wanted Anya to convince her husband to tell super-baddie Markov at the consulate in L.A. to surrender before CTU stormed the gates and started WWIII.

Sounds simple enough, right? Only thing: It would have been pushing 4 in the morning in Russia. Yet, we're told Subarov is giving a speech in Omsk? To whom, the night shift at the city morgue?

Anywhoo, as they say in Omsk, it appears the Subarovs are night owls. Anya picks up the phone. She's wide awake and dressed rather nicely. Her peripatetic husband is later seen by her side, conveniently dressed in a suit and tie, because you never know when a diplomatic incident is going to break out.

Of course, all that time-zone silliness came just before Martha stabbed Logan, which left her quite pleased with herself. Yet, somehow she managed to sound lucid immediately afterwards during her chick chat with Anya.

Which is the great thing about "24." You roll your eyes over what absurd plot device they've managed to cook up. But you keep coming back. How could you not? The world may blow up any second now.

P.S. Jury still out on Ricky Schroeder. Might be some high-priced window dressing, or he could be a keeper. Gotta have a real kick-ass guy running Field Ops, after all. And hope they got some extra dough in the set-design budget what with Powers Boothe angrily chewing through all that scenery.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Bobby Brown Decides He Doesn't Want To Be a Model Citizen After All, Not To Mention a Radio Host

Hot 99.5 Tried to Get Deadbeat Dad Out of Jail and In the Studio
So, Washington radio station Hot 99.5 hoped to goose its morning ratings by having Bobby Brown on for a week to talk about what a swell, misunderstood guy he really was. This, after the station bailed him out of a Massachusetts jail for not paying child support.
It was supposed to be a week of good-natured razzing, regret and rumination, not to mention unpredictable, as anyone who saw the train wreck that was his reality show "Being Bobby Brown" can attest.
Then, Brown apparently came down with a bad case of cold feet after the cash found its way toward his camp (see below item). Brown's people are trying to spin this sucka, saying the station didn't front his bail money and that he never agreed to come on the air. Hot 99.5 begs to differ and has the proof.
Oops. Nothing like an email to ruin a good story.

Friday, March 02, 2007

It's His Prerogative: Bobby Brown May Bail On Radio Station That Bailed Him Out

Clear Channel Station in D.C. Could Be on Hook for Washed-Up Pop Star's Child Support Tab and Nothing In Return

It sounded good, at least on paper. Bobby Brown, has-been singer, estranged husband of Whitney Houston, and reality show head case, was in jail for not ponying up child-support bucks.

So, Washington radio station Hot 99.5 had a swell idea. Bail out Brown by paying the $19,150 Brown owed in Massachusetts, then have him be an "employee" of the station, yuck it up for a week with morning host Kane and sort of be a role model/punching bag.

Brown certainly appeared game enough. Rehabilitating yourself on the air sure beats a cell. Except now he may be having second thoughts, all the more inconvenient for Hot 99.5, as they've already laid out the cash.

Brown told Kane on the air this morning that he really didn't want to dwell on his legal troubles and said he was the victim of lies spread in the media. Uh-oh.

After Kane had a few WTF moments as it appeared Brown was trying to weasel out of his commitment, Brown hung up, leaving the radio station and everyone else without a clue as to what will happen next.

Which has been Brown's problem all along, as Hot 99.5 is learning the hard way.

Washington Times' Managing Editor Makes a Day in the Newsroom Interesting -- And Dangerous

A Full Moon Follows Fran Coombs As He Belittles, Berates and Blows Up

No one ever accused journalists, especially managing editors of distant second-place papers, of being a stable lot. Proof of that comes via Wonkette from George Archibald, a faaaaar right-wing blogger who toiled for many years with like-minded brethren at the Washington Times.

Archibald, via newsroom moles, recounts recent run-ins Times managing editor Fran Coombs has had with staff members. It's a real Moonapalooza of a day when he's around.
To wit, this purported exchange with one reporter:

Coombs: "I heard you were pissing on Julia Duin's series and bad-mouthing the Washington Times, like you always do."
Carter: "Who told you that? I wasn't and I didn't."
Coombs: "I heard you were, like you always do, and if I catch you, your ass will be grass."
Carter: "Are you going to punch me?"
Coombs: "No, You'd like that wouldn't you. But that is not going to happen. I'll fucking fire your ass. I’m going to fucking take your ass out."

Not exactly a wet dream for those in H.R. But great stuff for the rest of us who have the good fortune of not working at the Times.

For A Change, Hockey Is Again Recognized As A Sport in The New York Times

Three Bylined NHL Articles in One Day Despite No Reports of Pigs Sprouting Wings

As we've documented in the past, The New York Times has, without shame or regret, abandoned most of its hockey coverage. The Rangers are the only team that has a regular beat reporter, although Lynn Zinser rarely goes on the road with the team.

As for the Islanders and Devils, who between them have won seven Stanley Cups over the last 30 years, they mostly exist in two paragraph NHL roundups courtesy of the A.P.

So, it was quite a shock this morning to see last night's Islanders game covered by John Branch instead of the wire. True, it was to herald the Islanders debut of semi-superstar Ryan Smyth (above), acquired Tuesday from the Edmonton Oilers, but still, you'd never take for granted that the Times would show up. Because they might not again.
Today's edition also had a piece from freelancer Ray Glier on the trials and tribulations of the Atlanta Thrashers. Nice to see. However, lest you wonder what such a piece would be doing in a New York paper, then two minutes in the penalty box for you!
Remember, as Times execs always will, Lady Gray is a national paper. Yes, more people read the Times outside the metropolitan area than in. The problem is the sports department seems a little too proud of that fact, which is why coverage of local teams continues to suffer.

Tribune Deal Lets Gannett Extend Its Mediocrity To All Of New York's Northern Suburbs

Stamford Advocate and Greenwich Time Victims of Chicagoans Trying To Shed Properties and Free Up Cash
The Washington Post has news of the latest media fire sale, with Tribune selling the Stamford Advocate and its diminutive sister, the Greenwich Time for a relatively paltry $65 million. That's a healthy reflection of the sickly state of newspaperdom when two properties that cover some of the wealthiest towns in the U.S. are unloaded like that.
However, it's nothing new when you look at deals like McClatchy selling the Star-Tribune in Minneapolis last year for $530 million, even though it had paid $1.2 billion just eight years earlier. Yeah, yeah, the company got $160 million in tax benefits. But still.
What will readers in Connecticut get when Gannett takes over. Not a hell of a lot, as subscribers of The Journal-News [a one-time employer of mine in the 1980s] in the neighboring New York counties of Westchester, Rockland and Putnam can attest.
Not that the Advocate or Time are much better thanks to persistent penny-pinching by Tribune. But still.
Gannett has been a persistent underachiever with The Journal-News, consistently fumbling attempts to cover its diverse region in anything but a piecemeal way. Its business coverage -- mirroring the cutbacks at many other papers -- is anemic, as are its feature sections. To its credit, it does do a fine job covering high school and local college sports.
Pro baseball and football teams have beat writers who do go on the road. That's not the case with the Knicks and Rangers, though, who mostly get staff bylines only when they're at Madison Square Garden. Currently, the Connecticut papers get local team coverage from the still-strong sports department at Newsday. Which now means expect greater use of AP copy.
Gannett's all about efficiencies, bottom lines and squeezing enough to hear their reporters and editors squeal like pigs. The journalism comes second. So, good luck Advocate/Time. You've been warned.