Friday, August 29, 2008

Networks Lose Sarah Palin Guessing Game

Alaska Fake-Out Leaves Pundits Wondering What Went Wrong

With the Democratic National Convention over, the cable networks were left with little to ponder in the presidential race save who would John McCain pick to be his running mate.
After the networks got right the fact that Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney were out, the gang over at "Morning Joe" on MSNBC started wondering about Joe Lieberman, Meg Whitman and Sarah Palin.
But after pondering Palin for a bit, Joe Scarborough announced that ABC confirmed that Palin was still in Alaska.
Of course, that didn't still the Blackberrys among those gathered. Soon after, we were told NBC had confirmed that Palin would be appearing at the Alaska State Fair to unveil the Alaskan version of the quarter.
So much for Palin, or so we thought. Which is what happens when pundits on the cable nets have too much time to talk and ponder, rather than report.
One net that left open the Palin annointment was CNN, which reported on its Web site that a private jet from Alaska had arrived at an airport about 25 miles from Dayton, with a woman, two men and two teenagers on board. "This is the most secretive flight we've ever had," the airport manager said.
Not that CNN should gloat too much. It's still was calling the Palin announcement "breaking news" at 8:30 p.m. ET, about 10 hours after it happened. CNN is guilty of this more often than not. At least make it grammaticallly correct. It's broken news. Once it breaks, it can't keep breaking.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Washington Post Continues Toasting Wine Coverage

Departure of Columnists Could Have Given Paper An Out To Cut Back

In the relentless and often necessary tsunami of cost-cutting at newspapers, editors have to make difficult and often painful decisions as their papers fight for survival.
Sometimes, they can take the easy way out. Fortunately, The Washington Post decided not to do that recently with its wine coverage.
Wine columnists Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg have to cut back on their weekly column because of "other commitments" and now will only appear monthly.
That could have been a cue for the Post to essentially scuttle its wine articles and throw in an article every now and then in the Food section. After all, somebody has to buy all those bottles.
Instead, the Post recruited Dave McIntyre, the wine writer for Washingtonian magazine, who will write three or four columns a month.
I'll drink to that.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Not To Say I Told You So Tribune, But.....

Nobody Has A Clue About How To Pay Down Debt, Including Bond Rating Agencies

Things are OK on Tribune's balance sheet -- for now.
That much is clear. But what Sam Zell and his minions have been unable to answer is what to do about next year. And the year after. After all, if revenue keeps dropping, how to you pay off the notes on the more than $12.8 billion in debt?
The troubling answer is all too apparent, but not enough people have made sufficiently portentous rumblings about what really is to come, at least no one who has really mattered. That has since changed, now that Fitch Ratings has warned of a real possibility of Tribune defaulting on its debt obligations.
Short-term, everything's hunky-dory relatively speaking. But Editor & Publisher reports Fitch is concerned about Tribune's ability to "generate meaningful and consistent revenue growth."
Given current trends that's hardly a news flash. I first wrote about Tribune's myopia back in April.
Quite simply, the amount of debt taken on outstrips the company's ability to generate sufficient revenues, especially on the print side.
Sure, some assets have been sold off ---- like Newsday for $650 million -- or will be shed -- the Cubs and Wrigley Field -- to ease some of the pain in the offing. But Zell hasn't offered any answers of what he'll do beyond mid-2009.
Surely he didn't buy Tribune just so he can sell it off piecemeal to satisfy his bankers. However, that's exactly what could result because of his stunning lack of hubris.
Even billionaires can find themselves in way over their heads. Zell is mustering everything he's got just to tread water. Unfortunately, that won't be enough when another tsunami of debt looms on the horizon.
Zell will be all right in the end. Most of the money used to buy Tribune wasn't his. The lucre from his savvier real estate dealings will still be his.
As for the newspapers that will be left in his wake, the outcome is bound to be much more tragic. Zell's swagger has now been replaced by silence. And that speaks volumes.

Monday, August 18, 2008

This is What Happens When Muggles Write Stories About Harry Potter

Even The Daily Prophet's Rita Skeeter Would Have Known Better Than A.P.

Sometimes you need to be right before you're cute.
In a story about how Entertainment Weekly put Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe on the cover for its fall movie preview without knowing its sister company Warner Bros. had postponed the release of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" to next summer, the A.P. led with:

Maybe Harry Potter should have brought a note from his parents saying he would be missing school.

Hardy, har, har. Except that the eight jillion people who've read the Potter books know up, down and sideways that one of the pillars the franchise rests on is the fact that Harry's parents were murdered by He Who Must Not Be Named (Ralph Fiennes).
Therefore, no note.
Minor point. Not really, when you're dealing with the masses who inhabit Potterdom.
It's not hard to be true to the narrative and pithy at the same time.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Summertime and the Living Isn't Easy at Gannett, Tribune

Teetering Newspaper Companies Keep Slashing Away

If you work at a newspaper, chances are you found that this summer, like no other, there will be blood.
Involuntary separation. Reductions in force. Hell, one editor even bothered to call them layoffs. Whatever.
The pace seemed to pick up again this week, as the Chicago Tribune hacked away at another 80 positions. But Gerry Kern, who still has that new editor smell about him, insists everything is gonna be all right.

"[T]he editorial staff of the Chicago Tribune stands at 480, the largest news organization in Chicago by a wide margin and one of the largest and most accomplished in the United States."

Maybe so, but that says less about the Tribune and more about the decimated newsrooms elsewhere in the region.
"This staff will achieve extraordinary work in the future as it has in the past. In about six weeks, we will launch a fresh, new Chicago Tribune that is designed to satisfy reader needs as never before."
So, what you are doing now stinks? Don't think that's what he meant, even if that's what he implies. In any event, giving readers less than what they get now is hardly a way to satisfy their "needs." Good luck with that.
As for Gannett, it's cutting its workforce nationwide by 3 percent. Over at one of my former haunts, the Journal-News in New York's northern suburbs, 12 people, including longtime reporter Mitch Broder and deputy managing editor Tony Davenport got the boot.
Regrettably, they are 12 among many, 600 in fact. Another 400 positions will be eliminated by either being left vacant or through attrition. Given the state of things at Gannett, though, it may be the best thing that ever happened to them. Good luck to them too.

Harry Potter Pulls A Switcheroo on Entertainment Weekly

Putting A Movie On The Cover That Nobody Can See

Ah, the glamorous world of movies, this time biting the not-as-glamorous world of journalism squarely on the arse.
The folks over at Entertainment Weekly wanted to make a late-summer splash by splaying Daniel Radcliffe on the cover of its fall movie preview double issue, which hit the stands today.
That would have made eminent sense, given that "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" was due to crown the competition in November. That was until Warner Brothers announced yesterday it had decided "Half-Blood" could put more fannies in the seats come summer. Now it's slated for a July 17 release.
Which may be all well and good for the studio's bottom line, but it makes EW look a little silly, even if it had no warning.
As's Sean Smith cheekily notes: "EW and Warner Bros. share a parent company, but they clearly do not share, you know, important friggin’ information."
Feel your pain, brah. Back in my CBS days, Simon & Schuster would be pushing authors for interviews everywhere but at the radio network, where I toiled. When I casually mentioned to a S&S publicist that we were owned by the same company (Viacom), it sounded like that was news to her. You can't help the team if you don't even know you're on it.
No one expects Warner Brothers to alter its release calendar just because of an EW cover. But a weekly can do some twists and turns at the last minute before it goes to print. Some heads up on the Q.T. from the studio to EW was eminently achievable.
Instead, EW got a whole lot of Silenzio! from the Potter camp, which could make newsstand sales disapparate in a hurry.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Trying to Puncture NBC's Olympic Bubble

After Being Sucked Into the Gold-Medal Vortex, Network Overlooks the Fact that China is Still Very Much China

Not far from where much of the Olympic competition is unfolding in Beijing, but a world away from the fuzzy-wuzzy features Mary Carillo -- a normally capable journalist and astute commentator -- on such topics as pandas and acrobats, life for the Chinese proceeds much the same.
That also applies to the small-but-determined band of dissidents and protesters determined to make their mark, including those agitating for a free Tibet. Hardly a shock that the authorities would take a dim view of such activities during the 17 days in which they want to show their nation at its most glorious.
But in the process, it's not a good idea to rough up a British reporter, one John Ray, the Beijing correspondent for ITN News, who was among those covering a small Tibet protest that you can see here.
Ray was detained for 30 minutes, roughed up and had his equipment confiscated. What the police didn't do was grab his cameraman, so we actually get to see Ray telling us what's going on from the window of the police van.
So much for free media access during the games. ITN and the International Olympic Committee registered their concerns. Hopefully, the Chinese will do more than just yawn.
Et tu, NBC?

If You Can't Remember the Last Time You Bought a Magazine at the Newsstand, Turns Out You're Not Alone

ABC Fas-Fax Numbers Even More Grim Than Most Publishers Would Have Feared

For those of you keeping score at home -- which is where most magazines would prefer you get them by subscription -- single-copy sales for most titles in the first half of the year did some Dumpster diving.
No huge surprise here, given how crappy business has been in recent years. Tech, celebrity and auto mags took an especially big hit. For the latter category, that could be a double whammy, given how the Big Three are cutting back ad spending across the board.
In some cases, newsstand gains have been at least partially offset by increased subscriptions, as if some people who may have plunking down four or five bucks a week for their favorite title finally wised up and got a subscription.
Overall, however, they weren't nearly enough to stanch the bleeding in publishers' suites, which by all indications is continuing unabated.

NBC Lets Karoly Vent about Chinese Gymnasts So No One Else Has To

Beyond That, Seldom is Heard a Discouraging Word About Host Country Gaming the Competition
Bob Costas seems more than reasonably entertained when Bela Karolyi is sitting alongside him in the studio to comment on the goings-on at the Olympics gymnastics competition.
And why not? Karolyi is never boring. His avuncular, broken-English routine would be condemned as a stereotype if it wasn't him doing it.
Karolyi (above right) and his wife Marta, the U.S. national team coordinator, have not been shy in accusing the Chinese, as other media reports have averred is a possiblity, of putting underage gymnasts on the floor. Those little pixies doing impossible twists on the vault and melting 18,000 hearts in the National Stadium with a virtuouso performance on the uneven bars are all at least 16?
Karolyi said no, when Costas asked him last night.
But Costas, constrained by the need to get back to live coverage, didn't follow up. And not once have I heard any of the three broadcasters covering gymnastics even allude to the controversy.
One could argue that's the right approach. Focus on the drama unfolding, especially in a tight competition between the U.S. and China. That was indeed the main story, but not the only one. To simply report on the merits of the routines meant Al Trautwig, Tim Daggett and Elfi Schlegel are doing their jobs in a self-imposed vacuum. The pictures tell the story of a Chinese team whose average height is 4-feet-9 and weighs 77 pounds.
If they really are 16 -- as the passports accepted by the IOC claim -- then what does that say about the Chinese gymnastics program and why the U.S. women as well as those from the European teams look diametrically different? How? Why? The NBC crew offers no answers.
Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports say the Karolyis should quit whining about the Chinese, especially since it was Bela who coached Nadia Comaneci to Olympic perfection in 1976 -- at the tender age of 14. Wetzel then takes a cheap shot at the Karolyis for implying they'd want nothing more than to return to the bad old days.
Good or bad, though, 14 was allowed in Montreal. It's not in Beijing. But here we watched pixie after pixie do enough right to win gold over the Americans.
And about those passports. It's hardly a stretch of the imagination to think the Chinese would do whatever it took to grab first on their home turf, including passports that cooked up some numbers. After all, they've done that before, as Juliet Macur reported in The New York Times:

Yang Yun won two bronze medals at the 2000 Sydney Games, in the uneven bars and as a member of the Chinese team. The United States team finished fourth.
Afterward, Yang said on state-run television that she was 14 when she competed at the Games. A Hunan Province sports administration report confirmed that.
“The medal was supposed to be ours, and we should be given it,” said Karolyi, the coach of the 2000 United States team, referring to the bronze medal in the team event.

This could all have been a bad case of the International Olympic Committee not wanting to stoke a controversy and get the Chinese in a lather on the eve of the games, which are meant to be a lucrative showcase for the IOC and Beijing alike.
But that doesn't mean NBC -- despite a rights payment of nearly $900 million -- needs to be complicit. However, the silence over the Chinese gymnasts, with the exception of Karolyi's continual fulminating on the topic -- is rather deafening at this point.
As the Washington Post's Paul Farhi notes, NBC is making a careful -- too careful -- distinction between news and sports. Which is a shame, when very often at the Olympics they are one and the same.

Friday, August 08, 2008

In Your Face, MSM! National Enquirer Gloats Big-Time When Edwards Fesses to Affair

Even ABC (Mostly) Gives Enquirer Props as Edwards Tells Almost All to Bob Woodruff

Now that word's out that John Edwards joined the long list of politicians who couldn't keep their pants zipped, nobody is more thrilled than the editors of the National Enquirer, which had been, um, pumping this story for months with barely a nod or mention by the MSM until recently.
Turns out the Enky wasn't the only one sniffing around. ABC's Brian Ross had been hot for Edwards too, and he was getting close enough that Edwards opted for damage control in the form of an interview with Bob Woodruff for this evening's Nightline.
Ross told Politico the Enquirer has the story "95 to 96 percent" right.
Hey, that's like an A-plus!
Here's the rub: Edwards says he's not the father of the daughter of trystee Rielle Hunter. How does he know? The baby was born Feb. 27, and he claims to have stopped shtupping Hunter before the baby could have been conceived.
Of course, the Enquirer is having none of that, especially after Edwards says the tab got right the story he saw Hunter at the Beverly Hilton last month.

As far as being the father of Hunter's love child, you might as well go all the way now, Johnny Boy.

Submit to a DNA test.

By the way what was it you said about The ENQUIRER's journalistic chops when the main stream media was silent until we gave them more than a smoking gun by dropping a bomb on August 6?

Oh yeah - "Tabloid Trash."

Classy, huh? Well, at least it's more classy than cheating on your cancer-stricken wife.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

L.A. Times Treads the Line Between Being a Good Value or Just Desperate

Bargain-Basement Subscriptions and Quality Reporting May Not Move The Needle No Matter How Hard Tribune Tries

I usually only get to see the Los Angeles Times online from my perch in the New York suburbs. But a quick trip out west allowed me to see the much-diminished, but still-mighty paper up close and personal.
It's been well-documented about how the paper has trimmed sections, including two starting today. reduced coverage and otherwise turned itself into something less than it was.
But what remains is still more than most other papers could ever have hoped to dream for. The international report has dispatches from China, Yemen and Egypt, while the election gets five articles and a column. The sports section was all over the Dodgers and Manny, while the design and photography throughout the paper is nothing if not engaging.
Overall, the Times appears committed to a quality product, even if it eats away at a battered budget.
Case in point: today, the Times wrapped up a five-part series by Julie Cart and Bettina Boxall on the true cost of wildfires, with an above-the-fold spread on an Australian family that chose to fight a bushfire and save their land rather than flee for safety.
Conceivably, the story of wildfires could have been told without spending thousands of dollars to dispatch a reporter and photographer to the Australian outback. But it did provide a stark contrast to how the blazes are handled in California.
Which made it relevant. Which made the series complete. Kudos for investing the resources to recognize that.
It's a bigger question, though, of whether readers recognize that. Judging by the Times' recent circulation numbers, the answer is tragically no.
To this itinerant visitor, that's hard to comprehend, especially when looking at the newsstand price for the Sunday Times, which goes for a mere buck-fifty. For those of us who wordlessly shell out $4 for a New York Times the same day, that's a lot to swallow. And to think the daily Times will now cost that same $1.50, one-third of what the L.A. version goes for during the week.
If that wasn't enough of a bargain, then look no further than a deal the L.A. Times is offering, which expires today: get the paper from Thursday-Sunday for an entire year for $26. That's 50 cents a week. In other words, they'll probably spend more on newsprint for those papers than what you'd pay. Don't even bother with the costs of printing and delivery.
Yet, even though they're practically offering to give away the paper, they still can't get more readers.
In the end, no matter how compelling you make your product, it's not relevant if the audience you so desperately seek tells you thanks, but no thanks, we no longer require a newspaper to be part of our lives.

When Reviewing a $2,000 Bottle of Wine is Service Journalism

Why We Love the Wall Street Journal's Wine Column

A must-read for me every Friday in the Wall Street Journal is the wine column penned by the husband-and-wife team of Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher.
They're experts in a good way, telling us what we need to know without being in your face about it. They educate without teaching. And they've turned me on to some damned good wine that I otherwise wouldn't have known about.
Often, they'll spotlight vintages that not only taste great, but are a good value too. So, it was a bit hard to swallow on Friday, when they reviewed first-growth Bordeaux, like the iconic Chateau Latour, the 2005 vintage of which that goes for a mere $1,950.
That's a price that's hard to swallow, even for the Journal's well-heeled readership. Funny thing is, Gaiter and Brecher get out front and acknowledge just that.
"Is the 2005 Latour worth $1,950? As working stiffs, we can't imagine spending $1,950 on any bottle of wine."
Good for them. Nonetheless, they sip away on the Latour and some of its vaunted peers on Rupert Murdoch's dime instead of theirs. Talk about a dream job.
For the rest of us, if you can never hope to actually buy one of the wines, they allow us to become immersed in the fantasy of owning one.
However, while you'd think they'd be running to Roget's looking for new superlatives for these Bordeaux superstars, none of the wines they taste actually made them swoon, though the Latour came damn close.
One assessment may even create a PR nightmare for Chateaux Margaux, whose 2005 was rated "very good," by Brecher and Gaiter, but "just not very interesting."
And at $1,450 for a bottle, it can't afford to be boring.

Where Did All The Money Go? Star-Ledger Employees Trying to Answer That Question

Newhouse Pulls Its Version of a Zell. Or is it a Singleton?

Most employees at the Star-Ledger in Newark, NJ, had made a Faustian deal of sorts with their Newhouse overlords. Don't unionize, and we won't lay you off. Ever.
Of course, ever meant so long as we own the paper.
But now we are in newspaperdom's version of the Dark Ages, at least the version where the accountants are ruling the day, and Newhouse wants to change the game.
Newhouse wants 20 percent of the staff of the Star-Ledger and Trenton Times out the door. If not, the Star-Ledger will be sold and the Times will be shut down.
The New York Times reported that Donald Newhouse, company prexy, claims both papers have been in the red for years, and may lose up to $40 million. If so, then the question is why would Newhouse put up with that state of affairs for so long?
It's hard to imagine the Star-Ledger bleeding that much cash. It has long been the 1600-pound gorilla of New Jersey journalism, stationing reporters in most of the state's 21 counties, packing its statehouse bureau with at least 12 reporters and editors and putting out a sports section that would be the envy of most.
Of course, the Star-Ledger was afflicted with the same ills that have befallen every other newspaper, and saw its circulation fall to 345,000. But that's still good for 15th-biggest in the country.
Cuts were made accordingly -- no Knicks beat writer, for instance -- but it's hard to imagine that the paper fell so far, so fast, when it routinely laps the competition.
As for the Times, the story is somewhat different, in that it actually still has competition, miraculous nowadays for a market its size. True, the competition is The Trentonian, a scrappy if undistinguished tabloid, but competition nonetheless.
That's never a good thing in an era of freefalling circulation and ad revenues. And while, even in this lousy economy, some fool, er, idealistic investor like New York Observer owner Jared Kushner, might have an interest in the Star-Ledger, it's doubtful the Times would find any takers in this climate.
It would be hard to imagine the Star-Ledger not being in the hands of the Newhouse family. Then again, nothing should be hard to imagine in the current climate. The Newhouse News Service, a once-formidable player in regional Washington coverage, is no more, and other dominoes in the family's empire could soon be lining up to fall.
All of a sudden that 1600-pound gorilla is looking like a 97-pound weakling.