Thursday, December 25, 2008

Cool Foreign News You're Probably Not Reading Because You Ate Too Much Over The Holidays

The international desk here at Reality Bites Back never rests. To wit:

Tsunami dead still unidentified.
The Bangkok Post: Four years after the tsunami, tourists are still coming back at the same time some of the dead -- including Europeans who were on holiday remain unidentified.
Let's Not Pat Ourselves on the Back Over Iraq Just yet
The Observer: Toby Dodge says complacency is the enemy. Bush may be getting a little too cocky as he begins his exit, and Obama could have a bigger headache to contend with than he thought.
A Deadly Oops
Mainichi Shimbun: A man died at his retirement party after colleagues threw him into the air in celebration and then failed to catch him.
Miracle Survivor of Aussie Plane Crash
Sydney Morning Herald: Calling for help after a plane crash injured and upside down.

The VHS Format Was Left for Dead. Now It Really Is

For back rats like me, it's hard to part with all of those VHS tapes, even if they've been consigned to the garage or some other corner of oblivion in your house.
Ah, the good old days when you battled the mob at Blockbuster on a Saturday night for the privilege of paying four bucks to rent one. Now they're not worth four cents.
Yet, nostalgia will only take us so far, according to The Los Angeles Times. The last major supplier of tapes is clearing out his warehouse.
No funeral services for the format will be held.
And before you start stocking up on your favorite movies yet again, chances are good we can begin the death watch on the DVD.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Brian Tierney Gets Into The Holiday Spirit Drinking From A Half-Full Mug

Parsing Philadelphia Publisher's Propaganda; Saying Ho-Ho-Ho While Staff Makes Do With Lumps of Coal

I'll give Brian Tierney credit for this: As publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, it's hard to put on a happy face every day, even though his column in yesterday's Inky comes pretty damn close.
Still, there's a difference between what he says and what's actually happening, as is often the case whenever Tierney speaks. Let's chew on a few morsels from his missive, shall we?

What makes our Philadelphia newspapers different? First and foremost, we've invested heavily in the quality of our journalism. And we've been rewarded for it with faithful readership, steady growth and profitability.

Faithful readership, huh? According to the latest ABC FAS-FAX numbers, the Inquirer plunged 11 percent in the six-month period ending in September to 300,674 copies. Sunday circulation nosedived 13.7 percent to 556,426. The Daily News circulation free-falled 13.2 percent to 97,694.
Profitability? If you say so. If true, a lot of that's been accomplished by slashing away at the head count, including another 35 bodies as recently as last week.

About 1.2 million people physically pick up and read our papers every day ... And, contrary to conventional wisdom, 30 percent of our readers - more than 300,000 - are young people, between 18 and 34.

Here Tierney engages in the publishing version of wishful thinking. He's not even printing 400,000 copies a day, and he's blithely assuming that three people are reading each one, and that 25 percent of them are in the 18-34 demo. C'mon. It's hard to believe even Tierney believes his papers have that kind of pass-through rate anymore, if they ever did. And any advertisers who buy into that bit of marketing whimsy deserve what they get.

Beyond the newspapers,'s traffic has exploded to 50 million page views a month and more than 2.3 million unique visitors. That's the direct result of the investment we've made in good journalism, technology and creativity.

No, it's not. It's because those younger readers Tierney so badly craves are getting what they need online for free. And do you really think Philly's online revenue is any more than the 10 percent of total revenues being experienced by most newspapers? As a private company we don't know, and Tierney isn't saying, but it's difficult to fathom how Philly's numbers are any different than, say, The New York Times or Washington Post.

Our original news reporting sets the table for the entire region's news output, much of which derives from the work we do. No other news medium - television, radio or Web - can compare to the daily coverage produced by our approximately 400 journalists.

That's true. And it's the spin that every newspaper likes to make -- even though our staff is desiccated it's still a hell of a lot larger than broadcasters or online. But even if the Philly papers are bigger, it doesn't mean squat in the overall scheme of things if they are but shells of their former selves. Quantity and quality have become mutually exclusive.

The Inquirer's foreign-affairs columnist, Trudy Rubin, was back in Iraq last week for a series of columns on developments there.

All well and good. But remember when the Inquirer had six foreign bureaus? Tierney does. And he had little use for them (granted, most were closed by Knight-Ridder before Tierney bought the paper in 2006). Still, he was quoted in The Washington Post: "We don't need a Jerusalem bureau. What we need are more people in the South Jersey bureau."

Ah, South Jersey. And all the rest.

We grew up in towns like Upper Darby, Elkins Park, Springfield, Flourtown and Deptford Township.
We went to school here.
We care deeply about Philadelphia, its suburbs and South Jersey.

Tierney and his fellow investors may care. But if he keeps cutting away, the Inky won't have many people left to cover all those burgs, not to mention Philly.
As Daily News columnist Sty Bykofsky told the Philadelphia Business Journal when the latest cutbacks were announced: “I don’t think they’re going to get 35 volunteers. I think the low-hanging fruit has been gathered. The medium fruit is gone, too. We’re going to the bone.”

And finally....

"We're not trying to create the next multinational media behemoth. We're rebuilding the kind of world-class hometown papers that used to define cities like Philadelphia. That takes time, and it takes investment....."
Since Tierney took over, there is little tangible evidence of said investment, at least in the print product. It's easy to understand why. He bought the papers, the economy cratered and his bankers are getting antsy, as well they should.
Tierney steered himself into a perfect storm, mostly not of his own making. But he doesn't help his cause when he uses the Inky to bloviate, spin and distort what's happening at Philadelphia Media Holdings and why he's being forced to make the choices he has made. Which would be a very different column from the one he ran yesterday.
As someone who spent most of his working life in PR, Tierney badly needs a reminder that a newspaper is nothing without its credibility. Just because you're the publisher and you write something doesn't make it so.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

My Newspaper Hero Of The Day

And He's Only In Eighth Grade

First things first. Newspaper publishers should find a way to clone Mitchell Walsh, and fast.
Here's a 13-year-old kid from Michigan who loves to read newspapers, particularly the Detroit Free Press.
So, imagine how he reacted when told the Freep and the Detroit News will roll the dice on their future and now only be home-delivered on Thursday, Friday and Sunday. The rest of the week you have to go buy the paper or read an ostensibly expanded digital version.
But Mitchell is having none of that. As he wrote on Poynter Online (where his grandfather Bill Mitchell, a former Free Press scribe is diretor): "On weekday mornings, I don't think I will find the time in the middle of the rush to school to search online for the latest news. To me a morning without a newspaper is like an adult without his coffee."
That means the Walsh family is going to have a teenager who's grumpier than usual four days a week.
Mitchell's getting an up-close-and-personal lesson in the sorry science of newspaper economics. Nonetheless, you can't fault him if he has trouble understanding why his faith and devotion to the Free Press is not being reciprocated.

On the winter days when I take out my dog, I slip on my boots, shrug on my coat and trudge down the driveway ... I see a small lump of snow. I pick it up, shake it off and begin the icy climb up the driveway. Once inside, my curiosity takes control. I rip off the clear plastic bag and only then do I see the only good part of getting up at 6:00 a.m.: A freshly printed, crisply folded, daily edition of the Detroit Free Press.

The more cynical of you could simply view this kid as a media savant. But what he really represents is the last vestige of a strong family tradition where everyone read a newspaper, which Mitchell writes is still very much part of the daily routine in the Walsh household.
The problem is, for many reasons that have been well-documented, that became less so in many other homes. I'd hazard a guess that if Mitchell were to poll his classmates about who got a daily paper at home, well over half would answer no.
If you don't see your parents reading a paper, chances are you won't either.
So, it's tragic when a family like Mitchell's actually does want a paper, it won't always be there for them.
It might be time for Mitchell to instead invest in a New York Times subscription. It delivers in the Detroit suburbs --- seven days a week.

Magazines On The Oblivion Express And It's All Your Fault

The Web Will Be The Savior of Us All. Maybe.

There's an interesting analysis on the Editorialiste blog on some of the many ills afflicting the moribund magazine business.
Included is this reality check, that ad dollars were already running flat before the economy cratered. The recession merely kicked more sand in the faces of the 97-pound weaklings cowering in the publishers' suites.
So, does that mean magazines should beat a hasty retreat to the Internet and save a few trees? Not so fast. As Editorialiste notes, magazines need to first clean up the mess they've made online, having been guilty of creating sites that have "poor usability and poor brand representation that served only as subscription centers, rather than as logical extensions of the brand with original content."
That's why I wouldn't sound the death knell for the printed version just yet, nor would Editorialiste.
The best magazines are all about the sizzle as well as the steak. The design, and the graphics are indelibly intertwined with the copy. You could, in theory, producing a compelling online version, complete with interactive doo-dads like podcasts, slide shows, polls and the like.
However, I'm skeptical as to how many people are truly making use of the bells and whistles, at least right now. And by betting so much on the online product, or even making a magazine digital-only, is still a dangerous bet for most titles.
Most people don't have the patience or inclination to read more than 500 or so words at a time on the web. So, long-form pieces either wind up with low readership or they're not commissioned.
That diminishes the overall product. That gives people less of a reason to use the Web site. All of a sudden, that push to get advertisers to pay more for digital and replace their print spend goes out the window.
So, the question remains: can publishers countenance having the print and digital versions peacefully co-exist. More are answering no -- as circulation and ad dollars bleed out -- and are taking their titles online exclusively, but all indications are that's not always the right answer

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

NPR Falls On Its Sword

Doesn't Shy Away From Talking Publicly About Layoffs of 7 Percent of Its Staff

The economy claimed its latest media victim today: NPR said it would cut 7 percent of its staff and eliminate "Day To Day" and "News & Notes" because its underwriting has been underwhelming.
This is not a panic move. NPR says it needs to close a $23 million budget shortfall.
So far, it looks like the network's biggest names have been spared, though a poster at FishbowlDC says veteran correspondent Ketzel Levine is among those leaving. She won't be the last.
Props to NPR for not being shy to tell us about what's happening. That included a report on "All Things Considered" this afternoon from media correspondent David Folkenflik.
Given that NPR's listeners are often very possessive of the programs they support, this kind of public bloodletting is not unexpected. Let's hope the seams aren't apparent on those programs that remain.
I, for one, fervently hope that NPR doesn't use the downturn as an excuse to pare back its foreign coverage, already much more extensive than any U.S. broadcaster. In an age when international news is barely an afterthought on most networks, NPR has correspondents based in such places as Kabul, Dakar, New Delhi and Hanoi, in addition to the usual outposts.
"All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition" are incalculably richer for being able to tap into that motherlode. So are we for being able to listen to them.

N.Y. Times Tries to Anoint Caroline Kennedy; Doesn't Let Facts Get In The Way

Did Paterson, Ted Kennedy Discuss Who Replaces Hillary? If So, Nobody Asked Them.

Even reporters -- and their editors -- for as august a publication as The New York Times need a little Journalism 101 refresher now and then.
And the Times agrees.
An article in yesterday's paper said that Ted Kennedy has been working the phones trying to get his niece Caroline Kennedy named as Hillary Clinton's replacement as a U.S. senator from New York.
Among those said to be called was the man who will make the choice -- Gov. David Paterson.
The story was attributed to "Democratic aides," who "were not authorized to discuss the conversations."
Uh, oh.
In today's Times, there is another article headlined "Paterson Says Kennedy Has Not Called About Niece," in which Paterson denies the Times report, as does a Kennedy spokesperson.
That would be an otherwise unremarkable utterance -- given that politicians like to give themselves cover -- were it not for the fact that neither Paterson nor Kennedy had been contacted for the first article, as today's piece -- written by David Halbfinger -- concedes.
Somehow, no one thought to call either man for the original article, authored by Halbfinger, with assistance by Nicholas Confessore, Danny Hakim and Carl Hulse. Ditto for the bevy of editors who vet every article on the Metro Desk.
Not even a "refused to comment," or "did not return repeated calls." That couldn't be written because not one of four reporters picked up the phone for the calls even the cubbiest of cub reporters knows to make.
Instead, they were so pleased with their scoop, they never bothered to check whether it was actually true. An editors' note today fesses up:

On Tuesday, both Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Paterson said no such conversation had taken place. The Times should have sought their comment before publication.

You betcha.
Now, that doesn't mean the conversation did not take place, only that both parties said that it did not.
Nonetheless, it's telling that the Times didn't do one of those high-horse "The Times stands by its reporting" mea culpas on this one.
Instead, it apparently got burned by sources who thought they knew better, but really knew nothing.
So, good for the Times for not offering excuses. But then again, there really isn't an excuse for being this sloppy.

Crawling Out From Under The Tribune Wreckage Won't Be Easy

Zell Looks To Make Those Who Left Before Chapter 11 Suffer The Most

Out of all the stories I've read about the Tribune bankruptcy, the one that ran in The New York Times yesterday is perhaps the most scary.

What struck me was this passage;

A note on an internal Tribune Company Web site said, “All ongoing severance payments, deferred compensation and other payments to former employees have been discontinued and will be the subject of later proceedings before the court.” That made it apparent that employees who recently were laid off or took buyouts would join the long list of unsecured creditors.
James Gerstenzang (above), a reporter who left The Los Angeles Times’s bureau in Washington last month, said he was trying to figure out whether he was one of those people. He said he had just sent in the last paperwork to approve his expected buyout payment — 49 weeks of pay, after more than 24 years.

So, what we have here are hundreds of people -- maybe thousands -- who now have, if Tribune stands pat, the equivalent of the hole in the middle of a doughnut.
I doubt that'll be the end result, but Gerstenzang and his colleagues shouldn't expect to get what they're entitled to. That's not why companies go into Chapter 11 in the first place.
I had a first-hand window into how this works when I was at UPI in 1985, when it filed for bankruptcy. I was owed several hundred dollars from when I was a stringer for them the year before.
One thing UPI didn't like to do was pay its bills, although it turned out there was a reason for that -- it couldn't.
When the dust settled about a year later, I received about 45 cents on the dollar for what I was owed. I cashed that check in a hurry.
Given that Tribune's perilous fiscal state of affairs will only worsen next year, 45 cents would be a great deal in this climate. It's not what distinguished reporters like Gerstenzang deserve, but it does beat the hole in the middle of the doughnut.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Those 1,900 Layoffs at Gannett May Not Be So Bad After All....

Especially When You Consider There Could Be A Lot More Than That Next Year

I've been a constant reader of Gannett Blog recently, in part to keep up with who might be getting the ax at one of my former haunts, the Journal-News in Westchester-Rockland, but to also be reminded of how heartless those in newsroom management can so often be.
Unfortunately, the hundreds of posters on the blog have provided ample material to show that, more than ever, Gannett is utterly without a clue.
But what Gannett is rather good at -- and it's certainly not putting out a quality newspaper at most of its properties -- is making a profit, even when readership and circulation go in the crapper.
And with the recession showing every sign it'll keep us in a full Nelson next year, it sounds like the Gannett rocket scientists are getting ready, if one poster on the blog is correct (and it's hard to bet against him given the state of things.

On my way out the President and Publisher of our very large region told me that there will be more layoffs in February 2009. He/She said that what everyone did this week will be small in comparison to the next round. This person said that Bob Dickey and his senior advisors were looking at another 5,000 to 6,000 people and this time that number won't include "to be hired" heads.
I am glad I am now gone and I do have plenty of stories to tell.

Chances are, wherever that writer winds up will likely be better than where he came from. The tricky part is finding somewhere to land.
Very tricky indeed.

Why You Should Be Scared If You Work For Tribune

The Euphemistic Sam Zell Strikes Again

In reading Sam Zell's mea culpa for why Tribune filed for Chapter 11, as expected, I'm reminded of an old Al Jaffee cartoon from Mad magazine, where you see a pilot coming out to tell his passengers that everything is OK, while he has a parachute strapped to his back.

To wit:

By restructuring our debt, we will reduce the pressure on the company’s operating businesses, enabling us to pursue our vision of creating a sustainable, cutting-edge media company that is valued by our readers, viewers, and advertisers, and that plays a vital role in the communities we serve.

But wait! There's more!

This filing should (my emphasis) not impact the way you do your jobs on a day-to-day basis. We will continue to operate responsibly in a challenging environment – aggressively (euphemism alert!) managing costs and maximizing revenue opportunities.
Uh, oh. Cue the parachute.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Tribune Goes To Zell In a Handbasket


Likely Bankruptcy Filing Hardly A Shocker; What's More Surprising is What Took So Long

When I last pondered in August the fate of Tribune, I continued to marvel over the lingering state of denial in which Sam Zell and his gang of sycophants were living in. Nobody really wanted to talk seriously about how the company was going to start paying down nearly $13 billion in debt, including $512 million due in June.

But the real reason was simple: they didn't have the foggiest idea. After all, you can't simply satisfy your bankers by selling assets, especially when many of them are worth less each day (read newspaper division).

Now they're starting to wake up from their idea coma (sorry, Lee Abrams) and find that reality does indeed bite. That's why various news organizations, including Tribune's flagships The Chicago Tribune and The Los Angeles Times, are reporting tonight the likelihood Tribune will go Chapter 11.

Actually, they weren't the ones who broke the news of their own twisted fate. The Wall Street Journal , where I'm sure Rupert Murdoch is gloating at least a little, gets props for that. But in the end, it's the only real solution at hand. When you owe as much as Tribune does, and your cash flow is choking more than the Cubs did in the playoffs, then you need a bankruptcy court trustee to act as a white knight.

But even if the company emerges from bankruptcy with a balance sheet that shows some signs of life, that doesn't mean its employees should start whistling "Happy Days Are Here Again." All of the properties will have to downsize even more than they have -- if that's even possible. Luxuries like bureaus, badly needed upgrades for digital media and staff critics could become a thing of the past. Ditto for any real reason to read the papers.

And the death spiral continues.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Enjoy Newsday's Sports Columnists? You Won't Soon

UPDATE: Keith Kelly in The New York Post reported it was Johnette Howard, Shaun Powell and Ken Davidoff who will lose their columns, though it's possible Davidoff could remain as a reporter

Three of Them Getting Ax in Long Island Paper's Latest Round of Cutbacks

Cablevision/The Dolans have apparently gotten their first whiff of the newspaper business since it bought Newsday earlier this year and found out it really does stink.
That's why Newsday is cutting 100 jobs or 5 percent of its workforce. It's expected more than two dozen will come from the newsroom.
As editor John Mancini noted in his memo:
"In addition, we will be reorganizing Photo, resulting in a significantly smaller staff. We will also eliminate the Sports Columnist category, which includes three staffers, and the research position in Albany. These decisions will mean further job reductions or will require staffers to move into other job categories."
Newsday used to have a sports section with few rivals. Now it's clout and quality continue to recede.
Exactly who will get canned still isn't known. But if you go by what Mancini says, then Shaun Powell, Johnette Howard and Wally Matthews are vulnerable.
But then there's TV sports guy Neil Best, outdoors columnist Tom Schlichter and high-school columnist Gregg Sarra.
Some could be reassigned. Others will be gone.
They deserve better. Then again, you could say the same for most of the 12,000+ people who lost their newspaper jobs this year nationwide.
It's a dire move, and one the Dolans don't want to talk about, even with its own employees. Which is why James Madore wrote in the paper's account of the layoffs: Sources told Newsday that most of the affected workers would be offered a buyout package and would have two weeks or so to decide whether to accept it."
It's pathetic Newsday would be tight-lipped on specifics, especially to its own people, but at least give Madore credit for being able to get that line past his editors.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Denver: Get Ready To Become a One-Newspaper Town

Rocky Mountain News Is For Sale When No One's Looking To Buy

Scripps is throwing in the towel in Denver.
It's put the Rocky Mountain News up for sale, after deciding the $15 million it expects to lose this year was just too much to take.
"Our 50 percent of the cash flow generated by the Denver Newspaper Agency is no longer enough to support the Rocky, leaving us with no choice but to seek an exit,” says Scripps CEO Rich Boehne.
That's right. Even in the relative sanctuary of a joint operating agreement with the Denver Post, where both papers maintain separate newsrooms, but share business operations, the Rocky is still bleeding cash big-time.
Boehne says Scripps would seek a buyer within the next month. But this line is very telling:
"Scripps said it will consider offers for the Rocky and its interest in the agency through mid-January of next year. If no acceptable offers arise, the company said it will examine its other options."
However, I'm hearing from a source in Denver that's a thinly veiled euphemism for closing the place down.
Given the free fall that the newspaper business finds itself in, a buyer is highly unlikely to emerge, especially if it needs financing to complete a sale, as any suitor most certainly would.
Sad to say, but the fall of the Rocky could be the first of many in 2009.

Meanwhile, Michael Roberts in Westword offers this trenchant observation:

"[T]here's a sense among multiple Rocky staffers that the Denver Post is in financial trouble, too -- perhaps even worse than its crosstown competitor. This scenario suggests that the two papers have been engaged in a staredown for quite some time -- which explains an on-the-record rhetorical question from reporter April Washington: 'Why does Scripps always blink first?'"

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

We Bombed In White Plains: Journal-News Axes Drama Critic Jacques Le Sourd

After They Trimmed Fat, Now Gannett Is Trimming What's Left of Muscle

As Gannett goes about the business of gutting its newsrooms as part of an effort to trim 10 percentof its staff, there is little rhyme or reason of who stays and who goes.
Well, maybe not quite. Sometimes, it just comes down to money, which is easy enough to do when most of your newspapers are non-union.

And so it goes for Jacques Le Sourd, who has been the drama critic for Gannett, in whatever it has called its newspapers in New York's northern suburbs, since 1975.
Now, it's one lumbering title, The Journal-News (a former employer of mine), which announced yesterday it was cutting 36 employees. But none were mentioned by name. However, word quickly got out yesterday that Le Sourd was among them, and his departure was duly noted by Michael Riedel in the New York Post.
You could make an argument that a theatre critic is a luxury best disposed of at a time of austerity in the news business. And the Journal-News has never been mistaken for an overstaffed operation.
Still, Le Sourd is as close to an institution as the paper had, and not just because he lasted as long as he did. Le Sourd's criticism was winning because it was informed, unflinching and always honest. The guy's B.S. detector was always on.

"The show features really bad acting, a hideous set, ugly costumes, ridiculous choreography, a grim-looking chorus, a dumb story and an overall, giant leap backward when it comes to concept."

"The show has substandard songs. It has stars ready to deliver material that they don't get from the authors. It has a book that twists on itself so it winds up in a hopeless gnarl.
By the time you find out whodunit, you really don't care."

Le Sourd could be withering, but not in the John Simon sort of way -- being vicious for the sake of being vicious.
If he didn't like something he was not shy. But this was clearly a man who loved the theatre and was happy to share his passion when something worked, like Spring Awakening.
"This show does what we had almost forgotten Broadway shows are supposed to do: For a couple of hours, it takes your mind out of the preoccupations of your life, to a different time and place."
The Journal-News functionaries believe they can get by without Le Sourd. Maybe so. But that's not a good thing, especially when the paper keeps offering fewer reasons for why people should spend (now 75 cents!) their money on its pallid product.
Judging by the latest circulation numbers (101,000 and falling), the J-N keeps getting panned by readers. It's a safe bet that Le Sourd won't be one of them.