Thursday, January 29, 2009

Why A New Volkswagen Ad Bugs Me

What You Really See In Spot for the CC

I haven't been in a Volkswagen CC yet, but the early buzz is good and, at the very least, it looks like a winner. It looks like it wants to be an Audi or mid-level BMW but without the price tag. At least to a point.
That was driven home in a TV spot I caught yesterday, which featured plenty of angles that gave the CC a come-hither look and was tagged with a screen that offered a $299 monthly lease with $2,699 down.
But wait, there's more.
On the bottom of the screen, there was -- in slightly smaller type -- "As shown...." Turns out, the car that had gotten our attention could be had, but only for a lease payment of $519 a month with $2,699 down.
Bit of a spread there, huh?
So, there's nothing deceptive about the ad, in a sense. They tell you everything that needs to be told. But there was that nagging come-on of $299. In theory, you could get a car for that price, but good luck.
That number would be based on the MSRP for the CC Sport, which is $26,790. But the model shown on the CC home page, the VR6 Sport, goes for $38,700. It's rare to see two models of the same car priced so disparately.
I'd be curious as to how many of the cheaper Sports you'd find at your local VW dealer. I'll place a safe wager on not many.
They may have a few in stock only to show how it pales in comparison to the next model up, which stickers at $32,350. After all, you couldn't possibly do without leather seats, rain-sensing wipers and a kick-ass sunroof, for starters.
It seems like a waste that VW would have an entry-level model -- especially when it's not priced like one -- if only for the sake of a teaser rate for a TV spot.
Chances are if you head to the showroom you'd opt for a sportier version of the CC than the Sport. That might be exactly what's intended, but it's a cynical approach to marketing from a company whose success has been built on advertising that's been anything but cynical over the years.

Newspaper Layoff News With Refreshing Bit of Candor

Capital-Gazette in Annapolis Doesn't Sugarcoat Its Problems

When newspapers slash away at their payroll nowadays, it's hardly news. And when it's revealed, the copy is like day-old toast, as if it was dictated by a fraidy-cat lawyer than written by a reporter.
So, it was surprising -- not to mention refreshing -- to see how the Capital-Gazette in Annapolis, Md., reported how 29 percent of its parent company's workforce will soon be no more.
This passage is most atypical of the trove of layoff dispatches:

Bob Gilbert, a 28-year employee who has been The Capital's photo editor for 15 years, said he saw it coming. He said he was told to start looking for another job months ago.
Although he said he didn't appreciate how "clumsy" the way the layoffs were announced, Mr. Gilbert feels more fortunate than some of the other employees who lost their jobs. Mr. Gilbert has some vacation saved, as well as a pension and Social Security benefits.

It's a safe bet you'll never see a passage like that in a Gannett or MediaNews paper. In fact, I haven't.
But all the candor doesn't mask the larger problems underlying the C-G and its brethren, especially a quote from publisher Tom Marquardt who said that revenues for what should be fat December newspapers were "so far off our worst expectations."
There's no way to sugar coat that, and kudos to the Capital-Gazette for not even trying.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Give This Gannett Employee A Hug

The Poster Child For A Company Gone Horribly Wrong

On the must-read Gannett Blog today there is a post that blog moderator Jim Hopkins chose to highlight rather than leave it as a comment.
It comes from an employee at one of Gannett's Michigan papers. That means the anonymous writer not only works for a company that's essentially trying to strangle itself, the writer is also in a state with the nation's highest unemployment rate at 10.6 percent.
So, if the writer wants to ply his trade elsewhere in the state, it's pretty much impossible to do so, especially with just about every newspaper in a hiring freeze or, like Gannett, shedding bodies at a precipitous rate.

"My friends don't get it. They make the argument that I should "just quit if it's so bad." They are, however, as clueless as the leadership.
My family gets it. I see the worry in their faces when I vent about the day. It tears out my insides to see that so I've stopped telling them. They are the constant of joy and happiness in my life and I won't let Gannett touch that."

The post generated quite a response, including another Gannettoid in Michigan, who summed it up, all too correctly.

"Yeah. It's cold in Michigan.
I'm afraid it's going to get a lot colder."

Pin These Words To The Bulletin Board In The Press Room

"A Relationship That's Respectful." What A Concept in the White House
When President Obama made an impromptu visit to the White House press room yesterday, he said he wanted to "try to have a relationship that's respectful and where you guys feel like you're actually getting answers."
Let's put that one in the cautious-optimism file. Given his statements about letting the sun shine in on government operations and err on the side of openness instead of the reflexive secrecy practiced by the Bush administration, you have to like the chances of this happening.
Then again, the way reporters got into a huff over how the White House handled access to Oath: The Sequel, they won't be cutting Robert Gibbs & Co. too much slack, if there's any slack left at all.
Getting to know you, getting to know all about you......

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Byron Pitts Hears The Stopwatch Ticking

And That's A Good Thing; "60 Minutes" Continues Assembling Next Generation of Correspondents

I first campaigned back in 2007 for Byron Pitts to get the nod to replace Ed Bradley on "60 Minutes," having been an admirer of his hard work and versatility both as a viewer and a former colleague.

So, I'm pumped up to hear he'll be a contributing correspondent to the show, with a minimum of six pieces a year. Let's hope for more.

"He's the right guy for the right job at the right time," CBS News President Sean McManus told The Daily News.

Damn right.

Bulletproof. Fireproof. Proofread.

Quick, Somebody Call the Hyperbole Police! There's an Emergency at Money Magazine

In the painfully thin February issue of Money magazine (cheap paper stock and just 108 pages), one of the cover refers takes us to a story on "6 Ways to Bulletproof Your Job."
However, when you get to the story, it has been disarmed. Now it's called "Fireproof Your Job."
Whatever they called it, it's regrettably filled with truisms and bromides than real advice. Among them:
"Share client leads or ideas to generate revenue even if that's not part of your responsibilities."
"[M]ake an effort to to associate with the people the boss respect most and who routinely nab the best assignments."
"[Y]ou may be able to save your job by offering to forgo a bonus or take a cut in base salary in exchange for, say, stock options or a temporary cut in hours."

It amounts to advice coming from people who sound like they've never been laid off before. In other words, they have no idea what they're talking about. But that doesn't stop them from being quoted by Money.
It doesn't matter what they say, they're experts, right?
The reality is who stays and who goes when there's a layoff-involuntary separation--reduction in force is invariably a lot more complicated than whether you're a team player or are foolish enough to volunteer to work more and get paid less.
I know this from someone who's been on both sides of the fence when the pink slips have rained down. Being good, hell, even being a superstar means squat if some chairman sitting 3,000 miles away decides he wants profits to increase another 3 percent, and it's decided your team can be cut in half.
There's no such thing as being indispensable anymore, plain and simple.
That's the real story that should have been written.

Unpaid Furloughs at Gannett: Here We Go Again

Fresh Out of Tourniquets, Keeper of the Mediocre-Newspaper Flame Uses Band-Aid To Stop A Gusher

When Gannett finally confirmed today it would impose unpaid one-week furloughs on virtually all employees (yes, including the C-suite), the company made it sound like it was doing them a favor.
After all, Gannett, like all other newspaper companies have been buffeted by stiff economic headwinds that have since gained hurricane strength. Thus sayeth CEO Craig Dubow:

After much consideration, we decided a furlough program would be the fairest and least intrusive way to meet these fiscal challenges in the first quarter, which is traditionally the lightest time of the year. We sincerely hope this minimizes the need for any layoffs going forward.

My question: Exactly when was the last time any one in Gannett senior management was sincere?
And nowadays, hope, like talk, is cheap. Trust me, from someone who's been there, Gannett knows cheap.
The furlough -- Gannett did this as well during the recession in the early 90s -- is but a salve, one that will temporarily ease the sting of a plunging bottom line at Gannett HQ. But no one, not for a nanosecond, should believe this will shelve future RIFs contemplated this year and beyond.
Look no further than Gannett's next big hope, ContentOne, whose primary aim is to attract advertisers to all Gannett platforms, and less about improving content. Much less.
The speculation on Gannett Blog and elsewhere is that what's billed as a new marketing initiative and advertising "solution" will, among other things, result in the demise of local feature sections. All lifestyle content in Gannettland will be essentially the same, by and large.
All of which has everything and nothing to do with the furlough except add insult to injury. You lose a week's pay, and before you know it, you lose your job too.
But at least Gannett is still paying a 20 percent dividend on its sickly stock. If only its employees had enough money to buy some.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Saying The Right Things In Saving Five Connecticut Newspapers

Now Comes The Hard Part

With word that an angel, in the form of Michael Schroeder (left), has come forward to rescue five Connecticut newspapers slated for extinction by Journal Register is the kind of good news few thought they would ever hear.
After all, you're talking about two small dailies, the Bristol Press and Herald of New Britain, both with circulations under 10,000 and falling, along with three small weeklies.
The Bristol Press story trumpets that Schroeder is president of Central Connecticut Communications. What it doesn't tell you, and what the Journal Register press release on the sale does, is that the company was actually formed for the express purpose of buying the papers.
Schroeder is no media mogul. In fact, he was most recently publisher of BostonNOW, a short-lived free daily.

But he does have other newspaper bona fides as a 15-year veteran of Newsday.
No terms were announced. But it's a pretty good bet JR let them go without extracting from Schroeder and his backers too much in the way of cash, in exchange for relieving JR of debt service, severance obligations and the like.
So far, he's saying the right things, like promising more depth and emphasis on local news and sports.
“I’m not saving the papers — the community is going to save the papers. Readers are going to support it by buying the paper and advertisers are going to support it by realizing it is the voice of their community.”
We'll see about that. None of them were apparently doing a very good job of that, and it's far from a slam dunk they'd be willing to change their ways now that there's a new publisher in town.
And last time I checked, "depth and analysis" costs money. Readers will soon be able to see just how deep Schroeder's pockets really are.
At least give him credit for trying. Considering the alternative that awaited these papers on Jan. 16, it's more than you could have hoped for.

When A Radio Station Blows Its Chance to Be Interactive

WNYC Wastes Resources, Doesn't Exploit Potential of Investigation on Paid Drug Trials

There are times when I listen to "Morning Edition" on WNYC when the station will break away from NPR and insert stories done by one of its own reporters.
Sometimes, it's an intrusion and you wonder what you're missing on the network feed. More often, the pieces are solid and offer the kind of depth and enterprise otherwise missing from radio news.
So, when WNYC invests the resources to have one of its reporters do an investigative piece, you'd think they'd treat it a little differently and showcase online more than what could be aired. Think again.
Such was the unfortunate case of a 7-minute piece aired Jan.5 where Fred Mogul (above) reported on the burgeoning industry of paid drug trials. As more people are looking to earn cash in a lousy economy, serving as a guinea pig has increased appeal.
It's a complicated issue, but it's one that Mogul deftly outlined and gave all sides a fair hearing. Listeners were given the impression that more information about the story -- and possibly additional installments -- would be available on They weren't.
And therein lies a blown opportunity.
Two days after the piece aired, it's only available if you search with the right keywords (good luck finding it if you just type in "Fred Mogul"). When you do find it, it's just the text of the story. No photos or graphics. No links. No sidebars.
That, of course, doesn't make it any different from how other stories are presented on But that doesn't make it right.
When you have a major story you enterprised, it should be given a broader and more-lasting spotlight on the news home page, rather than lumping it in with everything else. And because it's online, it needs to have some visual appeal and not look like the print equivalent of radio.
The station isn't shy about its online presence. The Web site is constantly mentioned on air. It conducted popular real-time chats during the presidential debates and on election nights. And WNYCers love to Twitter.
So, then, why is the Web site so lame? The station isn't shy about asking us for money. Allocating a few more dollars to making the dot-org version of the station more robust could result in even more donations. And allow WNYC to finance more high-quality investigative reports like this one.

N.Y.Times Front-Page Ad: Turns Out The Sky Didn't Fall, After All

But That Doesn't Mean You Have To Be Happy About It

Perhaps the biggest question about The New York Times putting a display ad on its front page Monday is what took so long?
That doesn't mean anybody -- especially me -- was hungering for an ad at the bottom of the page, for which the Times pocketed an estimated $75,000. But the Times was merely playing catch-up -- albeit grudgingly -- with its newspaper brethren, distinguished and otherwise. Only The Washington Post has been a staunch hold-out, and I suspect that'll change before long given the Post's sorry numbers as of late.
It's all a matter of getting used to something. You don't have to like it, but if it's there long enough, it'll be part of the furniture.
Just like the Times has in the last two years:
---cut its page width
---blown out A2-3 for an unfortunate digest
---reduced the number of sections most days.
---curtailed most daily coverage of the suburbs
---limited coverage of local basketball and hockey teams.

And so on.
But we keep reading. Because even with those regrettable changes, the Times still does what it does better than any other media outlet.
The Times remains the straw that stirs the drink at any network. You know it's the first thing that Robert Thomson or Marcus Brachuli check, even before their own papers.
So, despite the setbacks and the precarious state of the Times' finances, it's a little weird to see someone who should know better, like Michael Hirschorn, commence grave-dancing.
In a piece in The Atlantic, Hirschorn writes it's "certainly plausible" the Times could shut down its print operation this spring.
No, it's not.
Look, no one disputes that the Times, like most other publishers is facing a cash crisis. As Hirschorn writes:
"With more than $1billion in debt already on the books, only $46million in cash reserves as of October, and no clear way to tap into the capital markets (the company’s debt was recently reduced to junk status), the paper’s future doesn’t look good."
But that doesn't mean the Gray Lady will fade to black. Far from it. Even Hirschorn admits the odds of the Times presses not rolling in May are "relatively slim."
You have to know the Sulzbergers will do anything and everything to protect the flagship. There are plenty of ways to do that, including asset sales like the stake in the Boston Red Sox, or trimming fluffy sections and supplements, as Hirschorn advocates.
In the end, the Times as a printed product is too big to fail. That doesn't mean its future doesn't lie online. It probably does, but not now, and probably not in the near future.
It can't, if online generates only 10 percent of the revenues that print does, you can't find a way to get people to pay for content, and short-attention spans of online readers all but precludes in-depth investigations and enterprise reporting.
For now, we just have to hope the Times stays the course in 2009, swallowing hard as the pain from the quarterly earnings releases flow through its veins. Maybe, just maybe, advertisers will start to feel good again next year.
If not, then we can really panic, and start to wonder if the days of finding the Times on our doorstep every morning really are numbered.