Monday, August 17, 2009

Reader's Digest Bankruptcy Merry-Go-Round

How to Flip-Flop Your Way into Chapter 11

From a memo this winter that Reader's Digest Association CEO Mary Berner sent to employees:

As you may have seen, Bloomberg News Service has widely distributed an article reporting that RDA hired Kirkland & Ellis, a law firm that advises in bankruptcy cases and other forms of restructuring ... From this, starting with one unattributed source supposedly "familiar" with the situation, some news articles jumped to conclusions that RDA is filing for bankruptcy.

I want to assure you that this is not true.

Now it is.

RDA announced today it will enter a voluntary pre-packaged bankruptcy plan . Berner was singing a decidedly different tune.
"This agreement in principle with our lenders follows months of intensive strategic review of our balance sheet issues to financially strengthen the company. Restructuring our debt will enable us to have the financial flexibility to move ahead with our growth and transformational initiatives."
Folio had reported on Friday that RDA was on the verge of missing a massive debt payment this week. Now that will indeed happen.
The company told FishbowlNY its cash flow fell $15 million short of its annual debt obligations. Yet another case of a company in deep with its bankers -- $2.2 billion worth -- at a time when the core of its business model melts down. Already, the main Reader's Digest was cut back to 10 issues a year.
It's not a question of enough readers, just not enough of the ones advertisers are willing to pay a premium to reach.
Yes, RDA is about much more than the diminutive magazine that's been a staple of waiting rooms the world over, as Rachael Ray and Rick Warren will tell you. But as the Chapter 11 filing confirms, you need a few more tentpoles to stay solvent.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Latest Layoffs Won't Be End of Bad News at Journal-News

Northern New York Suburbs Short-Shrifted by Short-Sighted, Desperate Management, Greedy Gannett Corporate Overlords

The Journal-News, the Gannett newspaper that purportedly serves Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties north of New York, is dying and it doesn't even know it.
The latest signs that a flatline is nigh: Wednesday's announcement that the paper was cutting 50 jobs -- representing 26 percent of current positions -- of its newsrooms, while excising 20 jobs from the ad department.
Now, this would be just another lamentable layoff post, were it not for the fact that Gannett has actually eliminated all 288 jobs in the news and ad departments. Everyone can apply for new, redefined positions, with snappy titles like "visual specialist" and "local beat reporter." But 70 will be shown the door by Aug. 28. They'll join 57 people in other departments who were canned last week.
It's scary that a lot of people I know -- I worked at the J-N 20 years ago -- are in danger of losing their jobs in a business where they've worked most of their adult lives with little hope of finding another news job if they don't make the cut.
What's even more frightening is they could have even more company sooner than later. Publisher Michael Fisch told a staff meeting that revenues have plunged as much as 35 percent in the past year.
That's money that is never coming back. And judging by the product, why should it? The paper has shrunk its physical size along with its reporting staff. It's essentially given up on covering professional sports. Most towns get only spot coverage, and much of the writing appears to have spawned from press releases.
The J-N has shown it still has a pulse by competing vigorously on the coverage of the crash of Diane Schuler, the wrong-way driver on the Taconic State Parkway who killed eight people, including herself. Of course, you would have assumed the paper would own the story given that it happened on its turf.
But the J-N, as I have pointed out previously, has too often been indifferent or clueless to big stories in its backyard, and has gotten its clock cleaned by The New York Times or stumbled badly on coverage of a rare Westchester tornado, where there was little evidence any of the numerous reporters credited with writing ever left the newsroom.
It's inevitable there will be gaping coverage holes. Even less news will appear in a paper that already has too-few reasons to buy it. Yet, in a remarkable display of cluelessness, Gannett raised the daily newsstand price to 75 cents.
Daily circulation is now about 95,000 and falling. It was about 160,000 when I was last there. Do the math. No matter how hard you try, they don't add up to anything that can be construed as good news for Journal-News employees -- or readers.

Weird Editors' Note of the Week

In Reporting on Jacko Estate Fight, New York Times Says It's Sorry for Doing What It Always Does

This editors' note appeared in yesterday's New York Times:

An article on Aug. 4 about a judge’s ruling granting permanent custody of Michael Jackson’s three children to his mother, Katherine Jackson, and an editors’ note last Thursday, said that lawyers for Mrs. Jackson were considering challenging the two executors of Mr. Jackson’s will on the grounds that they allegedly took advantage of addictions that incapacitated him and impaired his judgment. That allegation was attributed to “people close to the Jackson family who asked not to be named,” and in later copies of the newspaper the original article reported that a spokesman for the executors denied it. Times editors should not have published the anonymously made accusation, unsupported in the article by any evidence or publicly available corroboration — with or without a denial.

So, first we have an editors' note that is, in part, about another editors' note on Aug. 6, which admonished those who worked on the story by saying "The article should have noted that the reporter sought a response from the executors, but that a spokesman declined to speak on the record."
But now the editors apparently feel they didn't go far enough in flagellating the copy desk when it said "Times editors should not have published the anonymously made accusation, unsupported in the article by any evidence or publicly available corroboration — with or without a denial."
What they don't explain is why that anonymous sourcing is more problematic than any other no-name attribution that peppers the Times' pages. The note reads like a pre-emptive strike against a possible lawsuit, however flimsy its foundation would have been.
Then again, if the "people close to the Jackson family" are really not that close, or don't have access to the right information, then your sourcing could give you a case of the heebie-jeebies.
There are too many people wanting to lay claim to even a sliver of the Jackson legacy, and they're stuck in a petri dish where innuendo, rumors and distortions can thrive.
Being first with a story is nice. But being right is a whole lot better. The Times is apparently convinced it wasn't right.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Will Sam Sifton Have a Make-Up Artist on Staff?

Trying to Succeed as the Next New York Times Restaurant Critic When Every Punk at the Front Desk Knows What You Look Like

Good luck to Sam Sifton (right), who today was named the next New York Times restaurant critic. Hope that gym membership is paid up.
After all, becoming pleasantly plump isn't a requirement for the job. However, it could be one of those unpleasant side effects. Ah, but what a job.
Now about this little matter of your mug being pasted on the wall of every restaurant kitchen from Red Hook to Tottenville, that could get a little tricky without a little tonsorial prestidigitation, not to mention a hat and fake beard.
My guess is he already has a couple of months worth of reviews in the can to get a head start on the front of the room trying to hunt him down.
And you can recognize him and kiss his balding pate all you want. If the food sucks, it sucks. And I doubt he'll by shy about letting us know that.
Now comes the jockeying to replace Sifton as arts editor. And you thought reviewing restaurants was rough.

The Primadonna in the Newsroom a Prime Problem for The New York Times

Fear and Loathing on the Copy Desk: What Happens When the Alessandra Stanleys of the News Business Are Coddled, Primped and Revered

James Rainey in the Los Angeles Times has a searing look at the star system at The New York Times, which helped foster the F.U.B.A.R. assessment of Walter Cronkite by Alessandra Stanley that had more holes than your typical brick of Swiss cheese.
Rainey builds on a problem I pointed out as far back as 2005, that Times editors, particularly in the arts section, don't challenge their critics to write better or more accurately, especially Stanley.
Rainey quotes former Times public editor Byron Calame as saying "a lot of New York Times editors don't feel, in their gut, they have the right to challenge veteran and star reporters and columnists the way they need to."
No kidding.
And why? Maybe, as Calame suggests, it just wasn't worth the headache when it came to Stanley.
As Rainey writes:

Both of the Times' former public editors -- Daniel Okrent and Calame -- told me their critiques produced sharp rebukes from Stanley. Okrent -- who once criticized the critic for tone, not accuracy -- remembers her as "extremely defensive and hostile," while Calame said she attacked him as a nitpicker.

Stanley has been vigorously defended by Times executive editor Bill Keller, making her, as Rainey accurately labels her one of the "entitled ones."
It's a nice moniker to have, especially when your reviews make their way to the copy desk.
But what Keller and his minions have consistently forgotten, merely being able to write cleverly and intelligently dissect a TV show is not enough.
You have to first remember you are still a journalist. That means get your facts straight and let the rest flow from there. Failing that, anything else you do or say will lack resonance and be devoid of credibility. A critic is nothing without those attributes.
If Stanley is so important to the Times, then her shortcomings as a reporter need to be more closely scrutinized. It's not that she doesn't know better. She served as Rome bureau chief and a White House correspondent. You can't stay in those jobs by getting facts sort of, kind of, right.
So, it's hard to see why she -- and the Times -- blithely fail to apply the same criteria to TV criticism. The Arts pages may be in the C section, but they deserve A-list treatment. And when the Times allows Stanley to slide, as she has, it deserves an F.

UPDATE: Bill Keller responded to Editor & Publisher with the complete text of his email conversation with Rainey. He actually agrees with many of my sentiments about feckless editors. But putting them into practice is another matter altogether.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Euna and Laura Coming Home With Bubba

It's Good News! Really. Did Someone Forget to Say Smile?
Bill Clinton's a rock star again, now that North Korea has pardoned journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling.
Guess Kim Jong-Il was suitably impressed that a former president made the schlep to say "pretty please, end this diplomatic nightmare so we can all go to bed happy and maybe, just maybe, restart those six-nation talks. Plus, I brought you a stack of new DVDs already dubbed." Or something like that. After all, it was described by KCNA as an "exhaustive conversation."
Either way, congrats to Lee and Ling.
And still no mention of this on the Current TV site.
Lighten up, Al. It's over. Time to celebrate. Unlike these guys in the picture.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Alessandra Stanley Is the Luckiest Critic on the Planet

It's No Longer Enough to Merely be Good, But Error-Prone Times TV Critic Keeps Having Teflon Sprayed On Her By Bosses

In reading Clark Hoyt's column in yesterday's New York Times, it was good to see the paper at least had a clue about the myriad of mistakes chief TV critic Alessandra Stanley is wan to make when she serves up a review.
But what Hoyt left unanswered is how Stanley has been allowed to do her job for so long when she's so often wrong.
The latest contretemps involved her July 18 appraisal of Walter Cronkite, which was bad even by Stanley's standards.

As Hoyt tells us:

"The Times published an especially embarrassing correction on July 22, fixing seven errors in a single article — an appraisal of Walter Cronkite, the CBS anchorman famed for his meticulous reporting. The newspaper had wrong dates for historic events; gave incorrect information about Cronkite’s work, his colleagues and his program’s ratings; misstated the name of a news agency, and misspelled the name of a satellite."

Hoyt goes on to expertly dissect what went wrong both with Stanley's prose and the editing that allowed it to make it into the paper in its addled state. To her credit, Stanley told Hoyt "This is my fault. There are no excuses."
But what about all of her other mistakes over the years? The Times apparently knew the modus operandi of Stanley, who Hoyt labels a "prolific writer much admired by editors for the intellectual heft of her coverage."

Yet: "Stanley was the cause of so many corrections in 2005 that she was assigned a single copy editor responsible for checking her facts," Hoyt writes. And even though her error rate went down "precipitously" since then, she's now riding near the top of the error chart and will "again get special editing attention."

I've been among those who have flogged Stanley in the past for her errors, her rhetorical excess, and for playing fast and loose with facts that she risked a lawsuit and engendered a rebuke from another Times public editor in 2005.
Yet, somehow she manages to keep her job, when mere mortals like us who toil in the news business would have been out on our butts if we botched copy as often as she did.
Surely, there are other TV critics who could provide "intellectual heft" and also get their facts straight. Yet, Bill Keller and the rest of the Times brass refuse to take off their rose-colored glasses and instead squander precious resources on fact-checking her every word.
When I went to the Times website to look at some of Stanley's recent work, I kept getting an error message that said "This page encountered an error."
Don't I know it.