Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Buy A Newspaper and Chill Out

British Study Finds Reading Can Reduce Stress

Now you can help save print journalism and your nerves at the same time.
A study at the University of Sussex found that reading, even for only six minutes at a time, is more effective at reducing stress than listening to music, taking a walk, or having tea.
As local paper The Argus reports: "Psychologists say this is because the human mind has to concentrate on reading and the distraction eases the tensions in muscles and the heart."
OK, so presumably you can read a magazine or book and achieve the same salutary effect. And reading about how the economy, the latest natural disaster or terror attack doesn't exactly do wonders for the nerves.
But that's why there are comics, the sports section and food pages. Even in the most-middling of newspapers, there is usually something to distract you from the rest of the world if only for a little while.
Surely that's worth 50 cents a day.
What's that? Many of those Gannett and McClatchy papers that have decimated their news holes are boosting their newsstand price to 75 cents? Hmmm, maybe a book's not such a bad idea, after all.

Sun-Times Minces No Words About Its Own Bankruptcy

Up Yours, Conrad Black!

The only surprise about the Sun-Times Co. filing for bankruptcy is the fact that it took so long to reach this point.
The company behind Chicago's perennial underdog paper has long been in Chateau Bow-Wow from a fiscal standpoint.
The bromides were left to Chairman and Interim CEO Jeremy Halbreich in a letter to readers. As for the news story about the Chapter 11 filing, the gloves came off in the story by David Roeder:

The company has one significant creditor -- the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS has said Sun-Times Media Group owes up to $608 million in back taxes and penalties from past business practices by its former controlling owner, Conrad Black, now imprisoned for theft from corporate coffers.

Kudos for not beating around the bush and making note that your former owner was a crook and big-time fraud.

Sun-Times Media Group shares are traded on the Pink Sheets and closed Monday worth just a nickel each. That means that based on the stock, the entire company is worth about $4 million. As of Nov. 7, the company had assets of $479 million and liabilities of $801 million, according to the bankruptcy filing.

And now those shareholders foolish enough to hold on, even at that price, will be wiped out, as the article notes. More ominously, for employees, Halbreich said he will use bankruptcy to seek "unspecified concessions."
My guess is you don't need a road map to know where Halbreich is heading with that. Time to fasten your seatbelts over at North Orleans St.

Monday, March 30, 2009

A Busy Day, But Many Detroit Newspaper Customers Can't Read All About It

Debut of Three-Day-A-Week Home Delivery for Free Press, News, Not a Good One

Let's say you wanted to scan the Detroit Free Press today over your morning coffee. Or, maybe you were looking forward to sitting down with the Detroit News after getting the kids off to school.
You could, but you would have had to track down a coinbox or run out to a convenience store to find one. Or, you would've had to sit in front of your computer. And maybe that's the point.
Starting today, the Detroit papers will only be delivered to homes on Thursday, Friday and Sunday, when 82 percent of the papers' revenue is generated. The other days: you'll have to leave the house to grab a slimmed-down version of the papers or read it online.
Suffice to say, today was a bad day to end 7-day delivery. First, the Obama administration helps give GM CEO Rick Wagoner the boot. Then, Michigan State University makes it to the Final Four. In other words, the two topics -- autos and sports -- that matter the most in the Detroit area had diminished coverage on days when there were blockbuster developments.
To be sure, both papers acquitted themselves with the coverage of both stories online and have continued to update them as events unfolded. But the Freep and News are still newspapers more than they are Web sites, and you can hardly count on readers to switch from digital to print and back depending on the day.
Indeed, both papers could wind up drawing more readers online, as they get used to that routine. And that's a problem, given that online revenues, despite growing readership, still account for no more than 10 percent of a typical paper's ad revenue.
Printing three days a week could turn into no days a week. That's a story no one in Detroit should ever have to read about online.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Who Wants To Come Out and Play(Boy)?

No Charge For A Peek at Digital Archives; Thanks Hef

Free Playboy!
OK, so we're talking about selections from its digital archive, going back to 1954, when women were women and silicone hadn't yet been invented.
And it's not just the T&A that you get the gawk at from the privacy of your P.C. It's the whole magazine, including the ads, the cartoons, party jokes and, of course, the interviews, which is why you really read the magazine. Right? RIGHT?
As Folio notes, no age verification is required. But maybe most of what's on display is nothing we haven't seen in an R-rated movie or Cinemax on Friday nights. Except Hef always left us something for the imagination.
That was part of the fun as much as it was finding where your father hid his copies.

Michigan Newspapers Going Way of Model T

Reduced-Frequency Contagion Spreads from Detroit

March 30 is D-Day in Detroit for when the Freep and News cut back to delivering to three days a week and printing a slimmed-down edition the other four days for the coinboxes and newsstands.
Better than nothing, I guess.
At least readers will at least have the opportunity to read a paper -- and not just online -- seven days a week.
That's a luxury that won't be afforded to three Michigan papers put out by Newhouse's Advance Publications in Flint, Saginaw and Bay City. They'll cut down to three days a week -- Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays. Period.
Of course, there will be "enhanced web offerings" and what not. "Information is consumed differently in the 21st century, and our new direction is focused on that pattern," Flint Journal publisher David Sharp wrote in a letter to readers. "We will no longer be just a print medium. We are evolving into a company that will offer information and advertising through video, digital, direct marketing and print channels."
Translation: The economy's so lousy in eastern Michigan, not enough of you are left to buy the paper, so it costs more to run the presses than we take in most days."
Not that the other five Advance papers in Michigan are immune.
Editor & Publisher reported the Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, Jackson and Muskegon papers will consolidate their editorial and production work in Grand Rapids this summer, while the Ann Arbor News will shut down in July after 174 years in business and go online-only.
Meanwhile, employees at other Advance papers are facing the prospects of unpaid furloughs of up to 10 days and no more pension contributions.
The economic stimulus and buying-up of toxic assets may eventually help the Michigan economy. But you may not be able to read about it in the local paper.

Newspaper Job Loss Site Can't Keep Up

The Lousy Numbers Reported by Paper Cuts Are Even Worse

St. Louis Post-Dispatch graphic designer Erica Smith has been providing a valuable if somber public service for the better part of the year chronicling the inexorable contraction of the newspaper industry on her blog Paper Cuts.
Smith has been keeping close track of the job lost at American papers, and this year has identified at least 6,169, with the first quarter not even done.
And by the time you read this, that number will go higher. Today, Smith mentions the 82 layoffs at the Charlotte Observer, but so far has not tallied the 53 who will be leaving McClatchy sister paper the Lexington Herald-Leader.
Not that I'm faulting Smith, far from it. The job cuts -- along with the salary reductions for those who remain -- are simply coming too fast and furious.
Besides, she needs to concentrate more on her job. Fortunately, she still has one to go to. At least for now.

ABC Turns to NPR To Help It Explain Toxic Assets

Keeping It Simple Not That Simple

Yesterday's "Good Morning America" tried to do us a favor by explaining toxic assets in a way most friendly to an audience still shaking off its morning stupor.
Correspondent John Hendren likened them to a couple of bad apples at a fruit stand standing in for a bank. The apples look great on the outside but are all gnarly once you bite into them. Buyers can't tell which apples are bad so they stop buying them altogether. And so on.
A good analogy. And if it's one that sounds like something you'd hear from the "Planet Money" folks at NPR, well, that's probably no accident.
In fact, the sole person interviewed in the GMA piece was NPR's international business and economics correspondent Adam Davidson (above), who's adept at explaining abstruse economic ideas in a gee-whiz, common-sense way.
I don't know whether Davidson has used some variation of the "bad apples" to explain toxic assets, but it wouldn't surprise me.
GMA may have felt it was better to go to someone who could help them do Toxic Assets For Dummies better than they could rather than re-invent the wheel. That makes sense. As for how all those assets got so toxic in the first place, that's a different matter.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Future for Journalism Schools Is.... (Fill in the Blank)

The Real Answer May Be: It Depends

I was visiting a former boss yesterday who's now a higher-up at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism school in New York, which takes pride in playing the brash upstart to the brahmin of journalism education further uptown -- Columbia.
Inside at the school, just three years old, were students who appeared earnestly devoted to pursuing a career in the news business. Not PR. Not advertising, but news, damn it, in whatever form it may take in the years to come.
They're helped toward that end with some high-profile faculty, including interactive journalism guru Jeff Jarvis, media critic Eric Alterman and Pulitzer winners from Newsday and The New York Times.
Still, most of what happens will be up to them. Hopefully, they'll graduate with a bit more enlightenment than their counterparts in Australia, where a survey found that 90 percent of journalism students don't like reading a newspaper. However, they do like to watch TV and go online. That's fair dinkum, mate.
"They said that newspapers are impractical, they fall apart, you have to buy them," said Alan Knight, the professor who conducted the study. "There are too many long-winded articles, there's no search engines and worst of all they get ink on your fingers."
This from the land of Rupert Murdoch -- for better or worse, one of the most ardent champions of newspapers, even if that makes him a member of an ever-shrinking club. Sigh.
And it looks like they have plenty of company, according to a Pew Research Center study. It found only one-third of people would miss reading their local newspaper if it was no longer published, though 43 percent agreed no paper would hurt "civic life in their community a lot."
Unfortunately, those sentiments may be put to the test in many communities a lot sooner than later.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

NPR Audio Meltdown Makes for Difficult Listening

No, We Don't Know. You Know?

NPR is having a slog of it today.
What were only described by "All Things Considered"co-host Robert Siegel as "technical difficulties," have prevented any soundbites or taped reports to be heard.
So, the 5 p.m. ET hourly newscast was a straight read by Jack Speer. Any reports from correspondents were turned into Q&A sessions. That's all well and good, and such segments are normally part of the mix on "ATC" and "Morning Edition.
The problem occurs when it sounds like the correspondent had a taped piece completed, but now that it can't air, has to finesse a live shot -- and isn't quite prepared for that.
The normally solid Chris Arnold (above), who's done yeoman work on the financial crisis, was reporting on another good day on Wall Street. But his Q&A with Siegel, which lasted about 3 1/2 minutes, contained at least 15 instances when Arnold said "you know."
I've long had a problem with "you know." Because you know what? I don't know. That's why I'm listening -- so I will know.
It's one of those crutches that people fall back on when they can't think of anything else to say. Arnold knows how to speak, and we're all entitled to a bad day.
But "you know" is the rhetorical equivalent of nails on a blackboard. It has no place on a network newscast, especially 15 times in one segment.
You know?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

San Francisco Chronicle Union Breaks Itself

In Order to Save Paper, Did It Really Have to Give Away the Store?

There's a consensus the San Francisco Chronicle's finances are in the crapper and have been for some time.
Hearst claimed it was losing at least $1 million a week putting out the Bay Area's leading broadsheet and threatened to close or sell the Chronicle if the unions didn't help by coughing up significant concessions.
So, that's what the California Media Workers Guild has done, in a tentative pact announced last night. But in so doing, it basically consigned the careers of some of its longest-tenured members to the dustbin.
The union represents 483 workers, about 150 of them will be pink-slipped. Some of the concessions are to be expected -- reductions in vacation, sick time, maternity leave and increasing the work week from 37.5 hours to 40 hours.
But what I -- as a former shop steward in two unions -- find most troubling is that in spite of all of those givebacks, the Guild agreed to even more draconian cuts that render it all but irrelevant. Despite the company's dire straits, I don't know how you could possibly allow employees to be fired without regard to seniority, as the Guild has done.
Nor can I countenance letting the Chronicle subcontract any and all work, as the Guild has done. That means the Chronicle could effectively set up an agency outside the paper that uses freelance journalists in lieu of those already in the newsroom. That means even more cuts -- again, without regards to seniority.
More likely, the subcontracting will be felt more acutely in advertising and ad production, where employees are also covered by the Guild. Or were. The union won't have any jurisdiction when that work is shipped over to Bangalore or points unknown.
Yes, it's bad by the Bay and not likely to get better anytime soon.
But in union negotiations you give to get. If all the union is getting is some assurances -- but no guarantees -- that the paper will live on and some jobs will be preserved, that could prove to be a hollow victory. The Guild contract expires in June 2010.
Then what do you give back?

Monday, March 09, 2009

CNBC Gets Kid Gloves Treatment From New York Times

Not Asking the Questions About Rick Santelli That Needed Answers

So, Jon Stewart pimp-slaps CNBC last Wednesday after the network canceled an appearance on "The Daily Show" by viral ranter Rick Santelli. Stewart's eight-minute tirade didn't get quite as much attention as Santelli's fulminations about the Obama administration's mortgage plan. But it was a lot funnier and definitely hit its mark.
Can you say ouch?
Along comes The New York Times, which has a longish piece in today's business section about CNBC, which asked "Was last week the worst one in CNBC’s 20-year history — or the best?"
We don't get the answer to that question. Nor is there any real examination of an increasingly troubling trend at CNBC -- where anchors and reporters start spouting their opinions along with the guests. That often results in nothing more than a lot of people yelling at each other rather than any real discourse.
But what was really lacking from the article, as Variety's Brian Lowry has also mentioned -- is a response from CNBC to its skewering by Stewart or White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs getting all nasty on Santelli and Jim Cramer.
Which is important, given that CNBC has not said anything publicly about Santelli dissing Stewart. But the Times was certainly in a position to find out, given they spoke with CNBC prexy Mark Hoffman.
Even if Hoffman said "no comment," which would have been pretty dumb, we should have been told that. It just might be that CNBC can dish it out, but can't take it. If that's indeed the case, the Times wasn't letting on.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Hearst Not Really Sincere About Online Post-Intelligencer

Sure, It May Actually Happen, but Seattle Times Has Nothing to Worry About

Now that Hearst has made it clear that no white knight will step in to take the Seattle Post-Intelligencer off its hands, it's making tentative steps to turn the paper into an online-only operation.
But given the scant details that have leaked out, it's hard to see why Hearst would even bother. According to the P-I, it would employ only about 20 people. That, in and of itself would not be suprising, if you go by the generally accepted model that online only gets about 10 percent of the revenue that the print version generates.
Still, given the skeletal staff, it's hard to see what the value proposition is for readers -- and advertisers -- in an online P-I without the support of a larger newsroom to draw from. It's debatable how much, if anything, it could offer that readers couldn't get from rival the Seattle Times, even if that paper has its own financial woes. But at least it would still have some semblance of a newsroom.
No such luck at the P-I.
In addition, Hearst seems to be making it easy for journalists to walk away from the offer to work at the site, no small feat in this economy.

One metro reporter, Hector Castro ... said the offer increased his health insurance cost, cut his salary by an unspecified amount, offered to match his 401(k) contributions, required him to forgo his P-I severance pay, reduced his vacation accrual to zero and required him to give up overtime.

Of course, there will be enough staffers desperate enough to sign on even with those draconian terms. Less clear is why they would bother without a stronger product to put out. They may find out the hard way that Hearst will reach that same conclusion before long.

N.Y. Times and W.S. Journal Go Shopping For Retail News

But They Come Home With Different Results

So which is it?

A headline in today's New York Times reads "Retail Sales Slide Further, Except at Wal-Mart."

But in The Wall Street Journal it's "Retail Sales Show Signs of Life."

Who's right? Maybe both.

The Times article by Stephanie Rosenbloom leads off:

The nation’s retailers reported sales results for February that were as bleak as those of recent months — yet they were also slightly better than Wall Street was expecting, and a tentative indicator that economic deceleration may be slowing.

So, that's what passes for good news nowadays -- it was bad, just not as bad as we forecast. But still bad. And in case you had any hopes it was going to get good, easy there, cowboy.

Retailing analysts cautioned against reading too much into the February figures, predicting that coming months would continue to be difficult for stores as consumers settled into more austere lifestyles.

Which us pretty much back where we started. As for the Journal:

Americans finally started spending again in February -- largely at discounters such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. -- leading to the first monthly gain in retail-industry sales since September.

The story from Ann Zimmerman dug a little deeper to find:

Shoppers are spending more on groceries, countertop appliances and cookware as they cut back on trips to restaurants, say retailers.

But again, the glass isn't half full for long.

One month doesn't make a trend, and the economic news remains gloomy. Growing joblessness and difficulties in getting consumer credit continue to weigh on the economy. Consumer confidence also continues at record lows.

And yet....

Even so, "it seems that we are starting to see less negative trends," said Bob Drbul, a retail analyst and managing director at Barclays Capital.

"Less negative." I love it. But try spinning that to a store manager in a mall, many of whom are picking up more lint than new business nowadays.