Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Cynical Yet Pragmatic Move by Tribune and Scripps-Howard

Companies Hope Non-Subscriber Turkeys Will Pay to Gobble Up Circulars and Coupons

From the why-didn't-someone-think-of-this-sooner file comes this item from Bloomberg, reporting that Scripps and Tribune will jack up the newsstand prices for their papers tomorrow to squeeze a few more coins out of casual readers grabbing the papers for the Black Friday sales ads.
And we're not talking just another quarter or so. In some cases, papers are charging the Sunday price or even more.
“It’s a once-in-a-year sort of event for us,” said Mark Contreras, senior vice president of newspapers for E.W. Scripps, publisher of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, told Bloomberg. “The Thanksgiving paper in every place we offer it is the biggest newspaper of the year.”
Scripps and Tribune aren't alone. The Washington Post and the Kansas City Star are also boosting prices.
Contreras said the largest Commercial-Appeal of the year comes out on Thansgiving, when circulation more than doubles to 195,000. "Frankly, I don't know why you wouldn't charge more," he added.
Neither do I. But let's keep it in context. That big paper Contreras is so pleased about will largely come from preprinted ad inserts. In other words, they cost the paper nothing to print, only to distribute. So, profits from higher newsstand prices can be considerable.
But don't think for a moment that more ads mean more articles. Similar to the Detroit Lions' chances of winning tomorrow, its not going to happen.
One MediaNews executive is quoted as saying the Thanksgiving papers offer "real value" because shoppers can ostensibly see all of the best sales in one place.
Let's be clear: the real value is to the publishers, who need to do anything and everything they can to prop up revenues. It also might be the only way they can say happy Thanksgiving with a straight face.

Marcus Brauchli Puts Happy Face on Closing of Washington Post Bureaus

Convinces No One But Himself That Coverage Will Be Undiminished

Not a big surprise, given the state of affairs in the newspaper business, but still regrettable, is word from The Washington Post that it will shutter its last three national bureaus. The remaining reporters in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York will get a chance to work back at the mother ship, but their assistants are out of a job.
You don't need one hand to count the number of papers with a sizable bureau presence outside of Washington. In fact, you can stop after The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and USA Today. Everyone else has pretty much closed up shop and relied on those papers and the A.P. to do the dirty work.
We get it. It's the new paradigm. Unfortunately, Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli doesn't get it, or if he does, isn't letting on. He's quoted in the NY Times saying the Post's "commitment to national news of interest to our readers is undiminished."
All well and good. Only problem: the Post will be doing most of its committing the same way most of the 1,400 remaining papers do: using the A.P. Sure, they can parachute in when something big's going down, and no doubt they will. Then again, the Post's newspaper division lost $166.3 million in the first three quarters this year. So, maybe not.
But there's nothing quite like being there, especially in New York. Now the Post will have to figure out whether to send a reporter to a story outside of D.C. by reading about it somewhere else. At least the Post still has a dozen or so foreign bureaus.
For now.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

New York Times Turns In Wrong Direction to Take a Look at Effects of Recession

And the Main Subject of the A-1 Article by Michael Luo Agrees; When a Comments Section Actually Serves a Useful Purpose

The above-the-fold piece on the front of today's New York Times has a compelling headline: Job Woes Exacting a Heavy Toll on Family Life .
The copy editors did their job. But it appears everyone else involved with the story did not.
The piece by Michael Luo rests on the notion that the "greatest damage inflicted by this recession has not necessarily been financial, but emotional and psychological."
All well and good, except for the fact that Luo goes off the tracks when he focuses on a surburban Dallas man named Paul Bachmuth and his family. Luo adequately chronicles the trials and tribulations the family has experienced since he was laid off in December from a $120,000-a-year job as an energy consultant, including therapy and more than a few arguments and fights.
But the portrait is woefully incomplete, as evidenced by a photo cutline that says, in part: "Mr. Bachmuth ... at a job fair; he got a job offer last week."
Good for him. But why isn't that mentioned in the story? Is he going to take the job? Will the stress and pain that his layoff engendered now go away? Might there actually be a happy ending albeit one woefully inconvenient for the premise of the story?
We don't know, and maybe never will. The article enigmatically ends with a vignette about one of the daughters:

At night, she said, she has taken to stowing her worries away in an imaginary box.
“I take all the stress and bad things that happen over the day, and I lock them in a box,” she said.
Then, she tries to sleep.

If the Times could update the story in a cutline, it's inexplicable that it wouldn't update the story itself -- one that could have changed the story and most likely improved it. Someone else not impressed by how Luo handled the subject is none other than Paul Bachmuth, who in the online comments for the article gave some hint about how he was put through the sausage factory of newsgathering.

Michael Luo sent in an e-mail to a job networking group that I belong to. That is how he found me for this story. I had read a number of Mr. Luo’s articles on the recession and its impacts, and was very happy that someone out there was reporting on this important issue. I agreed to be the subject of this story in the hope that it might help others. However, I conveyed to Mr. Luo many times that I did NOT want the story to portray me and my family as “victims”. We are not. The last thing in the world I want is for people to “feel sorry for me.”

Given that Luo reveals how despite the fact Bachmuth's wife took a part-time job, but did little to help out around the house while idled that's unlikely. But I see his point.
It's a danger when the media tries to report on trends, or perceives a trend and tries to create one. There are no hard numbers on how widespread this problem is, and it might not be one, certainly in relation to the stresses that layoffs otherwise bring on.
No doubt, finding people to go on record to talk about something so difficult is not easy, and I have no doubt Luo labored to find the right subjects. But the Bachmuths weren't them. And the way the article ends it's almost as if Luo got up and left when a bell rang in the newsroom. Shift over. Narrative be damned.
In other words, we didn't get the whole story. When you charge at least $2 for a copy of the paper, it's not too much to ask for, especially when many people out of work can't afford that in the first place.

Time to Bargain for More of David Segal's "The Haggler" Column in New York Times

The "Action Line" Column Moves into the 21st Century

Among my destination reads on Sundays -- at least when it's in the paper -- is "The Haggler" column by David Segal in the business section of The New York Times.
Ostensibly, the column is a distant cousin of those "Action Line" and "On Your Side" columns of yore, where readers would write in seeking help when a utility company screwed them over, or the TV repairman ripped them off.
Segal performs that service, in a way, but uses the space to showcase his witty, gifted writing in the process. Sure, he takes his mission seriously, but too much so. And he merrily skewers the screw-ups who have wronged those who've written for help.
It's a fun read. Too bad, it only appears every two weeks. That's because Segal's real job is to write longform features for the Sunday business section, which are off the beaten path from the usual fare.
Times editors have given him the license to write with a little more abandon, almost as if he's writing for a magazine. Indeed, these are the kinds of pieces that would fit in nicely in a place like Fortune or the late, lamented Portfolio.
At times he'll use the first person or the "this reporter" to show he's a little further invested in the story and its outcome. It might not be how they normally do it at the Gray Lady, but it keeps you reading, no small feat when confronted with 2,500-3,000 words on a Sunday when you have football, kids and laundry to otherwise distract you.
At times, Segal stretches a little too far, as he did in an otherwise-admirable Sept. 27 piece that focused on how the recession hit close to home in Columbus, Nebraska when a wind-tower plant had layoffs.

You can see management’s unfettered hand in the vaguely Dickensian hours that many here work, and you sense an emphasis on unfettered growth in the just-build-it ethos that governs the stretch of strip malls on the road that bisects the town. It’s fast food, a Wal-Mart, a J. C. Penney, check-cashing outlets and dozens of other stores. The traffic to this generic stretch has come at the apparent expense of a fading but picturesque downtown — a Hopper-esque setting, with a railroad station, some gorgeous early 20th century buildings and a former opera house that is now a minimall.

What does vaguely Dickensian mean, exactly? Segal mentions unions are a non-entity in Nebraska because wages have been pretty good, but Dickensian implies those workers made some kind of Faustian bargain to get that money. If they work more than 40 hours on the floor, they're getting O.T. Nothing Dickensian about that.
Still in all, a great read, and it's does an ink-stained wretch's heart good to see the Times recognizes Segal's talent and lets it run rather than tamp it down because "that's the way we do things around here."
Now if we could just get a few more Haggler columns......

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Let's Hope Windows 7 Works Better Than Microsoft's Copyrwriters

Bad Grammar Shouldn't Overshadow Good Product

In a few days, I should have my brand spanking new copy of Windows 7, the OS that's giving Microsoft some long-lost love in the media.
I'm excited, not just because I'm swallowing the hype hook, line and sinker, but because it means good riddance to Vista, which has been the bane of my laptop's existence.
So, it's only proper that Microsoft has given Windows 7 a nice and proper, even peppy ad campaign on multiple platforms, with people claiming credit for claiming all the gee-whiz stuff in Windows 7 was their idea -- like this spot.

Get Microsoft Silverlight

The spots work, just like Windows 7.
So it was more than a bit jarring to walk past in Grand Central Terminal a Windows 7 billboard that says "I told them it should require less steps. Now it requires less steps."
Less? Less?
Did they listen to you when you were speaking? And nobody corrected you and told you it was "fewer steps?"
This is not quite on the level of "Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should." English teachers cringed whenever they heard "like," rather than "as."
But Microsoft is a company that is nothing if not fastidious. Having worked with its PR agency in a previous life, I know words matter to the company.
So should a good editor.
They could use one in a hurry.

At Least Scalia Gets The Language Right

Acid-Tongued Righty Not "Gruntled" About "Choate"

When it comes to judicial philosophy and, well, probably just about anything else, I'm not in sync with Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, the righty power hitter on the Supreme Court bench.
But Scalia's a lover of words, as he makes abundantly clear in many of his tart, acerbic and always-considered opinions. You may not agree with what he writes, but you'll never be bored reading him.
But as the AP's Mark Sherman reports, Scalia decided a language lesson was in order from the bench. His antenna went up when an unwitting attorney said "choate," as an ostensible opposite of "inchoate." Scalia cried foul.
"There is no such adjective. I know we have used it, but there is no such adjective as 'choate.' There is 'inchoate,' but the opposite of 'inchoate' is not 'choate,'" Scalia said
Point taken. The attorney was ready to move on. Scalia was not.
"Any more than the, I don't know," Scalia said. "Exactly. Yes. It's like 'gruntled,'" he said.
The lawyer tried to continue: "But I think I am right on the law, Your Honor."
But Scalia wasn't focusing on the law. He was going to finish his English lesson. "Exactly. 'Disgruntled,'" he said, adding that some people mistakenly assume that "the opposite of 'disgruntled" is 'gruntled.'"
Such are the exchanges that cause lawyers to start drinking heavily after a morning at the Court.