Monday, June 21, 2010

Washington Newspaper Woes a Metaphor on an Anomaly?

Maybe the News Cycle Pedals Too Fast Around the Beltway. Or, Maybe the Buisness Model for Newspapers is Sicker Than We Thought

The recent struggles of The Washington Times have transcended being taken seriously as more than just the scrappy conservative alternative to The Washington Post. Its very survival has been called into question when 60 percent of the editorial staff got the heave-ho last year when the Unification Church grew weary of subsidizing what has never been a going concern.
Not that the Post has had the luxury of gloating. It had its own round of layoffs last year, closed its remaining domestic bureaus, and trimmed staffing from its admirable website. Oh, yeah. It also loses a lot of money.
In this year's first quarter, the newspaper division booked an operating loss of $13.8 million. Yes, that's better than the $53.8 million lost a year earlier. But it's still a big-enough chunk of change that institutional investors won't countenance for long.
And the hits just keep on coming, as the company reported in its earnings release. Daily circulation was off 12.5 percent, with the Sunday numbers dipping 10.4 percent compared to 2009.
In an online chat today, Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli admitted that the boffo revenues from the Washington Post Co.'s Kaplan educational division may be keeping the newspaper afloat.
"That's an interesting and hypothetical question," he said, in response to a query about whether the Post would still be in business if not for Kaplan. Brauchli said one look at the financials showed how much the entire company depended on Kaplan, not just his product.
So, what gives D.C.?
Is everyone so crazed down there that they don't have time or inclination to read a paper? Does everybody wake up with a Blackberry pinned to their forehead, so they can start emailing right away and read Mike Allen's Playbook while in their pajamas? Maybe it's the Post's crappy app, not worth the price of admission at $1.99. Or, maybe too many of the right people already know what they need to know before it hits the paper and move on to Roll Call or The Hill.
Sure, the Post is still a potent journalistic force, even if it's been defanged somewhat by newsroom cutbacks. And, no, I don't think as so goes Kaplan, so goes the paper. There are still 562,000 daily copies printed, with another 780,000 every Sunday. That still adds up to a loyal readership.
But if the Kaplan spigot started to trickle rather than gush, you'd see a newspaper that would have no choice but to further compromise its already-less-ambitious vision. And that would be a shame.
Given that Washington is, well, Washington, it's hard to tell whether the Post is caught up in its own circumstances or part of the industry-wide malaise. I suspect it's a combo of both. Either way, it doesn't bode well for those of us who have come to count on the Post as both a watchdog and dutiful chronicler of all that matters in and around the Beltway. Let's hope that interesting and hypothetical question doesn't get a real answer anytime soon.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Simon Rich--Boy Wonder

Looks Like He'll Be Getting Carded in Bars Until He's 40

About all I know about Simon Rich is that he's a preternaturally talented writer -- the youngest ever hired by Saturday Night Live, nailed a two-book contract from Random House before he graduated Harvard and, oh yeah, his parents are Frank Rich and Alex Witchel.
And judging by all the huzzahs that have come his way, he earned his own cred and didn't gorge on the fruit from the nepotism tree. Bully for him.
What I haven't been able to figure out yet, though, from my semi-cursory research, is that even though he was born in 1984, every photo of him that's on the web makes him look like he's about 12. The one (left) that accompanied the review of his first novel, Elliot Allagash in today's New York Times looks like an outtake from his confirmation/bar-mitzvah or whatever. Ones I spotted elsewhere also revealed no signs of facial hair. Pretty freaky. But talented. Enough so, to get him reviews in the daily Times and the Book Review on May 20.
Both mostly positive assessments, of course, were done by Times outsiders.
Just wondering, but if his old man wasn't a big cheese at the paper would he have gotten that treatment? As I said, just wondering. Simon does have his own set of chops, but the double review treatment for a first novel -- his previous book, "Ant Farm and Other Desperate Situations" was a collection of quickie satires and comic observations -- is accorded to few and far between. For now, every review, like this one in the Chicago Tribune, will tag him Son of Frank -- even when that's not the sum of his many parts.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

As Helen Thomas Continues to Extract Foot From Mouth, a Little Context

Outrage Over Her Anti-Semitic Remarks Trumped By Her Irrelevance

Patrick Gavin has an excellent takeout on Politico that puts as harsh a spotlight on the Helen Thomas F.U.B.A.R. as you would want for a washed-up 89-year-old hack whose relevance as a force in the White House press room really faded about 20 years ago, around the time the majority of major media had finished abandoning UPI.
Sure, there's lots that can rightly be said about Thomas being a trailblazer, a pointed questioner, a dogged chronicler of presidents going back to JFK, blah, blah, blah.
You can also say she was more than a tad overrated. Back when I was a cub reporter in the 1980s at UPI, I'd be able to see how Thomas' copy came into the desk. Suffice to say, those in the slot had their work cut out for them. She filed in multiple tasks. It was up to the editors to craft a narrative.
Granted, if you were on deadline and were banging out copy at a place where the slogan was "a deadline every minute," you often didn't have the time to make it pretty. But putting together stories like this was Helen's M.O. To her credit, she was the first to admit that her copy would be rewritten. She was a reporter first, a wordsmith a very distant second.
No doubt, she worked hard during her prime. Thomas and her UPI colleagues had no choice, because getting beat by the A.P. was not an option. She may have been a role model. But she was hardly the complete package as a journalist.
And now we find the same could be said about her as a human being. How sad, yet at the same time a valuable cautionary tale for anyone who thinks they're indispensable and doesn't know when to sign off. Instead, Thomas got the hook. She deserved nothing less.
Somewhere, a cabal of press secretaries for Republican presidents are having a damn good laugh, no doubt hoping the door hit Thomas good and hard on the way out.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Honolulu Advertiser Put to Sleep As It Goes To Bed

A Final Aloha for Hawaii's Main News Source

The Honolulu Advertiser box that I came across today in Maui was empty by the time I got there. Maybe there was a rush for the final edition of the 154-year-old paper. Or, maybe the circulation department had already thrown in the towel.
Either way, the Advertiser will now be referred to in the past tense, as its name becomes part of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, an amalgam with the surviving Star-Bulletin, which debuts tomorrow.
But Sunday remained a day of elegies, eulogies, salutes, and ruminations for the fallen paper, which was sold by Gannett to Star-Bulletin owner David Black for a reported $125 million. That's the discounted price for a monopoly in today's semi-moribund newspaper business.
To put the end in the perspective, it's only proper to hear from an Advertiser veteran -- and there were many -- like Pat Glaser, an editorial assistant for many years.
Said Glaser: "I'm going to miss our big, dysfunctional news family. I wish us all the very best."
As do I.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Honolulu Advertiser Continues Its Fade to (David) Black

As Hawaii's Oldest Paper Reaches its Pau Moment, Longtime Writers Put on a Brave Face

As the Honolulu Advertiser has its -30- on Sunday, the first reaction is that David, in this case David Black, owner of the rival Star-Bulletin who's buying the Advertiser, firmly kicked the butt of Goliath, played out in this version by Gannett.
But there's no happy ending here. Honolulu will be a one newspaper town next week. And 430 people who had a job will mostly now have a hard time figuring out where their next paycheck will come from. Severance agreements from mostly union contracts will help, but for many who spent their career in newspapers in Honolulu will have to find another line of work.
It would have been a lot easier to bid good riddance to Gannett if the Advertiser had been sold to someone else. After all, it was Gannett that had tried to buy the Star-Bulletin in 1999 to shut it down and end its joint operating agreement with Liberty Newspapers.
But a local outcry and the federal government kiboshed that. In came Black from Canada, who instead bought the S-B from Liberty to keep it alive. How times have changed.
As the newspaper industry has tanked, Black has claimed he's lost $100 million running the S-B. Gannett has said it's also in the red. It chose to bail, rather than fight. Even though it had suffered the cuts every other paper has been forced to endure, the Advertiser was still a better-than-average Gannett paper, which still managed a 115,000 daily circulation, compared to just 37,000 for the S-B.
It's a tight-knit news community on the islands, filled with scribes who are natives or have become one through decades of service at either paper. As an example, the writer of today's Advertiser story about the closure was written by Rick Daysog, who wrote the story linked above from the Oct. 20, 2000 edition---of the Star-Bulletin.
I've been reading the Advertiser the last couple of days as I take a break from some R&R in Hawaii, and the farewells in the paper are getting louder and more insistent. They include food editor Wanda Adams, who had a front seat as the island's cuisine evolved into a world-class fusion of flavors and reverence for locally grown and caught food. She's working on starting a website. Best to her with that.
Today, we heard from golf columnist Bill Kwon, who worked more than half a century at both papers covering sports all over the world. And while I'm sure he'd still rather be working, his column is headlined "For five decades I had the best job in the world," and you know he means it. He really did have a great ride.
Too bad a lot of other talented journalists won't get to say the same when the new Honolulu Star-Advertiser debuts Monday.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Down in the Gulf, the Clueless Just Keep Getting Cluelessier

BP Media Relations Advisers Masquerading as Douchebags by Bigfooting Independent Contractors into Silence

And the hits just keep on coming with BP.

A nice get from shows the lengths the company will go through to cow into silence the fishermen who's lives it has destroyed now that they are doing anything they can to contain the spill.
That included "news releases, marketing information, or any other public statements" if they wanted to keep working on the cleanup. Which they pretty much had to, since there is no other source of income.
BP has since backtracked on some of that language, but the damage is done. All of a sudden, yet another PR strategy is stuck in the muck washing ashore with another wave of bad ideas that has laid waste to a way of life.

Putting Al-Tipper in Perspective

Bubba-Hillary Still the Alpha Dogs, but When It Comes to Wedlock?

This comment from a Democratic operative to Politico pretty much sums up the news on Al and Tipper calling it quits:

Can you believe that Bill and Hillary are still married and Al and Tipper are getting divorced?

Not really. It was about as likely as a climate-change bill making it through Congress this year. But now.....