By paulgillin | December 31, 2008 - 12:08 pm - Posted in Fake News, Hyper-local

We sorted through our 147 entries of 2008 to come up with the stories that surprised us, delighted us or made us shake our heads in disbelief. We’ll present them as a series of posts over the next few days in hopes that you’ll find them to be as memorable as we did. Happy New Year!

Management Ineptitude

The Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote a case history for the how not to handle a layoff. Staff were told not to come in to work until after 9:30 a.m. on Dec. 2. Laid-off employees were notified by phone. Those who didn’t get a call were expected to promptly come to the office. Management then arranged for laid-off employees to clean out their desks on a Saturday morning and to enter the building from the back where they wouldn’t attract the attention.


 

In March, Tribune Co. CEO Sam Zell was caught on video telling one of his reporter employees, “F**k you.” He muttered the comment under his breath at the end of a response to an Orlando Sentinel’s reporter’s pointed question about how newspapers can thrive by giving readers what they want when all readers want is stories about puppy dogs.

 


The Chinese Daily News had to pay $5.2 million for allegedly forcing reporters to file five stories a day and to rush between news conferences and interviews. Ad quotas were unreasonably high and production workers were forced to labor nonstop. Reporters testified that they had to work six days a week, 12 hours a day, but weren’t able to complain because of pressure and the culture of intimidation.


Several publishers chose Valentine’s Day to announce major layoffs.


The Denver alternative weekly Westword reported that staff members of the Longmont, Colo. Times-Call newspaper were invited to the publisher’s holiday party – as parking valets. Staffers reportedly earned what they got for their day jobs, only they spent their time parking the cars of rich people in attendance.


Los Angeles Times publisher David Hiller hatched a plan to move the paper’s monthly magazine completely under the control of the advertising department without telling the newspaper’s editor. Hiller reportedly hired a new editor and planned to replace the magazine’s entire nine-person editorial staff without telling anyone on the editorial side. Hiller resigned a few weeks later.


In June, Tribune Co. launched a campaign to measure journalist productivity by the number of column inches of copy they produced. Noting that Los Angeles Times reporters turn out about one-sixth as many column inches as their counterparts in Hartford or Baltimore, Tribune COO Randy Michaels issued a warning to writers and editors. “When you get into the individuals, you find out that you can eliminate a fair number of people while eliminating not very much content,” he said.


Slate’s Jack Shafer analyzed the use of anonymous sources by major newspapers. He created a few Google Alerts to look for words like “anonymity” and then looked at the stories to see if the secrecy was warranted. In most cases, he found that that the anonymous quotes were either obvious, self-serving or contributed nothing to the story.

Killing the Host

The Newspaper Guild in Honolulu printed up 100,000 cards for readers can send in to cancel their subscriptions in event of a strike. The thinking was that it was better to take down the Advertiser and cause a whole lot more people to lose their jobs than to have 54 employees treated unfairly.


The union at the Los Angeles Times mounted a campaign to drive out of existence the dwindling number of businesses that advertised in the paper because it said the Times wouldn’t negotiate in good faith.

Oh-Oh

A Google search bot triggered a 75% plunge in shares of United Airlines over the weekend when it assigned a Sept. 6, 2008 date to a six-year-old story about United Airlines’ bankruptcy filing.


Editors at the Wine Spectator bestowed a coveted Award of Excellence on a non-existent restaurant. The prank was dreamed up by Robin Goldstein, who concocted a fake website with recipes from an Italian cookbook and a reserve wine list “largely chosen from among some of the lowest-scoring Italian wines in Wine Spectator over the past few decades.”


The Tampa Bay Tribune quickly backtracked on a series of design changes as some 300 readers canceled subscriptions and more than 3,000 called or wrote e-mails of protest. “Turns out, we had really disrupted the way people communicate with each other in the morning,” said executive editor Janet Coats.


The San Francisco Examiner caught a delivery man for the Palo Alto Daily Post apparently stealing copies of the Examiner as he delivered his own newspaper. When confronted and asked to open his trunk, the man had more than 1,000 copies of the rival newspaper stashed there.


The Chicago Sun-Times ran a contest for the best reader-submitted video opposing Sam Zell’s proposal to sell naming rights to the Chicago Cubs. The winner was a college student who interns at the rival Tribune. The Trib had some fun with winning its rival’s contest in this clip, which also includes the winning video.

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By paulgillin | December 22, 2008 - 1:03 pm - Posted in Fake News, Google, Layoffs, Solutions

It looks like 2009 will be a make-or-break year for many media companies, thanks to an advertising climate the some forecasters are predicting will the worst in generations.

Media economist Jack Myers is predicting an “advertising depression,” says Dow Jones. “Myers, a longtime industry consultant who runs JackMyers.com, is now forecasting an unprecedented three straight years of declines in advertising and marketing spending in the U.S. starting this year,” the wire service says. “To put that in perspective, the industry hasn’t suffered even a two-year spending decline in advertising since the 1930s.” The result will be a “massive shakeout” in industries that depend on advertising for their livelihood. Myers expects advertising spending in the U.S. to call 2.4% this year, 6.7% next year and 2.3% in 2010. His forecast roughly agrees with estimates by Publicis Groupe. The downturn will make it more difficult for media companions to effect the transformations that are necessary to survive in the customer-driven marketing environment of the future.

Meanwhile, Barclays Capital expects domestic ad spending to drop 10% next year, which is dramatically worse than performance during both the 1991 and 2001 recessions. The forecast is a substantial revision of Barclays’ prediction just two months ago that next year’s decline would be a less-drastic 5.5%. The investment bank sees trouble in the local advertising industry, which is often seen as the best hope for newspaper salvation. Local spending, which makes up some 39% of the $252.1 billion U.S. ad market, will fall 12.2% in 2009, while national spending will drop 8.4%. Barclays forecast that local ad spending would decline an additional 1.4% even when the broader market recovers in 2010. The one positive note: Internet advertising should increase 6.1% in 2009 and 12% in 2010, but that segment will still account for just 10% of ad spending next year.

Given those forecasts, it’s not surprising that asset values have tanked. “Some 30 US newspapers are up for sale…but few buyers have emerged in spite of rock bottom prices,” notes the Financial Times. Valuations have fallen by at least half compared to their highs and signs that the advertising environment is worsening aren’t helping, the paper says. To illustrate the degree of loss in asset values, the Boston Globe was valued at $650 million by a consortium of buyers just two years ago. Today, the value of the Globe and the Worcester (Mass.) Telegram & Gazette combined is just $120 million. In fact, The New York Times Co.’s most valuable New England asset may be its equity stake in the Boston Red Sox. It was worth about $135 million before the financial crisis hit. And that’s without Mark Teixeira.

Some Good News, Too

While admitting that 2009 will be a mostly crummy year for the economy, Poynter Media Business Analyst Rick Edmonds sees reasons to believe better days are ahead. For one thing, oil is comparatively cheap right now and the price of paper is coming down. While you shouldn’t get comfortable with short-term trends in these commodities, at least they are two fewer factors weighing on the industry. The buyouts and layoffs of 2008 will show also benefits in 2009 as newspapers remove those costs from their books. And there are promising signs in newspapers’ online activities that may broadly benefit the industry. Edmonds is careful to hedge his bets, but he wants to exit the year on a positive note.

Cuts Take Toll on Quality

Print editors are accustomed to getting letters from readers taking them to task for erroneously saying the California Gold Rush started in 1845 instead of 1848 and  concluding, “Shoddy fact-checking like this makes me skeptical of anything you report in your journal.” Editors usually laugh off these missives, but with readers enjoying a bounty of choice these days and freely publishing their own critiques, the gaffes caused by overworked news staffs potentially become more damaging. Detroit NASCAR Examiner Josh Lobdell points out three major errors in a Detroit News story and questions how a newspaper in the Motor City can do such a shoddy job of covering motoring. The Sunday Business Post of Ireland restates almost verbatim what we suggested 2 1/2 years ago: that the cycle of cutbacks will lead to inferior products that people won’t want to read, which will harm circulation and lead to more layoffs. You don’t cost-cut your way to leadership.

valley_newsIf errors are your thing, read Craig Silverman’s year-end column in the Toronto Star about the worst publishing gaffes of 2008. Our favorite is the AP’s reference to Joseph Lieberman as a “Democratic vice-presidential prick.” There are plenty more on Silverman’s awesome blog, Regret the Error. Be sure to read his annual celebration of the worst errors and corrections in the media, an award he calls the Crunks. One of the best has to be this front page of northern New England’s Valley News, which actually managed to misspell its own name on its front page one day.

Report: Newspaper Sites Embrace Web Tools

The Bivings Group examined the websites of the 100 top U.S. newspapers to see what they’re doing with the Internet. While a few activities have changed little over the last year (RSS, reporter blogs and video), there have been striking increases in the use of some features:

  • Fifth-eight percent of newspaper websites post user-generated photos, 18% accept video and 15% publish user-generated articles.  That’s way up from the 24% that accepted such material in 2007.
  • Seventy five percent now accept article comments in some form, compared to 33% in 2007.
  • Facebook-like social networking tools are beginning to gain traction, with 10% of newspapers now using them, or double last year’s figure.
  • Three-quarters list some kind of most-popular ranking, such as most e-mailed or most commented. Just 33% had that feature in 2006.
  • You can now submit articles to social bookmarking sites like Digg and del.icio.us at 92% of newspaper sites, compared to only 7% in 2006.
  • Only 11% of websites now require registration to view full articles, compared to 29% last year.
  • Other stats: 57% have PDF editions, 20% have chat, and 40% offer SMS alerts.

Don’t strain your eyes: Click the image below for a larger version. More charts and data is in the summary report.

bivings_comparison

Miscellany

Journal-Register has reportedly closed a chain of Connecticut weeklies. The North Haven Courier reports, “On Dec. 18, members of [the Shore Line and Elm City Newspapers, a weekly newspaper chain in the shoreline and Greater New Haven area] were notified they had been laid off…The affected papers include the North Haven Post, the East Haven Advertiser, the Branford Review, the Shore Line Times of Guilford and Madison, the Clinton Recorder, and the Pictorial Gazette and Main Street News in Westbrook, Old Saybrook, Essex, Deep River, Chester, Lyme, and Old Lyme…Joyce Mletschnig, who until Thursday was the Pictorial Gazette’s associate editor, said that their newspapers would be shut down.”


The Seattle Times is asking about 500 non-unionized employees to take a week’s unpaid vacation in order to avoid more layoffs. Employees can take the seven days off at any time over the next two months. Management at the Times, which has cut 22% of its staff this year, may believe that further layoffs will undermine quality to too great a degree, so it’s getting creative with strategy.


Russ Smith has some good quotes in a piece on Splice Today about what he believes is the inevitable demise of print newspapers. Smith, 53, is an unabashed newspaper fan but he’s noticed that even his contemporaries are dropping their print subscriptions or not noticing when the paper no longer arrives on the doorstep. He also notices that his kids and their friends are just as well-informed about current events as he, a counter to the conventional wisdom that young people don’t read. Smith boldly predicts that The New York Times will be sold by the end of 2009, with Rupert Murdoch on the short list of likely buyers. On the other hand, Murdoch may be content simply to let his nemesis fade away.


Raleigh News & Observer Staff Writer Mark Schultz writes with passion about why he got into newspapers and why they’re still relevant. His best line comes in an account about interviewing a woman in her trailer home in Mexico: “We enter people’s lives for an hour and ask for instant intimacy.”


The Knoxville News Sentinel has apparently managed to avoid the carnage that has devastated many of its brethren. In an upbeat column plainly titled “News Sentinel is NOT going out of business,” Editor Jack McElroy pays homage to owner E.W. Scripps Co. for shrewdly diversifying its revenue stream and not loading up on debt. He also says the News Sentinel wisely diversified into TV and specialty publishing to insulate itself from the newspaper advertising downturn. Critics naturally accuse the paper of selling out to political interests.


The New York Times will launch “Instant Op-Ed” next month in a bid to compete with instant cable television analysis. The Web feature will post immediate expert viewpoints on breaking news, according to Editorial Page Editor Andrew Rosenthal.

And Finally…

The Baltimore Sun’s John McIntyre asked readers to contribute the best line heard in the workplace. They come through with some winners. Our favorite: “Yeah, he thinks he’s God’s gift to sliced bread.”

By paulgillin | August 12, 2008 - 7:59 am - Posted in Fake News, Google, Layoffs

Eric Schmidt, CEO, GoogleGoogle CEO Eric Schmidt, whose company has played a critical role in the destruction of the US newspaper industry, bemoaned the decline of investigative journalism, a discipline he called “fundamental to how our democracy works,” in remarks at the the recent Ad Age Madison & Vine conference in New York. The executive said a fundamental challenge to the industry is that readers are spending less time on content and thus less time being monetized. The idea that new advertising models will emerge to support quality journalism after the newspaper industry collapses is misguided. “The evidence does not support that view,” he said.Schmidt observed that newspapers are being challenged by the triple whammy of advertising competition, high newsprint prices and a decline of non-targeted advertising. “These guys are in a world of hurt and we as a community need to find economic models that will fund really great content,” he said. He noted ruefully that sketchy coverage of the war in Iraq is a particularly compelling example of the loss of investigative resources.

Redesigns Called “Reinventions”

South Florida SunSentinel before and after That’s the South Florida Sun-Sentinel before (left) and after its forthcoming redesign. Or should be say the SunSentinel? That’s right. As Charles Apple wryly notes, amid the cutbacks at Tribune Co., the new SunSentinel has laid off a hyphen.

Apple quotes SunSentinel design director Paul Wallen saying, “Although our median reader is in the mid to late 50s, our target audience is almost a generation younger. We’re after occasional readers, people who don’t feel they have the time or enough interest to read our paper on a regular basis…We want the paper to feel vibrant and alive, much like the community it serves.” The new design formally launches on Sunday. To get a larger (and different) example, click on the image at left.

Another Tribune Co. property, the Baltimore Sun, will debut a new design on Aug. 24. No prototypes are being floated yet, but Editor & Publisher quotes Sun publisher Tim Ryan saying the overhaul is a “reinvention.” There’ll be three sections: news, sports and features. The features section will be called “You” in a nod to the complete USATodayification of the American newspaper industry. Tribune Chief Innovation Officer Lee Abrams called the Sun redesign “a tour de force package that’s going to help re-write the Tribune Co. — and newspapers.” We’ve already shared our opinion on the business value of redesigns.

Milwaukee Feels the Pain

The Milwaukee Business Journal writes of forthcoming layoffs at the Journal Sentinel as the paper struggles to meet its goal of a 10% staff cut. The piece illustrates the scope of the industry’s pain. Milwaukee should be a good newspaper town. It’s got a solid blue-collar middle class, people who don’t change their habits very quickly. The Journal Sentinel has a near-monopoly position, with 70 percent readership among Milwaukee adults on Sundays and about 50 percent on weekdays. Yet ad revenue is down 13 percent so far this year on top of an 8 percent decline in 2007 and 4 percent in 2006. Sunday circulation is down 16% from a decade ago.

The story has the obligatory Newspaper Association of America quote about combined print/online audiences being larger than ever, but the nut graph is a quote from a Morningstar analyst: “For every dollar daily newspapers have lost in print revenue, they’ve been able to replace it with only 15 cents in revenue from their Web sites.” The only way newspapers can survive the online shift is to get smaller, the analyst says. It’s just that no one knows how small they have to get.


A Journal Sentinel columnist is taking a buyout package and looking ahead. In this wistful, but ultimately uplifting farewell column he reminisces on the joys and frustrations of journalism and looks forward to taking a chance and spending some time with his family.

Miscellany

Former New York Times editor John Darnton recently retired from the paper. But instead of writing a tell-all memoir, he’s aired some dirty laundry in the form of a murder mystery called Black and White and Dead All Over (order it on Amazon). Reviewer Seth Faison knows many of the people who appear in Darnton’s fiction, including Publisher Arthur Sulzberger and Executive Editor Bill Keller. Faison praises the book for offering candid insight on the politics, chaos and juvenile behavior that characterizes a city newsroom. Darnton may lose friends as a result of this bitingly satirical work, but he’s made for darned good summer reading.


Tucson Citizen assistant city editor Mark B. Evans has some kind words for political bloggers who are, in some cases, outclassing the area’s newspapers in political coverage. We ignore these new voices at our peril, he says. Newspapers are falling further behind, so why not welcome these emerging opinion leaders into our fold and benefit from the readership and revenue they can bring?


The Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader is trying to further reduce staff through buyouts. Kentucky’s largest newspaper already cut its workforce from 417 to 382 in June, but that wasn’t enough. Executives didn’t set a target figure for this round of cuts.


The Christian Science Monitor‘s Jan Worth-Nelson has quietly, subtly replaced her morning newspaper with a MacBook and an RSS feed, but she still remembers the days when reading the Sunday paper was a treasured ritual. Sadly, cutbacks at the LA Times have made the paper less relevant to her Sunday mornings and she misses the thrill that came with snapping open that first issue of the day to drink in the fresh news that it promised.


Howard Rheingold has an interesting essay on how to get more out of Twitter. Best advice: keep the list of people you’re following short and engage in meaningful interactions with them. He also doesn’t tweet what he had for breakfast. (via Mark Hamilton)


End of an era: In a nod to the realities of advertiser pressure and a weakening print market,  Rolling Stone will ditch is unique, awkward trim size and switch to a standard format effective with the Oct. 30 issue. The magazine’s size will be reduced from 10″ x 11 3/4″ to 8″ x 10 7/8″.

And Finally…

Bad warning sign

People always celebrate success, but they don’t give enough credit to really creative failure. Thank goodness, then, for The Fail Blog, a photographic tribute to failures big and small. Don’t look at this site in the office. Your colleagues will wonder why you’re laughing so hard. And don’t, under any circumstances, view it while you’re drinking milk, if you know what we mean.

By paulgillin | July 11, 2008 - 7:16 am - Posted in Fake News, Solutions

I was a guest on a webcast about social software yesterday (you can watch it here; it’s free)  and the question came up about what publications can do to build community. I responded that they can’t do much and they shouldn’t even try because, with few exceptions, readers aren’t a community.

Then I checked my RSS reader this morning and noticed this item from Content Ninja that makes the very same point: “You cannot build a community around content.”

“Community” is a poorly understood term (just look at the variety of definitions in online reference sources) and, like many buzzwords, it is being overused right now. Publishers trying to escape their sinking  businesses are clinging to the community life raft, hoping that it offers hope for a future. For some it does, but that’s not a good prospect for most newspapers.

Newspapers have historically defined their communities geographically because that’s the business model that worked. While people who share a common space on the planet are technically  a community, they’re the least cohesive kind of community. Outside of a shared interest in certain issues like public safety or schools, residents of a city or town have little in common. They may occasionally form strong communities around common interests like a school bond or tax increase, but those groups invariably dissolve as the issue goes away.

There are readership communities that work. Readers of a special interest magazine about needlepoint or scuba diving are a type of community. Those people have intense shared interests and they are much more likely to bond together in an online forum that serves those interests. Publishers of special-interest magazines have the best chance of turning their readership into self-sustaining online communities.

Newspapers, however, don’t. Their strength is creating content and their best chance of building community involves giving people a chance to discuss, comment upon and contribute to their content. USA Today does about the best of any major newspaper at encouraging this kind of reader participation. But USA Today isn’t trying to become a community. Its management knows better than that.

Miscellany

  • Jeff Jarvis suggests that it’s crazy for newspapers to operate their own websites and they should just hand over the back-end work to Google.  Newspapers should focus on what they do best: journalism and local ad sales. All the staff time and money spent building technology infrastructures is basically reinventing the wheel. He’s got a point.
  • The Daily Telegram of Superior, Wisconsin will cut back from six to two print issues a week beginning this fall. The 6,000-circulation afternoon daily has been publishing for 118 years. A BusinessWeek account notes that theDaily Telegram competes vigorously with the Duluth News Tribune, which is only about five miles away and which is owned by the same publisher. We’re wondering if combining, rather than competing, might be a more practical approach.
  • Washington State’s The Columbian laid off 20 people – eight of them in the editorial group – in the second round of cutbacks this year. The paper cut 30 positions back in February. Editor Lou Brancaccio told the Portland Business Journal that early retirements could trim the current staff of 306 even further.
  • The delightfully vicious Tell Zell site gives Tribune Co. CEO Sam Zell a performance review using the company’s own performance management form.  The world is a better place because of anonymous blogs.
  • Rev. Jesse Jackson’s stated desire to remove Barack Obama’s testicles apparently caused a minor uproar on copy desks around the country. In a bold bid to produce the most trivial news story of the week, the Columbia Journalism Review sends in a reporter to analyze how major titles dealt with the “nuts” crisis. Could anyone be less interested?
By paulgillin | May 11, 2008 - 7:55 am - Posted in Fake News

Two once-formidable newspaper companies – Journal Register Co. (JRC) and Sun-Times Media Group (STMG) – have recently been delisted from the New York Stock Exchange and said they are “exploring strategic alternatives.” What exactly does that mean?

Sometimes, alternatives include ways to keep the business going, such as restructuring debt or selling assets. They can also include more radical actions such as a management buyout. More often, though, this term is code for “find a buyer.” The owners hope to get something – anything – out of their investment.

This is almost certainly the case for these two media companies. JRC traded at nearly $20 per share less than three years ago, and STMG was in that range in late 2004. Their current sub-50-cent prices probably have investors panicked.

Likely scenarios

When a company puts itself up for sale, there are typically two kinds of buyers. One is competitors in the current market, who see the opportunity to consolidate their positions and gain economies of scale. That’s unlikely in this scenario, however, because all the media companies are under debt pressures of their own. The other buy is typically a professional investment firm that has the resources and expertise to maximize the value of the distressed company’s assets. That’s the most likely outcome here.

In almost all cases, the professional investment firm carves up the company into pieces and sells them off. They can quickly make huge amounts of money from realizing the value of the parts. These investors aren’t long-term players. They generally hold an asset for a couple of years at most and then walk away.

The buyers of the piece parts usually do one of two things. They either cut costs dramatically with the intention of wringing whatever profits are left out of the company or they try something radically new. In the case of the newspapers that are likely to be sold in the JRC and STMG deals, the final buyers may be former employees, local businesses or other investment groups. Because the new owners get these assets for pennies on the dollar, they’re often free to try interesting and innovative things.

Silver linings

This could be the silver lining in this whole financial mess. By the time the dust settles, the newspapers in these two companies’ portfolios may look very different from what they are today. Some might reduce frequency and drive toward a fully online model, unencumbered by the expectations of investors. Basically, the owners have little to lose. That’s where we might see some truly innovative models develop. In a worst-case scenario, the buyer is an investment firm that simply manages the asset into the ground in hopes of getting back more than it put in.

This process is enormously stressful for employees. Many can look forward to two or three rounds of ownership in the next few years. This often drives the best people away. By the time an owner takes over with a plan to grow the property, all that’s left is a shell of a workforce. Rebuilding often requires tearing apart the old, though, and asset sales are one of several ways to do this.

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