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Archive for May, 2010

It warms my heart when newspaper publishers communicate directly with their readers.  

And so, when I was in Louisville for Derby Week, I eagerly read a long piece that Arnold Garson, publisher of The Courier-Journal, wrote about the state of daily newspapers. The sub-head of the article, which appeared on the front of the May 2 Forum (opinion) section, was “Newspapers are better off than you may think.”

In an unfortunate and ironic turn of events, the piece was published the day that the Courier was able to print just 40,000 of its “live-run” copies, instead of the scheduled 270,000. All of the pre-printed sections, including the Forum, were published, but the news and sports sections were not delivered until the following day. The disruption made the headline about newspapers being “better off” ring a bit hollow. The afternoon of the debacle, Garson found himself in front of cameras and reporters explaining what had gone wrong, not what was going right.

Garson

But that is behind him and The Courier now, and it certainly didn’t puncture the bigger picture that he painted in his article. His points, while specific in many instances to The Courier-Journal, apply to almost all major metropolitan dailies, including The Kansas City Star. 

Here are some highlights from the article.

On his paper’s circulation decline:

“The Courier-Journal’s paid circulation decline last year was 8.4 percent daily and 3.8 percent Sunday….We are focusing hard this year on turning the paid-circulation trend line, and we are seeing some progress.” 

On the newspaper industry as a whole:

“The newspaper industry is alive and well. Yes, we are changing, and the economic pressures are greater than they used to be. But The Courier-Journal has remained a profitable business throughout this recession. It is a fully viable business now and for the future. In fact, we are much stronger economically today than we were a year ago. Ditto for our parent company, Gannett.”

On some of the business-oriented changes the paper has made:

“It no longer makes sense to deliver newspapers to outlying areas, hundreds of miles from home base, where they are of little value to our advertisers and expensive to distribute. It no longer makes good business sense to use heavily discounted home delivery subscription prices as a tool to drive paid circulation volume. It no longer is realistic to avoid implementing regular price increases for home delivery to partly offset increasing costs.”

On the decline of TV evening news broadcasts:

“Television evening news, long the cash cow of that industry, has experienced a decline in viewers that is deeper and longer-term than the newspaper circulation decline. Of course, the major networks have more news competition than they ever have had. And they, like newspapers, face competition from the Internet. But the public discussion seems all about the future of newspapers, not television.”

On the type of readers that newspapers attract (according to research studies): 

“79 percent of adults employed in white-collar jobs read a newspaper.
“82 percent of adults with household incomes of $100,000 a year or more read a newspaper.
“84 percent of college graduates read a newspaper.”

On his paper’s web site:

“Courier-Journal.com is a hugely successful local website with more than 16 million page views and 1.3 million unique users monthly. It is growing, and it is profitable.”

On the likelihood of start-up local websites and blogs replacing newspapers:

“Who would perform the expensive oversight function that guards our democracy against tyranny without newspapers to fill that role? Footnote: The Courier-Journal employs 160 professional journalists, more than all the local TV stations combined.

“Who would challenge the many public officials whose lives generally are more comfortable if they can keep the activities of government secret? Footnote: The Courier-Journal spends $150,000 to $200,000 a year in legal fees to keep this community’s information pipelines open.”

On how the paper has approached financial cutbacks:

“We have been through two rounds of layoffs over the past year and a half. I don’t like that, but most businesses locally and beyond have had to reduce employment during this recession. I do want to point out that we have tried to navigate both of these reductions in ways that minimize the impact on local, hard-news content. We have, for example, spent much more time trying to find ways to reduce staffing in support areas than in core areas, such as news gathering. We have focused our content cutbacks more in features sections as opposed to hard-news sections.”

On the newspapers that have run aground:

“The few newspapers that have failed during this recession have been mostly those that were artificially propped up by joint operating agreements (with competing newspapers), an arrangement devised by the federal government to sustain failing newspapers. The handful of newspaper companies that have gone to bankruptcy reorganization have been those that were heavily burdened with debt. Both of these things were predictable.”

On the future of his paper:

“As I have said before, The Courier-Journal will be here for a long time. It will publish my obituary and yours — but definitely not its own.”

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Plums & Prunes (6)

First, I extend best wishes to reporter and columnist Debra Skodack, assistant business editor Donna Vestal and librarian Janelle Hopkins, who reportedly got laid off in the latest round of cuts at The Star. (A few other editorial staff members whom I do not know also got the ax.) Skodack, Vestal and Hopkins have contributed significantly to The Star’s editorial success over many years. 

It’s too bad, and it shows again, in hindsight, what an unwise move the McClatchy Co. made four years ago when it purchased The Star and several other papers owned by Knight Ridder. The weakness of the McClatchy chain is dragging down The Star, which has always been profitable, primarily because it has been able to charge very high advertising rates.

Star officials had hoped that with the round of layoffs earlier this year, the bleeding had stopped. Turns out the tourniquet came loose again.

Meanwhile, the editorial staff members push ahead, putting out a lot of good work and a little shaky work.   

Plums

~ “Saving young lives one law at a time” (A-1, Sunday, May 2) — Interesting story about Janette Fennell of Leawood, whose experience at the hands of a robber and subsequent perseverance in helping others has led to the development of many vehicle-safety improvements, including glow-in-the-dark trunk releases. Story by Grace Hobson.

~ ” ‘Russian roulette’ after data breaches” (A-1, Sunday, May 2) — Reporter Scott Canon continued his seemless transition from the National Desk to the Business Desk with a public-service piece about people’s exposure to computer credit-card theft. Canon’s move is paying dividends for the readers, as well as the beaten-down business desk.

~ “Renewal hasn’t come easy” (A-1, Monday, May 3) — Managing Editor Steve Shirk once told me he didn’t like anniversary stories, but it looks like Star readers are going to get one every year around this time about Greensburg, Kan., and its battle back from destruction by a tornado in 2007. Aaron Barnhart elevated this story by focusing on the friction that has come with rebuilding. Outstanding photos by Jill Toyoshiba.

~ “Fed up, and fighting for disabilities help” (A-1, Monday, May 3) — Kansas City, Mo., City Hall reporter Lynn Horsley took the time to delve deeply into a story that sometimes gets overlooked — governmental compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. In this case, the city clearly is dropping the ball, and that’s not going to help Mayor Mark Funkhouser’s  dim re-election prospects. 

~ “Life changes for Gordon & Aviles” (C-1, tuesday, May 4) — Sam Mellinger continued to make strides as the successor to the inimitable Joe Posnanski with a trenchant column about the changing identity of the Royals, now that one-time hotshot prospect Alex Gordon has been shipped to the minors.

~ “Suspect captured in 53-hour drama” (A-1, Wednesday, May 5) — The Star got it right by making the arrest of terrorist Faisal Shahzad the centerpiece.

~ “KC police make arrest in Waldo rape inquiry” (A-1, Thursday, May 6) — Relative to the extensive coverage of the uproar over the rapes in Waldo, this four-column-wide spread by reporter Christine Vendel and photographers Keith Myers and Jill Toyoshiba was proportionate.

~ “Rape suspect charged” and “A past defined by rape, prison” (A-1, Friday, May 7) — Tandem stories about suspected Waldo rapist Bernard Jackson. One of the many things I liked about this package was that his mug shot and the sketch that police put together weeks ago were both on the front page, and the similarity between the sketch and the photo was unmistakable….Side note: Did it strike anyone else as odd that the first series of Waldo rapes, in 1983 and 1984, apparently did not generate an uproar like the most recent series? 

~ “Bizarre day stuns Wall Street” (A-1, Friday, May 7) — This story undoubtedly would have been higher on the page were it not for Bernard Jackson. For Kansas City readers, his story was rightly bigger than a 998-point, intra-day drop in the Dow.

~ “Putting the brush to Bartle” (A-11, Friday, May 7) — This is one of those stories that made me want to thank the reporter — in this case Kevin Collison — personally. Like many other area residents, I’m sure, I have driven by Bartle Hall in recent months and wondered what the heck was happening to the exterior of the older section of the convention center. It looked like the paint was peeling and disintegrating, but how could I be sure? Collison confirmed and explained the situation in his story about the center getting a $152,000 paint job. Among the interesting details that Collison included: It takes about four days to paint each triangle. 

Prunes

#% Kentucky Derby coverage (Sunday, May 2) — A full story about the Kentucky Derby (136 years and counting) should run on the sports front of every major U.S. paper. Without fail, no excuses. The Star gave it a small photo at the top of the sports front and referred readers to story on Page 6.

#% “A load of economic optimism” (D-1, Tuesday, May 4) — Randolph Heaster’s schizophrenic Star Business Weekly centerpiece threw readers for a loop. It started out like it a story about housing starts but segued into a story about the rising sale of pickup trucks. In fairness, the overline — the words above the headline — cued readers with the words “pickup sales,” but it was still weird.

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The next installment of Plums & Prunes will be coming at you soon, but today I’m establishing a new category in the fruit family. The pumpkin. And not just any pumpkin — a shriveled pumpkin that got left on the porch after Halloween and was still decaying at Thanksgiving. (In case you’re wondering, the pumpkin is, technically, a fruit.)

And the pumpkin goes to…..Jason Whitlock! Come on down, Jason, and collect your fruit! Actually, he must share it with K.C. Star publisher Mark Zieman and editor Mike Fannin who were crazy enough to give Whitlock, a sports columnist, a weekly op-ed column titled “Independent Thoughts.” It probably was presented to editorial page editor Miriam Pepper as a done deal.

The column began last week, while I was out of town, and I just learned about it this week. The most disappointing part of this is that it occurs at a time when top Star editors seemed to be exhibiting good judgment on news placement by giving prominent play to a wider variety of stories at the local, national and international levels.

Fortunately, Whitlock’s column (see this week’s right here) won’t affect that facet of the news operation. Nevertheless, it shows very poor judgment by top Star officials, in my opinion. It’s a bad call for at least two reasons: Whitlock is out of his element, and he doesn’t have the tact and tone that it takes to be successful as an op-ed columnist.

Whitlock has no qualifications whatsoever to be anything besides a sports writer or sports columnist. That’s his whole background; it’s what he knows. Oh, and did you catch his admission in his first “Thoughts” column — an admission he has made before — that, “I avoid our political system. I’ve never voted. I don’t have a political affiliation or ideology.”

To me, that disqualifies him. You’re outta here! Hit the showers. How can your views carry any weight when you shun the democratic process? How do you avoid politics, not vote and yet get to express your opinions in a major metropolitan daily about current events and political controversies, such as the new Arizona immigration law? Makes no sense at all. I guess he still could find religion and start voting, but I doubt that will happen because he takes such pride in being a contrarian. 

Regarding tact and tone, Whitlock always has the sledgehammer out; that’s all he knows. It works fine for the Chiefs, who need to be hammered regularly, but I don’t see how he will be able to wear well as an op-ed columnist. The best, most enduring op-ed columnists are those who, generally, are measured, reflective, insightful and often witty. I’m talking about people like David Brooks, Gail Collins and Paul Krugman of The New York Times, Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post and Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald.

I give this experiment a year, tops. And it just might be the beginning of the end for Whitlock at The Star. To me, it has all the earmarks of a “Hail Mary” pass.

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My wife Patty and I had a great time in Louisville, my hometown, last week. Derby week always yields thrills, disappointments and interesting experiences. 

Here are three that stood out for me. 

* On Thursday, I went to the track with Joe Drape, a Kansas City native who is the turf writer for The New York Times. Joe and I had exchanged some e-mails and a few phone calls the last couple of years, but, to the best of my recollection, we had not met before Thursday. 

After meeting at 7:45 a.m. at his hotel not far from Churchill Downs, we drove to the track in his rented SUV. The barn area, open to the public most days, was crowded with people who had come to watch the Derby horses gallop. Outside the barn of trainer Bob Baffert, a three-time Kentucky Derby winner, Joe first interviewed Garrett (sp?) Gomez, who would ride Derby favorite Lookin at Lucky, trained by Baffert. Gomez spoke quietly, in a near monotone, and maintained a blank expression, which seemed to soften in the rays of the early-morning sun.  

Bob Baffert (left) and Joe Drape

 

Then Baffert appeared, wearing pressed jeans and wearing his trademark sunglasses. After posing for a photo with some fans, Baffert began talking with Joe, who had concluded his interview with Gomez. Joe introduced me to Baffert, and the three of us talked for a couple of minutes. We talked about Lookin at Lucky’s unlucky post position, No. 1, on the extreme inside, where he was likely to get squeezed as the outside horses pushed toward the rail. We talked about the weather forecast — heavy rain — and how Lookin at Lucky might handle a sloppy track.  

As the conversation began to lag, I decided on the spur of the moment to ask Baffert a question about the horse that I liked — Noble’s Promise. Like Lookin at Lucky, Noble’s Promise prefers to run toward the front of the pack, and he would break from the No. 3 hole, just one spot removed from Lookin at Lucky. 

And so I spoke up: “Where do you think Noble’s Promise will be?” 

Baffert looked at me squarely in the eye and without missing a beat, replied, “I don’t have the slightest idea, and I don’t care.” And with that, he turned and walked away. I turned to Joe, smiled and said, “Sorry I killed your interview.”   

* On Derby morning, I went to the track by myself. The Derby is always sold out long before Derby Day, and I always try to buy tickets on track grounds for less than face value. My track record is good: I’m cheap, but I’m a pretty good negotiator, and I work various angles. 

In the Derby ticket game, I’ve found, marketing is very important. The people who stand around holding up their fingers, seeking, one, two or three tickets, usually don’t do that well. People who have extra tickets to sell tend to give prospective buyers a good looking over (in many cases, the buyer will be in a six-person box with the seller) and simply ignore a lot of would-be buyers. 

I always try to dress relatively well (although it was sprinkling Saturday, and I wore a green rain jacket over my shirt), and I always have a home-made sign. On Saturday, my sign read, “Need 1 or 2, for me (Jim) and my wife (Patty).” I thought the personal touch might be a plus, and it also achieved another purpose: It told sellers that I did not intend to buy the tickets and then resell them at a higher price. 

I staked out a position about 150 yards from the clubhouse entrance, away from an area closer to the entrance, where a few other buyers were lurking. To my left, people were streaming by on foot. To my right, cars full of people edged toward the valet parking area. Both lines of traffic — foot and vehicular — had a good view of me and my sign. I stood there smiling, not saying much. As the people came by, almost all of them looked at me and read my sign. A couple of people said something like, “Hey, what if you only get one ticket — who goes in, you or Patty?”  

After half an hour or so, a head popped up from the sun roof of a black SUV, and the person whistled and gestured at me. I slowly walked to the vehicle, and the woman seated in the front passenger seat displayed two first-floor clubhouse tickets — on the rail about 100 yards past the finish line. The face value was $162 each. “I’ll take $200 for them,” she said. “Will you take $200 for both of them?” I asked. “Yes,” she said. “That’s what I meant. I wouldn’t try to sell them for more than they’re worth.” Just like that, we had a deal. The family had two boxes, each with six seats, and they happened to have two more tickets than they had people.    

As I was walking away, the woman’s husband said, “Now, you’re not going to sell those, are you?” I assured him that I was going back to where I was staying to change clothes, pick up my wife and return to the track. I would be sitting with members of his family, and friends of theirs, for the 136th running of the Kentucky Derby. 

* Late Saturday afternoon, as the field of 20 Derby horses hit the top of the home stretch, I thought I had the Kentucky Derby winner. I let out a shriek as my horse, Noble’s Promise took the lead from two front-running horses who were slowing down. For several strides, Noble’s Promise, who had gone off at odds of 24-1, led the race. But just as quickly as he had taken the lead, he, too, slowed and relinquished the lead. Joe Drape had told me that Noble’s Promise, bred more for speed than distance, would not be able to survive the stretch run. He was right. 

Super Saver wins the Derby

 

Super Saver, the eventual winner, passed my horse. So did Ice Box, who finished second; Paddy O’Prado, who finished third; and Make Music for Me, who finished fourth. But not Lookin at Lucky. Oh, no, he finished sixth, one spot behind my horse. But, at that point, as the horses flashed by the finish line, I didn’t have the slightest idea where Lookin at Lucky was. And I didn’t care.

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As some of you know, I was in Louisville, my hometown, all last week for the Kentucky Derby and related activities.

Despite a lot of rain on Saturday, Derby Day, it was a great time, and the city was throbbing with action and anticipation. On Sunday, the day after Derby, there’s always a bit of a letdown, a communal hangover, as people float back down to earth and try to return to their normal routines.

One thing almost all Louisvillians, as well as out-of-town visitors do on Sunday is read The Courier-Journal’s special Derby section, where people can read about all facets of Derby Day, from the race itself to the fashion on display and the celebrities who attended. The special section — usually 20 pages or more — takes weeks to plan and involves thousands of hours of work by editors, reporters, photographers, artists, designers, copy editors and others. It is always well done and as much a part of the Derby aftermath as rumpled suits and dresses and soiled Derby hats.

But this year there was a problem, a really big problem. For most of the Courier’s 240,000 Sunday subscribers, the paper — the news and Derby sections, anyway — did not come out on Sunday morning. Just after the presses began to run Saturday night, an unusual and fatal press failure occurred. Sunday morning, tens of thousands of people woke up and found only the pre-printed sections — opinion, the arts, features, etc. — in their boxes or on their doorsteps.

The “live sections” — the main news section, the Metro section, the regular sports section and, of course, the Derby section — were missing. Understandably, the calls began pouring in to the paper. I was staying at my uncle’s house, and he began calling before 8 a.m., getting a recording that said, “All circuits are busy.” 

Thousands of people, undoubtedly, went to their local convenience and grocery stores in search of papers, but what many of them found was what my wife Patty and I found — hand-printed signs on the doors saying, “No papers.” About the only place where some full papers were available were hotels relatively close to downtown and Churchill Downs. 

Later in the day, Courier-Journal President and Publisher Arnold Garson said at a news conference that the paper received “tens of thousands of calls.” The press failure, which Garson said involved “complex electronic circuitry,” did not affect the paper’s online presentation. The Derby stories and photos, and all the other “live” stories, were there. But it wasn’t the same.

“This is the worst possible time” for a press failure to occur, he noted. The paper had planned a run of 270,000 papers, Garson said, which would have allowed for single-copy sales of about 30,000. To learn more about the press failure and to  highlights of Garson’s press conference, click here

Almost all newspapers, including The Star, experience routine problems that interrupt the press run, but a catastrophic problem like the one The Courier-Journal experienced is extremely rare. And, unfortunately, it happened on the paper’s best-read, most-anticipated edition of the year.     

On Sunday afternoon and evening, the live Sunday sections were being printed in Indianapolis, as were copies of today’s paper. This morning, subscribers got Sunday’s live sections along with today’s paper. 

As a result of the press failure, The Courier-Journal suffered significant monetary losses. The greater potential threat, however, is a loss of confidence among subscribers. Even though newspapers have suffered significant circulation declines in the last decade or so, the bond between many communities and their daily newspaper is very strong, and it’s not due primarily to the online product — not yet, anyway. It’s because of the newspaper that people pick up in their yards, hold in their hands and read with their eyes. It’s one thing they count on every day. They might complain about the product, but they’ve come to expect it to at least arrive.   

Hopefully, most Courier-Journal subscribers will understand that the weekend debacle was an aberration. The incident should not significantly dent subscribers’ confidence in the company, but that doesn’t mean it won’t. These are tenuous times in the newspaper business, and readers have many more options. The Courier-Journal would be wise to reach out in some way to its subscribers to try to make amends for Derby Debacle 2010.

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