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Archive for August, 2019

On The Rachel Maddow Show last night, an investigative reporter for the Miami Herald delivered the most succinct and skillful condemnation of social media I have seen or heard.

Maddow’s guest was Julie K. Brown, who co-reported and co-wrote a three part series — Perversion of Justice — that helped break the Jeffrey Epstein case wide open late last year.

For their series, Brown and fellow reporter Emily Michot won a Polk Award — one of journalism’s highest awards. Surprisingly, the series was not even a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. (Just as former Department of Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta minimized Epstein’s abominable crimes, the Pulitzer board underestimated the Herald’s series.)

Julie K. BrownBrown’s felicitous skewering of social media came during an interview with Maddow, who had been asking Brown about the Epstein case and where it might go from here.

At the end of the interview, Maddow asked Brown for her reaction to President Donald Trump “promoting this conspiracy theory about Epstein’s death on Twitter.” (Within hours of Epstein’s death, Trump retweeted a post by Terrence Williams, a comedian and Trump supporter, saying that Epstein “had information on Bill Clinton & now he’s dead.”)

Here’s how Brown answered Maddow’s question…

“I don’t like to talk about conspiracy theories because I don’t like to perpetuate them, and I think it’s just sad that people are getting their news primarily from Twitter and Facebook and not by reading a newspaper or reading a digital website like The New York Times or the Miami Herald.

“I think people need to pay more attention to reading books and reading real news rather than getting their news off Twitter, quite frankly.”

Maddow replied:

“You are a living example for why everybody within shouting distance of the Miami Herald ought to subscribe to that paper.”

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I tell you, it warmed my heart to hear that exchange, and it should warm the hearts of everyone who is disturbed and concerned about the millions of people who have forsaken reliable, tried-and-true news sources and jumped into bed with information sources that are 99 percent gossip and rubbish.

…In fairness, I should note that the Herald is a leading paper in the McClatchy chain, which I often bash. As troubled as McClatchy is, any of its 29 daily papers is 100 times more reliable than the vast bulk of the stuff being passed off as news on Twitter and Facebook.

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I presume most of you are aware of the recent announcement that GateHouse Media and Gannett are seeking to merge, with the lesser-known GateHouse being the majority owner and the new entity operating under the highly identifiable Gannett name.

If shareholders approve the deal, the new Gannett would have more than 260 daily papers in the U.S. along with more than 300 weeklies.

By comparison, McClatchy, owner of The Kansas City Star since 2006, owns 29 daily papers.

Analysts, as well as leaders of GateHouse and Gannett, say the main motivation for the merger is for the combined companies to save hundreds of millions of dollars a year by reducing overlapping costs and buying time to implement the long-sought plan of a “digital transformation.”

(GateHouse C.E.O. Mike Reed said he expected the bulk of the savings to come from reducing business-side headcount and buying out duplicative vendor contracts, but with all the editorial-side layoffs that have taken place the last 15 years, it would not be surprising to see many more reporters, editors, photographers and graphic artists getting axed.)

All the big chains, including McClatchy, have been banking on “digital transformation,” but it is really working for only three papers — The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. It’s no coincidence that those papers are dedicated primarily to national (and, in the case of The Times, international) news and business. I know of only one major metropolitan paper, The Boston Globe, that has had any significant success in the realm of “digital only” sales.

Chain executives’ dreams of “going digital” are now going on 20 years old, and yet all the chains have been losing more and more money. As leading newspaper industry analyst Ken Doctor said in a story on the Newsonomics website, “In a deal that is all about cash flow, the merger partners face the fact that, on an operating basis, too much cash is flowing… backward.”

It’s been my contention that while chasing the elusive, and perhaps apparitional, dream of digital transformation, some chains — with McClatchy being the ignominious industry leader on this front– have let their print products go to seed.

The Star is a prime example. The print edition is treated almost as an afterthought, even though it probably continues to generate a majority of revenue. With a few exceptions, the reporting is now more superficial than ever; weekday papers are embarrassingly thin and unstructured; and virtually no effort is being made to augment stories with photos and graphics. (A Star photographer who got laid off last year wrote on this website recently that the paper is down to four photographers, from a peak of more than 20.)

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I believe turning its back on print has been a big mistake by McClatchy. The hoped-for digital transformation at the local level is looking more and more like a pipe dream, not just here but in almost every metro area. There are simply too many other ways for people to get whatever information — not necessarily news — they are interested in.

Is McClatchy too far down the “digital transformation” road to turn back now? Maybe. But I wish McClatchy or some other chain would re-dedicate itself to putting out quality print products. I believe McClatchy, or whatever chain it might be, would find that tens of thousands of people in a given community — maybe hundreds of thousands, even — would pay premium rates for high-quality print products.

Of course, that also means McClatchy (or whatever chain it might be) would have to commit itself to reconnecting with the communities it serves. That’s the biggest tragedy of corporate journalism — the loss of the proprietary feeling that people used to have about their local papers.

As Bernie Lunzer, president of the national union that represents journalists, told The Washington Post, “Creating real ties to the community — that’s the only way these things (local papers) are going to work.”

So, let me put the question I wrote above a different way:

Is McClatchy too far down the “digital transformation” road to double back and recommit itself to publishing quality print products?

The answer is “no.” But it won’t happen for two reasons. First, McClatchy leadership is rigidly flailing at the digital transformation that is not happening, and, second, McClatchy executives are not the least bit interested in reconnecting with the communities they serve. (And “serve” is putting it loosely.)

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So, looking into the crystal ball, I see McClatchy being acquired by another chain headed down the road of false hopes and idle dreams, with its print products dribbling to a halt and its websites focusing on crime, weather and sports (more Kansas City Chiefs news!) leading the way.

Oh, my, what a mess.

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