Posts Tagged ‘The New York Times’

For a decade or more now, people in and out of the newspaper business have been trying to figure out what caused the bottom to drop out of the industry.

Gardner Cowles Sr. and Florence Cowles

Was it the rise of the Internet? The cashing in by all but a couple of the renowned newspaper families, such as the Binghams in Louisville, the Cowleses in Des Moines, the Chandlers in Los Angeles? The rapacious demands of Wall Street after many major newspapers were snapped up by publicly owned companies?

All of those and other factors have been fingered by various experts as the bogeyman that did in a lot of top-tier newspapers.

And now comes another viewpoint, presented by Jim O’Shea, a former top editor at both The Chicago Tribune and The Los Angeles Times. O’Shea’s new book, “The Deal From Hell: How Moguls and Wall Street Plundered Great American Newspapers,” was reviewed in the SundayBusiness section of this week’s New York Times.

The reviewer, Bryan Burrough, says this:

“Mr. O’Shea argues that what’s killing newspapers isn’t the Internet and other forces, but rather the way newspaper executives responded to those forces.”

Burrough goes on to quote from O’Shea’s book: “The lack of investment, the greed, incompetence, corruption, hypocrisy and downright arrogance of people who put their interests ahead of the public’s are responsible for the state of the newspaper industry today.”

Now that’s an angry and eloquent sentence.

O’Shea backs up his assertion largely by chronicling a newspaper deal that went terribly wrong and wrecked what once had been two great chains — Tribune (Chicago Tribune and others) and Times-Mirror (Los Angeles Times and others). Suffice it to say the papers ended up in the hands of a goofy Chicago investor named Sam Zell, who knew nothing about newspapers and who hired a bunch of former radio DJs and executives to run the chain.

He’s now out, but the Tribune chain is in bankruptcy, and the 10 daily papers in the Tribune chain are a shadow of their former selves.

Papers like The Kansas City Star, the Omaha World-Herald and the St. Louis-Post Dispatch are lucky in that they have managed to avoid the clutches of thoroughly greedy people…although they, too, have fallen far and fast.

I have a different perspective on the implosion of newspapers. I think the crumbling of demand for the daily, local paper was as inevitable as the rise of “riverboat casinos.”

The winds of change started rather slowly but accelerated to the point that we in the newspaper business (I’m a 37-year veteran) were swept up and away, and there was little we could have done to prevent it.

The advent of the Internet? Yes, that definitely played a part. But what set the stage for that?

The pace of society was already gaining steam before the Internet came along. More people were relying on TV for information and entertainment, people were working longer hours, more and more women were going into the work force, people had less time to read newspapers and they were less interested in reading newspapers.

Ask any circulation supervisor at just about any paper in the country and he or she will tell you this sentence is what they hear most often when people call in to cancel their subscriptions: “I don’t have time to read it.”

We in the business couldn’t grasp the climate change because writing the paper and reading it was our business; it was what our lives revolved around. You bet we had time to read the paper; that’s where most of our story ideas came from.

Yes, some greedy people got in there and made the situation a lot worse and sullied the reputations of some formerly high-class papers. But, in retrospect, I don’t think anything could have stopped the overall implosion. Even if we had reacted quickly and embraced the Internet and started charging for online content at the outset, I think circulation, advertising and readership still would have plummeted.

I mentioned that it was the demand for the local, daily paper that hit the skids. Meanwhile, national papers like The Times, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today are still doing relatively well. And even though the New York Times Company (NYT) is a public company, the Sulzberger family still holds a majority interest and has the resources to run the paper as it should be run, putting lots and lots of money into the editorial side.

Many people, like me, who still need a substantive paper with a heavy emphasis on world and national news have gravitated to The Times. I take The Star, which I read first, and then I turn to The Times. I’ve got the time (retired five years ago), and my interest in newspapers has never flagged.

But the time is a luxury that most people don’t have, and the interest is… well, it’s an interest that many people just don’t have any longer.

I’m not saying that’s bad, that’s just the way it is, and that’s what’s responsible for the state of the newspaper industry today.

Read Full Post »

It’s a truism in journalism that the most interesting stories don’t always end up on Page 1.

Take, for example, a story on page A23 of the Sunday New York Times. An irresistible story, accompanied by two captivating photos, was ensconced five pages from the back of the section.

Titled “A Gangster’s Gal Was Loyal to the End Of Life on the Lam,” it was about Catherine Greig, the 60-year-old girlfriend of notorious Boston gangster James (Whitey) Bulger, who was arrested along with Greig outside their Santa Monica, Calif., apartment last week.

Bulger, 81, and Greig had been on the run for 16 years, having left Boston after an FBI agent with whom Bulger had been cooperating tipped Bulger off to the fact that he was about to be arrested.

The FBI finally got Bulger, who is charged with 19 murders, among other crimes, following a tip that came in after the FBI ran TV ads in several large markets, asking people to be on the lookout for Greig.

Catherine Greig, in happier times, before she went on the lam with James (Whitey) Bulger

From photos, it appears that Greig was a good-looking woman at one time, with platinum hair and pleasing features. She was proud of her appearance, too.

“She had her teeth cleaned once a month and frequented hair salons, even on the run,” wrote Katharine Q. Seely, one of The Times’ top-tier reporters. “…She also underwent numerous plastic surgeries, including breast implants, a nose job and a face lift, according to the FBI.”

She and Bulger, who were going by the names of Carol and Charlie Gasko in California, paid for everything in cash; more than $800,000 in cash was found in their apartment.

Seelye described Greig as “a supporting character in the long-running Bulger crime drama, overshadowed by her larger-than-life companion and always dutifully subordinate.”

Indicative of the twisted roots to their relationship, Bulger was carrying on with Greig back in Boston while he was living with another woman, named Theresa Stanley. Furthermore, Greig had previously been married to a Boston firefighter who had two brothers who were members of a rival gang to Bulger’s. Bulger or his henchmen killed both men.

As Seelye put it, “It was a sign, perhaps, that if she could overlook his (Bulger’s) possible involvement in the deaths of her two brothers-in-law, she could overlook a lot more.”

Makes you gulp, doesn’t it?

When the tipping point came in 1995 — after the FBI agent informed Bulger he was about to be arrested — he unceremoniously dumped Theresa Stanley, dropping her off in a parking lot and saying, “I’ll call you.”

Well, as Van Morrison says in his great song “Domino,” “If you don’t hear from me, that just means I didn’t call.” And that was the end of that.

Bulger then picked up Greig “and they disappeared into rural America,” Seelye wrote, leaving behind Grieg’s beloved poodles, whom she had pampered and  kept well groomed.

All along, Bulger had Greig firmly under his thumb, and for some reason — money? fear? perverted loyalty? — she put up with it.

Bulger and Greig, before they were arrested last week in Santa Monica

A man who knew the couple in Louisiana, where they stayed for a while, told The Boston Globe that Bulger believed that “women should be seen and not heard.”

“He (the man who knew them) added that Mr. Bulger had boasted that all he had to do was clap his hands and Ms. Greig would jump,” Seelye wrote.

When they were arrested last week, Greig’s hair had gone white…but still well coiffed.

Greig is now charged with harboring a fugitive and faces five years in prison. With Bulger undoubtedly headed to prison for good, the most interesting tentacle of this story to follow after the trials and sentencings will be this:

Who Greig team up with next?

Read Full Post »

Three short items today…

The Kansas City Star and writer Judy Thomas, in particular, wrung their hands today about the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ failure to significantly change their head-in-sand policies on child sex abuse.

Meeting in Bellevue, Wash., Thursday, the American bishops voted 187-5 to essentially stick with the policy that they adopted in 2002.

“We are dismayed that the new policy is almost identical to the current policy, despite horrifying recent evidence in Kansas City and Philadelphia that the church’s current policies are dangerously lenient and full of loopholes,” Terence McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability.org, was quoted as saying.

It was the lead story in the paper and ran under a one-inch headline that said “Bishops Resist Changes.”

All who are surprised please raise your hands.

Anyone who has any idea of how the Catholic Church operates — and that’s the vast majority of people — knows that the church’s turnaround time on major issues is usually a century or two, not a month or so.

The bishops’ assembly was probably set two years ago, and their position on the sex abuse policy was probably determined months ago.

Rigali -- another pomp and circumstance bishop

The Philadelphia scandal — where Bishop Justin Rigali allowed 37 accused priests to continue working around children in Catholic parishes — took place earlier this year.

I predict it’s going to take decades for the church to come around to the idea that the correct action in priest-accusation cases is to call the police immediately — not mull it over, meet with and warn the priests and try to persuade them to get on the right path.

The Star’s headline and story smacked of hyperventilation.

Maybe it was just a vehicle to run a big photo of the Rev. Shawn F. Ratigan, the local priest who got his kicks by taking “up-skirt” photos of elementary-school girls.

Ratigan, who is in jail, was photographed in Clay County Circuit Court, where he made a brief appearance Thursday. Nothing happened in his case Thursday; the fact that he appeared was, correctly, worth only a paragraph in today’s story.

The story probably deserved front-page play, but certainly not top of the page with a four-column photo.


Here’s a funny correction from Wednesday’s New York Times…

Leona and Trouble

“An article on Friday about the death of Leona Helmsley’s dog, Trouble, misstated the reason that Trouble’s inheritance from Ms. Helmsley’s estate was reduced to $2 million from $12 million, the amount specified in the will. A judge determined that the greater amount exceeded that necessary to care for the dog, not that Ms. Helmsley was of unsound mind when she made the will.”

I guess the issue of the late Ms. Helmsley’s state of mind is still up in the air, eh?


Then, the Thursday Times carried an item that is one of the most dreaded events in newsrooms: the correction to a correction.

“A correction in this space on Tuesday misstated the size of the (Irish Fianna Fail) party’s Dublin delegation…there were 18 members, not 47.”


Read Full Post »

Former Kansas City Star publisher and now New York Times public editor Art Brisbane took his paper to the woodshed Sunday in an Op-Ed piece about The Times’ increasing tendency to get caught up in (or pulled down into) entertainment and gossip-scene coverage.

As public editor, Brisbane is accountable essentially to no one at The Times: He is free to write as he sees fit about what he thinks the nation’s premier paper does well and what he sees as its shortcomings. He can only be fired for 1) not writing or 2) violating the paper’s code of ethics.

Surely, one of the last things that many reporters and editors at The Times want to see in their e-mail in-box is a memo from Brisbane asking them to explain why they wrote this story or that story or why they approached it the way they did.


On Sunday, Brisbane took on not just one or two stories but an increasing, overall tilt toward covering gossip-related material. Brisbane opened his story with this brilliant lead:

“The culture is headed for the curb, and The New York Times is on the story.”

He cited, among others, a recent article about the media coverage of the women in the Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dominique Strauss-Kahn cases and a story about “pay-to-play” tabloid journalism in the digital age.

Brisbane said in his piece that he can appreciate the newspaper’s attempt to walk a fine line between maintaining its “dignified brand” and covering events and culture “wherever they may lead.”

But he chided the paper for including “the seamy stuff” in the Schwarzenegger/Strauss-Kahn story.

The seamy stuff included repeating an assertion made by the gossip website TMZ that the household staff member whom Schwarzenegger impregnated “decked herself out as a sexy swashbuckler for Halloween” a year before she gave birth to the boy.

The story also quoted a blogger on Forbes.com as having said that the housekeeper, Mildred Patricia Baena, “would never appear on the cover of Maxim magazine.”

By regurgitating lurid and derogatory statements, Brisbane said, “the story took a kind of anthropological approach, donning  latex gloves to report on how others were reporting the story — chronicling, as it were, others’ low standards.”

In other words, Brisbane implied,The Times wanted to appear to be including the juicy stuff, not for its prurient value, but to seemingly acquit itself of its duty to publish “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”

Brisbane cited several other stories, which, he concluded, constituted “loitering at the edge of propriety.”

At the root of the increasing tendency of The Times to venture into the previously off-limits garden of gossip, he said, was “the strong tug on The Times and other mainstream news media to follow society, sometimes eagerly, to its fringes.”

And then, in his very measured and tasteful way, Brisbane delivered the hammer:

“My preference would be to see more restraint. True, other media are indulging in questionable journalism, and it is difficult to resist the downward revision of standards. But The Times could just as easily pull back, recognizing that its readers don’t need and aren’t relying on it to chronicle these badlands. Other news outlets are more than willing to go there.”

In other words, Brisbane is urging the Grey Lady to stay true to its colors and not turn blue or purple.

I’m in full agreement. As a subscriber, I want my New York Times to be high road, not low brow.

Read Full Post »

The New York Times op-ed page Saturday was a thing of beauty and wonderment.

Beauty because in separate pieces, columnists examined three of the biggest problems America faces: Lack of integrity on Wall Street; the political right’s fixation with Barack Obama’s place of birth and religious affiliation; and many states’ hell-bent determination to bar the doors against reasonable handgun controls.

Wonderment because some of the facts and information contained in the articles were absolutely jaw dropping.


1) Op-ed columnist Gail Collins, who has one of the wickedest wits in the writing business, sarcastically lit into two states — Utah and Arizona — whose legislatures recently spent valuable time naming “official” state weapons. For its part, Utah went with the Browning pistol as its official state firearm. Arizona, meanwhile, bestowed the same honor on the Colt Single-Action Army pistol.


Fighting an uphill battle, on the other hand, was U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s push for a bill that would make it more difficult to sell guns to people on the terror watch. Lautenberg’s bill has gone nowhere, Collins reported, stating: “Opponents point out that the terror watch list is not always reliable, and the bill might therefore force innocent Americans to go through an entire additional step while purchasing armaments and explosives.”

Collins went on to note that so far this year no state has passed a law prohibiting colleges from banning guns on campus.

“This is pretty notable,” Collins wrote, bitingly, “since failure to require that institutions of higher learning be gun-friendly is the only thing that stands between some states and a perfect 100 percent rating from the National Rifle Association.”

2) Charles M. Blow compiled key statistics from four recent surveys about Obama’s birthplace and religion. At least 900 people responded to each survey. Blow focused on the answers that people who identified themselves as Republicans provided.


— A New York Times/CBS poll asked respondents if they thought Obama was born in the U.S. or another country. The result: 45 percent of Republican respondents said they believed he was born in another country; 22 percent said they were unsure.

— A Fox News poll asked respondents if they thought Obama was born in the U.S. or not. The result: 37 percent of Republicans said they did not think he was; 16 percent were unsure.

— The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life asked respondents if they thought Obama was Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic or something else. The result: 31 percent of Republicans said they thought he was Muslim; 39 percent said they didn’t know.

— A Time magazine poll asked respondents if they believed that Obama was a Muslim or a Christian. The result: 46 percent of Republican respondents said they thought he was Muslim; 24 percent didn’t answer or said they didn’t know.

Blow concluded that the effort by some Republicans, such as Donald Trump, to mine the birthplace and religious affiliation issues is intended to “distract and deceive” voters. Why?

“Because the right’s flimsy fiscal argument — that if we allow fat cats to gorge, crumbs will surely fall — is losing traction” among almost all groups, Blow said, including families strapped by $4-a-gallon gas.

3) In a column titled “The Party’s Over For Buffett,” Joe Nocera derided Warren Buffett’s self-proclaimed commitment to ethical dealings by saying: “For someone who has said repeatedly that he would rather lose money than even a shred of reputation, his actions have been inexplicable.”


He was referring, of course, to the case of Buffett’s trusted aide, David Sokol, who bought $10 million worth of stock in a company (Lubrizol) days before convincing Buffett to buy the company. Buffett disclosed the impropriety but he allowed Sokol to resign — and praised his overall record at Buffett’s firm, Berkshire Hathaway — rather than fire him.

Nocera wrote that what Sokol deserved was “a kick in the rear” instead of “a pat on the back.”

“What moved him,” Nocera wrote of Buffett, “to pre-emptively clear Sokol, who had so clearly violated Berkshire’s code of conduct, of wrongdoing? What does that tell us of possible flaws in Buffett’s character?

Nocera closed by saying that if they’re smart, “Buffett and his shareholders will view this fiasco as a wake-up call.”

Thank you, Gail, Charles and Joe for putting a penetrating spotlight on some facets of contemporary American life that should concern most of us.

Read Full Post »

Two recent stories about electronic communication — one in The Star and the other in The New York Times — have brought into sharp relief, for me, the hazardous communications terrain that many of us navigate.

The Times’ story emphasized the seemingly irresistible urge to text or check one’s smartphone while engaged in personal conversations. The story, titled “Keep Your Thumbs Still When I’m Talking To You,” was illustrated by a young man crouching before, and shouting at, a woman busily engaged with her phone.

The story, written by Times’ media reporter David Carr, says society has come to this: If someone is “looking over your shoulder at a room full of potentially more interesting people, she is ill-mannered. If, however, she is not looking over your shoulder, but into a smartphone in her hand, she is not only well within modern social norms, but is also a wired, well-put-together person.”

“Add one more achievement to the digital revolution,” Carr wrote. “It has made it fashionable to be rude.”

The Star story, on the other hand, by Edward M. Eveld, primarily addresses the fading of the old-fashioned phone call in favor of text messaging.

“Anymore,” Eveld wrote, “a phone call happens generally if it’s pre-arranged. That’s practically a rule in business circles but also holds sway among acquaintances.”

Three observations:

Texting and e-mailing are not character builders, the way old-fashioned phone calls and face-to-face conversations can be.

Example: I’ll never forget the days when I was a teenager and called girls up for first dates. I would start by going to a phone out of earshot of the rest of the family. Then, I would stare at the phone for a few minutes and think of what I might say and how I might lead up to The Big Question. I’d usually make one or two false reaches for the phone, pulling back my hand as it neared or touched the receiver. Then, finally, I’d pick it up and make the call. In most cases, my courage and preparation were rewarded.

More important, those experiences helped me learn how to make difficult calls.

These days, though, most teenagers don’t even have dates, much less make calls and ask each other out. They send a text, or place a call, saying something like, “Wanna hang out tonight?”

That way, you understand, it’s all very informal and virtually risk free. If the recipient texts back, “I’m busy,” you haven’t really been rejected. And you, the initiator, are covered because you really didn’t ask for a date.

As far as I know, our 21-year-old son has seldom “asked anyone out” in the traditional sense. It’s all text- or call-arranged get-togethers. The trouble with this type of arranging is that “plans” fall apart very quickly because more appealing offers come in. And no one has really made a firm commitment, so nobody should be able to claim hurt feelings.

Almost all electronic commitments, it’s my impression, are tentative.

Unlike our son, our 23-year-old daughter, an old-school sort, hates the assignation-by-text system. A couple of times she got together with a young man who called asked her if she wanted to “hang out.”  At least once, after they had met up, it turned out he wanted to take her to a fancy restaurant. She considered that “bait and switch” and didn’t appreciate it because she is the type of person who likes to have definite plans and likes to prepare for the event or occasion. If a young man wants a date, she’d prefer that he call and state his proposition.

My guess is that a lot of people who rely on the text message or e-mail as their primary means of communication shun personal confrontations or difficult phone calls. They probably avoid uncomfortable situations by texting or e-mailing their regrets or bad news that needs to be imparted. In other words, they duck out the back door.

Which leads me to this…

Many times, I have advised against attempting to resolve any significant or delicate issues by e-mail.

Significant issues — and the people embroiled in them — deserve to be dealt with either in person or, at the very least, over the phone.

As Eveld said in his KC Star story, “Not only is it often rude to try to dispatch a touchy issue by e-mail or text, it doesn’t allow for the free flow of information and discussion that is often necessary, and it strips the exchange of the nuances that attend personal conversation.”

Eveld quoted Dan Post Senning of the Emily Post Institute as saying that face-to-face conversations are best because body language, facial expressions and voice inflection play important roles in personal communications. Voice-to-voice conversations are the next best thing, Sening said, because without it, “there’s a whole layer of information that’s incredibly deep that just goes away.”

Example: Last year, I was involved in a volunteer initiative that became somewhat controversial. In e-mails with the person who had the power to give the green light or kill it, I sensed a lessening of commitment on that person’s part. I called the person to try to get a straight answer. On the phone, the person reiterated support for the initiative. A few days later, however, I got an e-mail that said something like, “Can we just forget this? It’s taking up too much time and is too tiring.”

I was stunned. Not because it wasn’t the right call — it probably was — but because it so clearly cried out for a personal call of resolution.

While I’m smart enough to know when a personal conversation is in order, I’m not without my electronic-based failings.

My personal demon is the computer.

Between blogging, e-mailing and checking various web sites, I am on the computer several hours a day. When my wife comes home from work (thank you, dearest, for giving me the opportunity to retire early) I’m usually sitting at the computer. When our daughter comes home from yoga or her volunteer job, I’m usually at the computer.

When I’m needed for something around the house, I usually say, “Just a second; I’ll be right there,” as I try to wrap up something or get to a breaking point.

I often feel guilty about it and know that I tend to isolate myself with the computer. Nevertheless, I  have a hard time tearing myself away. Just this week, my daughter and I were talking about our relationship, and she said, “A lot of the time, even when you’re there, you’re not really there. You know?”

I nodded.

These electronic tools that we have at our disposal are amazing implements, aren’t they? They are so helpful and have opened so many doors for so many people.

But it is immeasurably important that we use them responsibly and not allow them to push aside our manners and encroach on our availability to friends, family members and others. We are most alive when we are engaged with others, sitting across from them — talking, arguing, laughing, explaining — not exchanging electronic signals.

Read Full Post »

Here in Kansas City, we already know a little more about Wal-Mart than a lot of people because a former Wal-Mart c.e.o., David Glass, owns our Kansas City Royals.

The common complaint is that Glass runs the Royals like Wal-Mart executives run their company — on the cheap.

Well, cheap is one thing, but allowing unsafe employment practices is something altogether different. And that’s what it looks like Wal-Mart is guilty of in its two-year-old battle to overturn a $7,000 federal fine that stems from a customer stampede on Thanksgiving weekend, 2008, at a Long Island, New York, store.


In case you’ve forgotten — although it’s pretty hard to purge this from the memory — a 34-year-old temporary worker named Jdimytai Damour was trampled on Black Friday as he and other Wal-Mart employees attempted, unsuccessfully, to hold back a crowd of shoppers who charged into the store when the doors were unlocked at 5 a.m.

A story published in today’s New York Times summarizes the situation: “Eight to 10 employees were pushing against the door to counteract the press of customers trying to get in…Once the doors were unlocked, customers fell in the vestibule and employees climbed on top of vending machines to protect themselves. As in years past, the doors popped off their hinges. Mr. Damour was trampled. He died at the site.”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined Wal-Mart $7,000 — the maximum penalty — and last Friday, the agency’s chief administrative law judge, Covette Rooney, upheld the fine, concluding that unruly crowds on Black Friday in each of the three preceding years — 2005, 2006 and 2007 — should have prompted Wal-Mart to take precautions by 2008.

And what was Wal-Mart’s reaction? Accept the $7,000 fine and pledge to improve conditions? Oh, no, it’s planning to appeal the fine to the full OSHA review commission.

Well, you’ve got to hand it to Wal-Mart; it has been consistent on this. The company has spent more than $2 million on legal fees trying to overturn the $7,000 fine. Of course, the fine isn’t the point with Wal-Mart. It’s all about a bigger principle, the principle of the government sticking its nose in the company’s (and other companies’) business.

Specifically, according to another New York Times story, “Wal-Mart asserted that OSHA was wrongly seeking to define ‘crowd trampling’ as an occupational hazard that retailers must take action to prevent.”

In other words, Wal-Mart is saying, “Let us deal with our crowd-trampling problem, if, indeed, we have a crowd-trampling problem.”

Well, now, that rings a bell with me — and perhaps you, too — on a problem we had here in Kansas City regarding smoking in bars and restaurants.

If you’ll recall, when city officials first began proposing a limit or ban on smoking in bars and restaurants about 20 years ago, the proprietors raised a hue and cry. I remember, specifically, Carl DiCapo, owner of the former Italian Gardens, appearing before a City Council committee and saying, “Please, let us police ourselves.”

For a long time, DiCapo and other opponents of a ban were able to hold the city off — and did little more than designate, in some cases, nonsmoking areas. Finally, three years ago, a citizens initiative petition got enough signatures to put the issue to a vote, and voters implemented an effective ban on smoking in indoor, public places.

The idea of letting Wal-Mart and other big retailers police themselves in the matter of crowd control makes about as much sense as letting Carl DiCapo — a fine citizen in every other respect, by the way — and his entrepreneurial pals decide how to control smoking in bars and restaurants.

Fortunately for big-box employees and customers, as long as the $7,000 fine stands, retailers will have to begin putting in place new crowd-control guidelines that OSHA issued last year.

Wal-Mart wisely implemented some changes at all of its New York stores as part of a 2009 settlement with Nassau County, and it has extended the approach to most of its stores.

For one thing, Wal-Mart stayed open from 7 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day through the night. For some special-sale items, like electronics, people were given tickets so they did not have to surge into the store and make a run for the items. Also, outside the store, officials set up steel barriers in zigzag patterns to prevent a massive, forward press of shoppers.

The steps that Wal-Mart took were in line with the new OSHA guidelines.

The guidelines, according to today’s story in The Times, “say that barricades should start away from the store’s entrance, and that they must have breaks or turns in them to prevent customers pushing from the rear. The guidelines also say that employees should be assigned to specific spots, and that the local police, fire department and hospitals should be alerted about an event that might draw crowds.”

Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have OSHA setting the crowd-control rules than relying on Wal-Mart to do so. After all, if Wal-Mart was so on top of things, wouldn’t it have taken action earlier, after surging crowds had popped the doors off the hinges at the same Long Island store in 2005, 2006 and 2007?

No, didn’t happen, not even after three consecutive years of difficulty managing Black Friday crowds.

And the result? The doors popped off the hinges again, and a 34-year-old temporary worker — a little guy working for a big, big company — lost his life.

I’m sure Wal-Mart regrets the loss…just not enough to allow the big, bad, federal government to hand down crowd-control guidelines.

Read Full Post »

In two recent New York Times columns, Arthur Brisbane, whose journalistic ribs were tempered in Kansas City, has some good advice for news outlets that are hell bent on being first with The Big Story.


Brisbane, who served two stints at The Kansas City Star — one as a columnist and later as editor and then publisher — is now The Times’ “public editor.” In that capacity, one of his duties is to comment when he thinks The Times excels and when he thinks it falls short.

In Op-Ed columns on Jan. 16 and last Sunday, Jan. 30, Brisbane put the magnifying glass to The Times’ coverage of the Tucson shootings that left six people dead and several others, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, seriously injured. His conclusion, essentially, was that The Times should have been content to provide the most authoritative coverage of the tragedy instead of trying also to be among the first outlets to report breaking developments.

What fed Brisbane’s reflection was a major reporting snafu the day of the shootings.

For about 10 minutes that day, Jan. 8, The Times reported in its online story that Giffords was dead. In going with that, The Times was relying on reports from NPR and CNN, not its own reporters, who were not yet on the scene.

Brisbane described how the ignominious error occurred:

“It was hectic in the newsroom with many news reports flowing in as Kathleen McElroy, the day Web news editor, was trying to decide whether The Times was ready to report Giffords’ death. She decided against it and was telling Web producers to hold off reporting it in a news alert when J. David Goodman, who was writing the story, told her he had a few changes he wanted to make.

“Ms. McElroy said, ‘I should have looked at every change,’ but she thought Mr. Goodman was referring to small stuff. Mr. Goodman…erred by reporting Representative Giffords’ death in the lead as though The Times itself were standing behind the information. In any event, Ms. McElroy had said O.K. without seeing that change, so Mr. Goodman pushed the button.”

Now, let me interject here that for Goodman to tell his editor he had “a few changes to make,” without telling her that one of the changes was that Giffords was reportedly dead (if, in fact, that’s what Goodman told McElroy) is unbelievable. If I had been writing that story and heard or read a report that Giffords had died, I would have been yelling so loud that passersby on the street outside would have heard me.

At any rate, the result for The Times, Brisbane said, was a news story “with changes that were not edited.”

Which is also inexcusable.

Philip B. Corbett, The Times’ “standards editor” (he’s in charge of corrections, among other things), told Brisbane, “Everything should go through an editor. Ideally, it should go through two editors.”

In the rush these days to get the story “up” as soon as possible, however, the copy-review process — even at a great paper like The Times — sometimes  gets truncated. (And haven’t we all experienced, perhaps only on the basis of e-mails, how easy it is to “push the button” before we’ve thought everything through and are sure that our electronic message will come across as we intended it?)

Just as the pitfalls of casual correspondence have gotten deeper for everyone, for journalists the rush to be first has made the reporting and publishing process significantly more problematic.

As Brisbane said in concluding his Jan. 16 column: “Whether covering the basic facts of a breaking story or identifying more complex themes, the takeaway is that time is often the enemy. Sometimes the best weapon against it is to ignore it, and use a moment to consider the alternatives.”

The italics are mine because I think what Brisbane said is so important for today’s journalists.

On Sunday, Brisbane returned to the same theme in a column titled “Speed and Credibility.”

Noting the incredible volume of digital news, Brisbane said that news organizations, like The Times, that built their reputations on being authoritative are now being forced to reconsider how much of their reputations they should lay on the line in the name of being first with the news.

For Brisbane, the call isn’t too difficult.

“Put me down as a skeptic,” he wrote. “It’s understandable, given the gung-ho mentality that journalists adopt, to want to blow right by the choice (between what is known and what is uncertain) — to try to be both first and most credible. But for The Times, which arguably brings the top-rated brand for authoritativeness to this battlefront, the approach is fraught with danger.”

Everyone he talked to, he concluded, agreed that it was “always better to be second and right than first and wrong.”

Now there are words that should be displayed above the doors of every newsroom in the country.

Read Full Post »

The seminal photograph of Jared Loughner is one that will be seared in the minds of many Americans for years to come.

You know the one I’m talking about: The police mug shot, in which his head is shaved, he’s wearing a quirky smile, and his eyes are aglow with madness and vacuousness.

That picture is one of several things that have stood out for me in the newspaper and online coverage that I have seen about the Loughner case.

Here are some other highlights of the coverage I have seen:

:: The New York Times’ very focused, wall-to-wall coverage.

:: A David Gergen, CNN column urging Americans not to jump to conclusions about political forces that might have factored into Loughner’s mindset.

:: A Kansas City Star story about the political “roar” surrounding the case.

First, regarding The Times’ coverage, which starts with that memorable photo.

When I first saw that picture on CNN’s home page Monday, I caught my breath. The photo depicted perfectly, for me, the separation from reality that I expected in Loughner from having read about him. It was one of those instances where a photo went far beyond anything that could be put into words. Even though CNN used it just as a mug shot in the upper-left corner of its page, it was arresting.

It took the editors at The New York Times to understand the photo’s impact and to take full advantage. On Tuesday, The Times put that photo at the top of its front page. The photo was three columns wide (half the width of the paper), below a four-column headline that read, “In Arizona Court, Suspect Waives Bail.”

What The Times has done so well in its coverage is to focus relentlessly on Loughner — his background, his family and his movements before the attack outside the Tucson Safeway. Unlike other papers, The Times can throw a fantastic amount of firepower at the epicenter of its coverage — Loughner — and still not short shrift any of the other story facets, such as fleshing out portraits of the victims.

The Times started boring in on Loughner on Monday with a front-page story about the disturbing behavior — “hysterical laughter, bizarre non sequiturs and aggressive outbursts “– that got him kicked out of Pima County Community College. Another photo, a mug shot, of a loopy-eyed Loughner accompanied that story.

Although no other news agency has the wherewithal to handle a story of this magnitude like The Times, some other outlets are doing good work.

I mentioned Gergen’s CNN article. An adviser to four presidents and director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, Gergen is a person whose political observations should be heeded.

Addressing the conservative-liberal foment that mushroomed immediately after the shootings, Gergen said: “The country would be well served now if we cooled the accusations until we learn more about…Jared Loughner. He appears to be mentally unhinged, someone who has threatened others. Why he targeted one of the most admired and popular political leaders in Arizon is unclear.”

He went on to say, however, that the “climate of hatred” has grown worse in recent years “during the George W. Bush years, when the left was intensely alienated, and now during the Obama years, when the right has become vitriolic.”

I agree with Gergen that it’s far too early to know how, or even if, the political atmosphere might have spurred Loughner, but I agree with a point that my friend and former K.C. Star colleague Dan Margolies made at lunch the other day. He said that regardless of how nutty some people are, in most cases they are influenced by “the Zeitgeist.” I had to look up “Zeitgeist” just to make sure I understood. Wikipedia defines it as the “general cultural, intellectual, ethical, spiritual and/or political climate within a nation or even specific groups.”

In this case, that would be within Arizona, which, to me, has found its way to the bottom of the well among these United States.

I also want to credit The Star, which, to its credit, has originated at least one front-page story about the case.

The Star wisely put Dave Helling, one of its most experienced political reporters on the story, and he came up with a compelling report for Tuesday’s edition. The headline was “Silence, Then a Roar.” His lead — the first sentence — was attention grabbing: “The farther you traveled from U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ hospital room, the louder it got across America.” That sentence captured both the heartache of the story and the furor surrounding it.

Helling went on to quote the plainspoken, gutsy sheriff of Pima County, Clarence Dupnik, who suggested that “vitriolic rhetoric” might have been a factor in the violence. Helling went on to talk about efforts and suggestions to tamper the political rhetoric, but he tempered that with an insightful comment from UMKC law school professor Doug Linder. “The natural instinct is to try and figure out some way to prevent these things from happening,” Linder said. “There isn’t any simple solution that involves restricting free speech.”

The only weak part of The Star’s Tuesday package was its centerpiece photo, which showed Cleaver and other Congress members and congressional staff members observing a moment of silence in Washington.

Underneath that amorphous, four-column photo was the mug shot of the crazy-eyed Loughner. But at an inch deep and less than an inch wide, the mug shot came nowhere close to delivering the punch that it did spread high and wide across the top of The Times the same morning.

Read Full Post »

With each passing day, the Fourth Estate, as the newspaper industry has been deferentially referred to for about two centuries, is becoming less of an estate and more like common ground.

(FYI, the term seems to date to the 1700s, when there were three “estates” of Parliament — the Lords Spiritual, the Lords Temporal and the House of Commons.)

Newspapers used to be the great purveyors of information. The big-city papers operated out of hulking fortresses, their minions scrambling around inside to meet deadlines and their delivery trucks spoking out for a hundred of more miles to deliver the precious product onto the lawns and to the newsstands for the waiting masses.

Some of the papers wore their hubris under their mastheads…like the Chicago Tribune, which for many years claimed the mantle of “World’s Greatest Newspaper.”  Then, there’s our own Kansas City Star, which still uses as its slogan the imperious words of founder William Rockhill Nelson: “A Paper for the People.”

(Doesn’t it just make you want to cry out, “Oh, thank you, Mr. Nelson, thank you!” ?)   

Others, like The New York Times, touted (and still do) their earnest and hard-working approach — “All the News that’s Fit to Print” — or, in the case of the Atlanta Journal, their mission — “Covers Dixie Like the Dew.” 

For outsiders — those not baptized in black ink — it was, and still is, difficult to get over the moat and into the fortresses. To peel a layer from the old saying about Las Vegas, what went on behind those walls stayed behind those walls.  

Over the years, though, and particularly in recent years as the news-gathering business has feathered and fractured with the galloping expansion of the Internet, some papers have gotten humility and have realized it’s time to descend from the stratosphere and get down to street level, where people are inhaling the exhaust fumes.

The Star, for example, has its Midwest Voices program of contributing columnists, and it also periodically invites area residents to The Star building at 18th and Grand to sit in on the editors’ afternoon news conferences to learn more about the paper’s inner operations.

Now, a Connecticut newspaper has taken things to an entirely new, egalitarian level. Peter Applebome reported in The Times on Thursday that The Register Citizen in Torrington, CT, has a sign out front inviting residents to the Newsroom Cafe for coffee and muffins.

The paper also circulates fliers around town, inviting members of the public to attend the daily 4 p.m. news conferences, where editors discuss and evaluate the stories that are in various stages of development. A sign on a newsroom wall, near the conference area, says, “Newsroom story meetings — 4 p.m. daily. Right here. Public welcome.”

Applebome says the open-arms approach reflects the paper’s commitment to the new, online-dominated journalism. John Paton, chief executive of the paper’s parent company, “has become a hero to new-media gurus,” Applebome said, “by taking a newspaper company emerging from bankruptcy and turning it into a company militantly focused on the Internet.”

The paper’s slogan says it all: “Digital first. Print last.”

Obviously, The Star and other big-city, mainstream papers are not going to be able to turn their ships around as fast as small operations like The Register Citizen. But they’d better start spinning the wheel faster, while there’s still time to salvage the evolving and weakening link between newspaper and reader.

With a few notable exceptions, like the Sulzberger family that controls a majority interest in The Times, industry leaders are no longer aristocrats. They are business people scrambling to figure out how to save an industry and what they can do to get lost readers back.

In my opinion, it’s important for newspaper editors and publishers to do whatever they can to shed the fortress, high-on-the hill image and to give the public more access to their buildings and their inner workings…within reason, of course.

The Star has taken the first baby steps, but I think it’s time for a more courageous move, one that tampers with the paper’s very origins.

Here’s my idea.

For those of you who subscribe, when you look at the bottom of the Op-Ed page, what do you see? Next to the masthead, listing the names of the top editors and executives, looms the frowning visage of William Rockhill Nelson, next to his words, “A Paper for the People.”

I say, get rid of the photo. Off with his head! That high-collared shirt, bulbous nose and icy frown send the wrong message in this day and age. The collar, the nose, the frown — they don’t make people want to buy the paper; they push people away!

I know this is a bold step. But The Star has taken bold steps before. Why, until about the early 1980s, the words “The Kansas City Star” were followed by a period on the flag (the top) of the paper. Some of you may remember. A period. Nobody understood it, but it was sacrosanct. 

Then, a publisher named Jim Hale, who had come along after a media conglomerate bought the paper in the late 1970s, decided one day to do away with the period. And so, poof, it disappeared. No one (or very few people, anyway) said a word.

The highfalutin photo of Nelson could disappear just as quickly and quietly. So could the slogan.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »