Thursday, May 31, 2007

Shrinking resources and teenage recklessness

You should read this, Editor & Publisher's story on the impact that staff cuts are having on newsroom operations. The Enquirer isn't part of the story, but other Gannett papers are, as are similar-sized papers from around the country. Everyone's story is the same: You have to do more with less, tough choices are made about what stories not to cover, and reporters claim they have less time to check facts and cultivate sources.
When Don Ruane of The News-Press in Fort Myers, Fla., first covered the town of Cape Coral back in 1979, he didn't start writing his first stories of the day until close to 4 p.m. That left him plenty of time for fact-checking, quote-fixing, and being out and about to schmooze with sources and run down some story tips.

Today, the 56-year-old reporter, who has served in various reporting and editing roles over more than two decades, is back on his old beat. But this time around, he says any extra time he once had is gone, and the likelihood of mistakes has blossomed. Not only must stories be done as quickly as possible for the Web, but covering government meetings means more updating online and less time working sources and developing leads.

"You wonder about the quality sometimes when you rush stuff out," says Ruane. "We probably have more misspellings online because we are rushing to get things up, we are trying to beat the noon news."

Others in the news trenches agree. ...

Think about that when you see today that the Enquirer put four reporters (five, if you count the strangely different bylines "Denise Amos" and "Denise Smith Amos" as two people) on second-day coverage of the deaths of two teenage girls in a car wreck. The deaths are undoubtedly tragic and sad, but these unfortunate girls weren't the first victims of teenage recklessness, and they won't be the last. Why do these deaths deserve such blanket coverage, and why, on Wednesday, were these deaths given a higher position on the front page than the deaths of 10 American soldiers in one day? (I'd link to the PDF of the front page, but the Enquirer's own link to it is busted.) Has the Enquirer ever devoted this kind of coverage to any soldier's death? No, because they know the most recent war death won't be the last, and because they're afraid to argue about the war's legitimacy. It's much easier to write tearjerkers about speeding teenage drivers.

And why did these deaths get so much more coverage than the death of this boy, a story buried on page 2 of the Local section? Are the deaths of two white suburban girls really worth that much more than the death of one white suburban boy?

Two more things on this: First, the Enquirer ran this picture on its front page, but then, for some strange reason, split that photo into two headshots on the front page of the Local section. Second, the tired headline "Shattered Dreams" -- one that has been used for stories on teenagers' deaths for decades -- proves that the Enquirer is so short on resources, imagination and balls that they're willing to sink to beating cliches into the ground on the front page, instead of actually uncovering and reporting news. In the macabre world of what makes news, this story was giftwrapped for the Enquirer. All they had to do was put "Shattered Dreams" over the top of it and it's front-page material.

In an environment of shrinking resources, the Enquirer does what's easy, not necessarily what's important.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Two notes

  • Would the Enquirer have the guts to call out "the sheer weirdness" of the new Creation Museum, as the New York Times did today? Right now that's the most-emailed story on the Times' web site.

  • Why is it that every time I see Enquirer editor Tom Callinan quoted on something, he's explaining a mistake? Bob Steele of The Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values, who was called to Cincinnati to lecture the Enquirer staff after a reporter was suspended for plagarism, used his trip to turn out this article about how the Enquirer handles online forums. Callinan, who couldn't find his ass in the dark with both his hands, explains how the Enquirer fucked up and shut down most of the discussion boards on the site. Karen Gutierrez of CincyMoms also speaks up about discussions on that site.

    What neither person seems to understand is that creating lists of what people say isn't automatically useful, it's doesn't automatically lead to solutions and it's certainly not journalism. Note how often Callinan brings up the number of page views, and how low most of the numbers are. Callinan talks about "crowdsourcing" and Gutierrez talks about "viral marketing" as if they know what those terms mean. Good newspapers did "crowdsourcing" long before some blogger coined the term, but Callinan talks about it as if it's a recent discovery -- which, at the Enquirer, it is. And Gutierrez sends out a few emails and calls it viral marketing. Pathetic.

    After reading that, I checked the Enquirer web site to see if there were any discussions online. I found two -- one on immigration, and this one on Fountain Square. Look at the Fountain Square discussion. It's from October, linked today from a story about Taste of Cincinnati. How lame.

Out with a whimper

FIRST: The Purple People Bridge Climb was a lame idea from the start, lamer still because it cost you up to $80 for the pleasure. But the Enquirer thought it was a great idea, and put the bridge climb on Page 1 six times (November 10 and 14, 2005, in 2006, April 6, May 3, May 25 and June 13), plus an editorial, plus a 1,900-word hummer for Dennis Speigel, the genius behind the idea.

On Wednesday, Speigel announced the climb would be shut down. The Enquirer's play of the story is puzzling -- on the front page in Kentucky, but deep in the paper in Ohio, at the bottom of page A13, the third page of the Business section. I don't believe it was ever an above-the-fold front page story from the start, but why does the Enquirer seem to consider this a Kentucky story and not an Ohio story? The Enquirer doesn't seem to understand that the interest in a story is based on the reader, and not the writer. It appears the Enquirer treated this as a Kentucky story because it was written by a reporter from the Northern Kentucky bureau, Mike Rutledge. Does that mean they also think only Kentucky readers would be interested? Maybe they just didn't want to embarrass Ohio resident Speigel on this side of the river.

SECOND: Chris Henry's drug test in Kentucky was apparently negative. Was the Enquirer ever justified in putting this story on the front page? You would think good judgment is called for when we're talking about accusing somebody of using drugs. However, it's another case of the Enquirer passing on good news judgment, passing on doing the right thing, in favor of using web traffic to determine what goes on the front page. Is anyone in the Northern Kentucky bureau thinking about looking into how many other people on probation are getting such poor drug tests? A story like that would resemble watchdog journalism, which we know the Enquirer doesn't like to do. Will the editorial page take on prosecutors in Kentucky who let out inconclusive drug test results? No, they're too busy washing John Boehner's mouth out with soap.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Wrong question

Sunday's big story on the Creation Museum makes this big pronouncement:

The museum also puts our region at the center of one of the most enduring questions of all time: Who created Heaven and Earth -- and when?
Ryan Clark's reporting doesn't begin to try to answer that, and that's good, because it's the wrong question. That question assumes there is a "who" to be credited with the universe's creation, and that's far from a foregone conclusion.

The real question is, should the Bible be taken literally? Clark's reporting sticks more to this question. But the posing of that other question just muddies the story's presentation. The Enquirer isn't actually brave enough to tell readers up front that the story's might actually challenge one's reading of the Bible. Instead, the editor (Lee Ann Hamilton, maybe) makes up this other question, and then fails to answer it.

This just shows that the Enquirer believes if its pronouncements are big enough, that makes the stories big. Clark's reporting isn't bad, but it's clear from the presentation that the editor in charge wasn't smart enough to really frame the story well.

I also don't understand the headlines. The front page headline reads, "Did man walk among dinosaurs?" Does the Enquirer pose this as an unsettled question? This question has an answer, and the answer in absolutely not. Man and dinosaurs never met, so why did the Enquirer put that question on the front page? On the Forum front page is the headline, "What the Lord made". I have no idea what that's supposed to mean. Did God build the museum? In the story, one man interviewed calls the museum a miracle. It's not.

So there's a remaining question: Does a newspaper have to respect all opinions? No it doesn't. At least part of a newspaper's job is to debunk myths, to challenge conventional wisdom and poke holes into widely known "truths." I don't expect any newspaper to take on or be able to answer the question, is there a God? But the evidence behind evolution and against the Genesis story as the origin of life on earth is overwhelming., and Clark's stories essentially say that. So why does the Enquirer posture this way?

To top it off, the editorial board skips the issue entirely, instead weighing in on last week's immigration deal. Compare that to today's editorial in the New York Times, and see which paper has the better grasp of the issue.

Saturday, May 19, 2007


(Note: When first posted, this item did not allow comments. That was inadvertent and has been corrected. Also, you might need to register at CincyMoms to view some of that content.)

Let me say from the outset that I have no philosophical disagreement with It's a legitimate idea for a web site, and if it helps parents raise their kids, that's fine.

I just don't think that under the Enquirer's leadership, it's going to be very good. I received this email last week:

Have you heard the Enquirer paid a group of "conversation starters" to post regularly to the site, then failed to mention that to readers? It was brought up -- by a photographer -- at a recent staff meeting when (the photographer) asked, innocently: "Shouldn't we tell people that?"

The response was essentially, no. "People don't like to be led in conversations," I believe is a direct quote from Hollis.

That's troubling if true. I looked all over the CincyMoms site for any mention of this practice. It's not in the FAQ (the Enquirer doesn't seem to understand that the FA in FAQ stands for "frequently asked," which means these should be real questions from real people). Nor is there any mention of this practice in the blog maintained by Karen Gutierrez, who leads the CincyMoms effort for the Enquirer. And I couldn't find anything in the boards about CincyMoms. I tried to search the discussion boards for talk of this practice, but the CincyMoms search function hasn't worked in days.

On the other hand, so what if it is true? Sure it's dishonest; ethics isn't a strong suit at the Enquirer. Inserting paid talkers into online discussions to boost traffic is easier said than done. Take a look at this clumsy effort by Gutierrez, who goes by the online name "cincymom". It's a Valentine's Day thread called "Tell us why your man is special":

Did he scrape the ice off your car this morning? Take your turn with the baby last night? Does he just GET you? For Valentines Day, tell us why your man is special.
This got 28 responses, not a huge amount. But this just reflects the Enquirer's uneasiness with public discussion. The Enquirer has killed off all discussion on its web site, because the discussions were being hijacked by a few insane users. The editorial board is pushing "community conversations," and this week produced this masterpiece about high gas prices, where readers suggested such brilliant and original ideas to save money on gas by driving less and driving smaller cars.

If, through CincyMoms, the Enquirer is trying to appeal to West Chester soccer moms, then they're missing the target. You don't make money on the web by appealing to people who inhabit Norman Rockwell paintings, and Gutierrez's lame discussion idea suggests. You just don't find many well-adjusted people posting on discussion boards like this. People who join these discussions range from merely insecure and pissed-off (like me) to those who are desperately lonely and scared and have low self esteem, or are just apeshit crazy.

Doubt me? Read "Drunken night, big mistake" about a woman in a bad marriage who gets drunk and wakes up the next morning to realize she participated in a three-way. Or this thread about a woman in a loveless marriage.

Remember the Enquirer's clumsy Mother's Day front page pulled from CincyMoms? This is better reading: women writing about how their kids and husbands ignored them on Mother's Day.

That's the real world of parenting. Frankly, of all the families I know, I can only think of one I'd consider normal, and even there, the overachieving daughter hates her father. The rest of the families I know, there are divorces, kids in wheelchairs, kids on drugs, kids on Ritalin, kids on antidepressants, mothers on antidepressants, kids and mothers on antidepressants. The "normal" family is a myth, but the Enquirer only wants to write about kids who get perfect scores on their ACTs. That's great, but it goes without saying that many of us are just average, and by definition, about half of us are below average.

The sad stories of bad marriages and pathetic Mother's Days, the Enquirer can't make that stuff up. That's real, and certainly the Enquirer doesn't pay enough to hire people smart enough make that up.

What might be more insidious is letting advertisers interfere. Note that this discussion, "Weirdest place you've done it?", was started by user PureRomance4U. Pure Romance is the name of a Cincinnati company that sells vibrators and other bedroom apparatus through Tupperware-like parties, and which, if I'm not mistaken, is a CincyMoms advertiser.

What kind of traffic is CincyMoms getting? I don't know, but the site this morning claims 5,732 members and 52,000 message posts on its bulletin board, but the posts are from only 3,550 users. That means only about 60 percent of CincyMoms users have posted messages.

My guess is that CincyMoms traffic is subject to a 90-10 rule, which says 90 percent of your traffic comes from just 10 percent of your users. Read this discussion started by a woman wondering why some users post so often. There are women in this discussion who have up to 900 posts, and they're not please with the insinuation that they don't have anything better to do than hang out on CincyMoms.

(I think I'm in love with Lucky1. She has over 700 posts and a screw loose. She had this to say to a question about anal sex. "Let me see if I can word this delicately... It is AWESOME ...." I'm glad she was able to put it so delicately, since I probably couldn't handle her more-vivid description.)

A generous estimate would mean CincyMoms only has 500, maybe 1,000 active users, people who come to the site every day and participate. In a city of 2 million, that's a small number. Are advertisers willing to pay for that?

I don't have any issues with CincyMoms. There are obviously people who participate here who need help, and if they can get it there, that's great. My problem is with the clumsy way the Enquirer promotes it, especially using valuable front-page real estate to do so, and assigning a reporter (John Johnston) to do CincyMoms-themed stories. Those stories were of the quick and dirty variety, about how to get your kids to eat vegetables or behave in restaurants, and rarely dealt with the meaty issues around raising kids.

One last note: This discussion thread says a freelancer for Wired magazine is working on a story about CincyMoms. Let's hope he can get some answers out of the Enquirer about paying people to boost traffic on the boards.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Don't bother

Did you waste $1.50 on the Sunday Enquirer today? I did, and I'm hoping you read this before you waste your money and your time.

The bulk of the front page is taken up by a CincyMoms ad. Why do I want to pay $1.50 to be told about some lame web site? It's shameful the Enquirer can't find better news to report on the front page of its biggest newspaper of the week.

The Sharonville plane crash follow-up story was written by a features writer, a business writer, and the medical writer. Many news editors believe in the theory that any decent reporter should be able to cover any story that comes up. It's a nice theory, and Bishop, Newberry and O'Farrell are all competent reporters. In the long run, however, having a newsroom -- oh, forgive me -- having a local information center full of generalists leads to poor beat coverage and a lack of the kind of nuanced coverage that leads to good watchdog journalism and great storytelling. You can tell by today's front page this is already afflicting the Enquirer.

A headline above the letters in the Community Forum section says "Ruby-Simpson tiff seems like a publicity stunt". I don't think Jeff Ruby threw OJ out of his Louisville restaurant for as a stunt, but the Enquirer took care of the publicity, putting this non-story on the front page twice in the past few days. Today's deification of a guy who runs a bunch of steak restaurants isn't a bad story, but doesn't deserve the front page.

What did other newspapers do today? The Lexington Herald-Leader's mother's day story is about a mom who lost her son in the war. The Toledo Blade investigates Rep. Paul Gillmor's new $1 million home. Somehow the words "Enquirer" and "investigate" don't seem to go together well or often in the same sentence. The Cleveland Plain Dealer examines the state of the troubled Davis-Besse nuclear power plant. The Washington Post leads with a story about a deadly ambush in Iraq, a story the Enquirer buried on page 15. It also has a story on how GOP presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani got rich after 9/11. The New York Times today tells how civilian deaths are hurting the war against the Taliban.

Being a lousy newspaper isn't an accident. The Enquirer is terrible by choice. As its print product sinks, the Enquirer is trying to become a successful web site, but how can you be successful on the web with such awful decisions about how to deploy your reporters?

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Non-news on the front page

If you believe that a newspaper should put the most important news on the front page, and that the most important of the important news is placed above the fold, then there's no way to justify the Enquirer's decision to lead the paper with the story of how Jeff Ruby threw O.J. Simpson out of his restaurant, six days ago, in Louisville. It's an abominable news decision, probably driven by the story's web traffic. The Enquirer, for some reason, regularly deifies Ruby, probably because he's easy to get to and he'll say absolutely anything that pops into his head.

Slightly worse is the center of the front page, devoted to the Ohio smoking ban. The Enquirer tells you right up front it's not a story -- the deck reads, "few complaints, no violators identified." If it's not news, why is it on the front page? The news well in this town can't be that dry. The Enquirer is just to lazy and incompetent to find news.

Monday, May 07, 2007

A few thoughts on Monday

Strange graphics: Saturday's story on the Flying Pig says marathoners like to run here because they get a cool medal. Then the Enquirer fails to run a picture of the medal.

Today's story by Malia Rulon on UC's attempt to land a presidential debate talks all about how colleges benefit from these events. But when the Enquirer lists where debates have been held since 1992, it lists the cities but not the colleges.

This is typical of the Enquirer's careless planning. Gannett wants stories to have breakouts and sidebars and graphics, but nobody seems to think much about how they're all supposed to work together.

Love those boosters: Dustin Dow's two-part series on boosters of college athletics looks at the upside but doesn't mention at all the downside. It seems most big scandals in college athletics have connections to rich boosters who get too involved. With both UC and Xavier saying they plan to increase their booster bases, what are they doing to keep this clean? Is there a part three? The Enquirer has clearly given up on watchdog journalism, because this series lacks the necessary skepticism.

Bricks are bad: We might expect the editorial page to take up the question of whether sucking up to college boosters might cause problems, but not at the Enquirer. Instead, the editorial board takes another strong stand, this time against throwing bricks at school buses near the zoo. The editorial mentions that two school districts cancelled field trips to the zoo, without passing judgment on whether or not that was the right thing to do or a good thing to do. It takes no talent whatsoever to write editorials like this, so why the Enquirer needs a staff of six to that is a mystery.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

A mile wide and an inch deep

Sunday's package of stories on baby boomers illustrates what's wrong at the Enquirer. There are no fewer than nine stories on this subject today. The Enquirer writes about it as if it's something they discovered, and takes the approach, "this is who you are and this is what you want." The lead story almost totally descriptive, a rehash of old headlines. How stupid does the Enquirer think I am that they have to tell me Anthony Munoz and Johnny Bench are baby boomers?

The Enquirer seems to pride itself on this kind of swarming of a story, but the results are shallow. Last year the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote a series -- not just one story -- on how boomers have failed to save for retirement, and they've won a handful of awards for it. Here, the Enquirer devotes less than 600 words to the topic. The Enquirer says we don't have enough geriatric doctors. The New Yorker treated that story this way. Read both, and decide which is the more compelling treatment. And does anyone really give a crap about what Nancy Zimpher thinks about retirement?

It's typical of how the Enquirer treats issues like this. They talk to college presidents and football coaches, but not often to the masses of people of average or below-average means who are really going to struggle with meeting their financial and health-care needs in retirement. That's where the story is, and today, the Enquirer dealt with it only as a bunch of statistics. Is it a lack of resources or a lack of courage that keeps the Enquirer from leaving the office to go find real people to talk to?

What the Enquirer should do is conceive the story the way they printed it, but don't print it. Expand the subjects where they've found impact, on housing, employment, retirement costs, health care and so on. But this is how the Enquirer covers an issue: a swarm, then silence. The swarm produces coverage that just scratches the surface of an issue. You can bet you won't read much about this in the future, because the Enquirer feels it's already been there, done that. The staff is too thin to assign a reporter full time to write about baby boomer issues, and the editors aren't smart enough to push the limits of the coverage.

For me, the best part was the 36 headshots of baby boomers on the Business front page, with the names in type so small and shrunken many baby boomers would need a powerful magnifying glass to read them.

UPDATE: The Sunday New York Times Magazine devoted its issue on Sunday to middle age. See it here this week. You might need to be registered, and if you aren't registered, you should be. This is what a newspaper with real ambition can produce.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Sad Saturday

The story selection on the front page of the Enquirer today is abysmal. The paper seems to be more frequently going with all-local front pages, which usually means sports, Marcus Fiesel and stories about children. In that vein, today's front page doesn't disappoint.

The Marcus Fiesel story was over weeks ago, and this overwrought story doesn't deserve the front page. This story about who gets to sing the anthem at Reds games was so flat and poorly written that even the web editors missed the point, and put this head on the story online: "Springdale kids sing anthem." This story about a county clerk who was fired doesn't get to the point until the 16th paragraph, that he might have been hired after being fired from his Norwood job just so he could qualify for his public employees pension. And this story about the Flying Pig Marathon isn't bad, but did it deserve the top of the front page?

This isn't all is today's Enquirer. Editors apparently thought this story was so good it was printed twice in my copy of the paper, once on the front of the Local section and again on the second page. And usually on Saturdays the main story in Business is about personal finance. What's the hot topic today? Free comic books. Thank you for saving me $2. Now I can retire.

There was news worth reading today, but the Enquirer buried it. This story about kids throwing rocks at a school bus at the zoo is every West Chester mom's nightmare, and just gives people in the burbs another reason not to come into the city. The Enquirer played it down. Keep in mind that Enquirer publisher Margaret Buchanan is on the 3CDC Board. Another Cincinnati cop was arrested, and this story too was buried. And Mr. Pig died April 30, and the Enquirer finally got around to printing his obit today.