Monday, December 31, 2007

Its final breath

In the end, this is what we should have expected: The Post does a much more honest and thorough examination of its demise than the one provided by the Enquirer. The overall package produced for the final edition of the Post is sad and touching. Though I've provided links below, find a copy of the Post today on the street and read it on paper.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Welcome to the future

Go back 10 years, 15 to be safe: The Kentucky Post owned Northern Kentucky. The Enquirer's commitment to Northern Kentucky was so weak and distrusted that at one point in the late 1980s, the Enquirer closed its bureau there. The Kentucky Post was a franchise: a dominant readership in a growing area. At the Enquirer, there was speculation that when the JOA ended, the Kentucky Post would be kept alive as Northern Kentucky's newspaper.

That didn't happen, obviously. Did the Kentucky Post wither away because Gannett, which ran the Joint Operating Agreement, did next to nothing to sell it? Did it fail because E.W. Scripps, satisfied with its split of JOA profits, saw no point in spending a nickel to preserve the franchise?

Today's whitewash of history by the Enquirer doesn't bother to probe those and many other questions about the death of the Post. It accepts conventional wisdom that afternoon newspapers were doomed without ever examining whether everything was done to keep the paper alive. It devotes one quote to the widely held belief that Gannett did very little to improve circulation and advertising for the Post. For Chrissakes, it relies on Bill fucking Cunningham to say that the Post, in the end, could have done nothing to save itself.

Joint Operating Agreement? More like Joint Mismanagement Agreement. Nowhere in the package of stories are there any details of the mechanics of the JOA, how it provided no incentives to Gannett or Scripps to keep the local newspaper market healthy. Needless to say, both companies did everything they could to live down to the spirit of the JOA. Gannett just sucked advertising dollars out of Cincinnati but did almost nothing to build circulation. Scripps grew lazy over its split of profits.

We get a teary eyed reminiscence of the Post's journalism but no examination of its demise. What's odd about the stories is how small a role the Enquirer plays in the tale. Reporter Mike Rutledge describes the Post as "feisty and independent." Since the Post occupied that niche, it must mean the Enquirer dominates the niche for a flaccid and beholden newspaper in the Cincinnati market.

There's much said about the "Friends of Joe" stories. The Enquirer actually broke that story, sort of. David Wells wrote how Indian Hill homeowners had gotten their homes classified as farms, allowing them to pay lower property taxes. It was good reporting, but as usual -- as it had with the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire and the Carrolton bus crash -- the Enquirer fumbled the follow-up and missed the better, richer "FOJ" story.

This look back at the Post's journalism makes it look as though the death of the Post is a failure of journalism, and not a business failure. Today's package of stories contains no interviews with Gannett or Enquirer executives, past or present, about the death of the Post. When it comes time to question Scripps, we get the explanation that it would have been too expensive to build a newspaper operation from scratch to keep the Post alive, but Rich Boehne isn't asked "at what point did Scripps actually give up on the Post?"

The death of the Post was almost certainly inevitable, but that doesn't mean it couldn't have been healthier at the end, leaving something that might have been worth preserving. That would have saved jobs and maybe saved an independent voice in this town.

What we're left with is there in today's Enquirer, in black and white -- flaccid and beholden journalism. The hard questions aren't asked, the people responsible aren't held accountable. The end of the Post is an opportunity to make a lot of people uncomfortable, and given the sorry state of newspapers today, a lot of people should be uncomfortable. But what we get instead are tales of the good things that happened during the Post's history. Read this package carefully, because this is the only kind of journalism we'll get in a one-newspaper Cincinnati. Welcome to the future.

Monday, December 24, 2007

The stretch run

The last edition of the Cincinnati Post will hit the streets a week from today. Today's incarnation of the Post won't be missed. As Dan Sewell's story says, the Post is a ghost of its former self. E.W. Scripps has been cutting and cutting there for 20 years, without any pretense the newspaper might get better.

In theory, the benefit of competition for newspapers is that it makes each paper better. Competition scares you into doing your best every day. The real death of the Post might have some at some point in the past 10 years when the Enquirer stopping giving a crap about what was on the Post's front page every day. Did you read Sunday's paper? I can't believe I wasted $1.50 and 10 minutes on it. Stories like "Whatever happened to....?" is what you get when you have editors with no imagination and no resources. A dull effort, it read like the reporters did the entire thing by telephone, and it was dressed up to make it look like it was something. The editors also chose to lead the paper with another meaningless Christmas shopping story. It was a terribly weak Sunday effort, one that can't be blamed on a "slow news week" just before Christmas, or a short staff. It was a general lack of wherewithal -- planning, people, news judgment, imagination -- that produced Sunday's waste of newsprint. However, Sunday's paper did a fine job of wrapping around the advertising inserts, which is all Gannett cares about.

Make no mistake: The Post should continue to scare the Enquirer into publishing a quality product. The junk that the Enquirer put out Sunday as news isn't compelling to any reader, whether you're 40+ and reading it on paper or a 20-something reading it online. The people who put out the Enquirer should stand outside Post offices next Monday, and watch those folks walk out, carrying boxes, never to return to that newsroom, and know that that's their fate if boring newspapers like Sunday's edition become a habit.

Know that there is no joy at the Enquirer over the end of the Post. For instance, it's not uncommon for a newspaper to hire at least some of the staff of its defunct competition. Not here. The Enquirer will hire no one from the Post full time, though it might use one or two on a freelance basis. The Enquirer recently held meetings for its staff about life post-Post. Publisher Margaret Buchanan was asked about hiring Post folks. We have no openings, was her reply. That's only part of the story. Several recent hires from the Post didn't last long. They were openly contemptuous of the editorial "leadership" of Tom Callinan and Hollis Towns, and quit rather than waste their careers at the Enquirer. The Enquirer isn't willing to submit itself to any more of that abuse.

Worse, however, is that the demise of the Post will bring no windfall to the Enquirer. Buchanan said in those meetings that the Enquirer expects revenues to decline by as much as 8% in 2008, so the cost-cutting is likely to continue, as they say, till morale improves. During the meetings with staff, Callinan was heard saying the Enquirer had to build its audience “to serve advertisers” in order to grow its business. No one cross-examined Callinan on that, but many in the newsroom believe it means the Enquirer just won't hit you very hard if you have money. It all made sense after I read last week's overly-reverent coverage of the new Western-Southern 660-foot glass phallus downtown.

An analyst quoted in Sewell's story says, ""It's the relatively rare community that does have two papers anymore." Two newspapers? Has he been to Cincinnati lately? It's difficult to argue we even have one.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Get your lightning rods straight

Michael Clark's profile of Gary Hines, head of the Butler County NAACP, is all right, but it's a profile of the wrong person. The person who should have been profiled is Mike Taylor, superintendent of Lakota schools.

As the Hines profile states, and as the Enquirer has been reporting from the beginning, Hines did not ask that the performance of the play "And Then There Were None" be canceled. He says he complained, passing along the feelings of black families in the district. It was school administrators who decided to cancel the play. From the first story on this, November 27:

But Hines, who operates GPH Consultants - a diversity training company - in West Chester Township, said that despite his strong protest, it was Lakota officials' idea to cancel the play in response to his complaints.

Jon Weidlich, spokesman for Butler County school district, said subsequent discussions - after district officials met with Hines earlier this month - among students and staff at Lakota East High School led to the decision to cancel the play.

"After learning of the play's origins and the hurt that it caused, we had hoped to use the performances as a way to create a discussion about diversity of all kinds in our community. However, students and staff continued to raise issues, and it was quickly obvious that bad feelings about the play were much more widespread and strong than originally thought. The best action seemed to be to switch to a different play," Weidlich said.

Keith Kline, Lakota East principal, said: "Certainly, it was a tough decision but one that needed to be made.

"Doing the play now is not a way to promote the respectfulness we are trying to promote."

As usual, the Enquirer exhibits its twisted and misdirected sense of accountability. By running a front page profile of Hines, the Enquirer makes it look like it's his fault the play was canceled. Maybe he is a trouble-maker, or maybe not. Maybe his complaint is legitimate and maybe not. But he didn't have the power to cancel the play. He's just one man and he won't even reveal how many members the Butler County NAACP has.

[ And the headline on the story is just stupid: "He didn't expect to be A LIGHTNING ROD." First, when you're the head of an NAACP chapter, you're a lightning rod. Second, Hines is never quoted saying that in the story. He is paraphrased saying he didn't anticipate the firestorm, but that's it. It's the Enquirer who named him the lightning rod. ]

The real story here is that the school administration made the decision, and the Enquirer has yet to dig into that. The Enquirer editorial board praised the Lakota administration for its wisdom in deciding to stage the play, but never called into question the flawed decision making that led to its cancellation in the first place.

So, why hasn't the Enquirer profiled superintendent Mike Taylor and Keith Kline, the Lakota East principal? Why haven't they been held accountable? The story and the Enquirer's coverage in general introduce the issue of censorship, and the introduction of it today in the Hines profile makes it look as thought he is the censor. He is not. That would be Taylor and Kline, but the Enquirer coverage never really connects those dots.

The Enquirer needs to set this record straight, and detail who at Lakota talked to whom to arrive at the decision to censor the play.