Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Enquirer in Wired

In Wired, Jeff Howe uses the Enquirer as the central character in this story, "To Save Themselves, US Newspapers Put Readers to Work," about how Gannett newspapers are trying to move ahead as the print product declines.

This is a trite and largely uncritical look at how the Enquirer and Gannett are remaking themselves. Howe is a proponent of crowdsourcing as a newsgathering technique, and he uses the Wired article to promote crowdsourcing as vital to the survival of newspapers.

All you need to know about the author is in this sentence fragment. After describing some of the Enquirer's online moves, Howe writes, "Such innovation isn't exactly Gannett's style. Better known for ruthless cost-cutting than risky initiatives ...."

I have no love for Gannett (surprised?), and "ruthless cost-cutting" is only one of the kinder ways to characterize the company. But saying the company isn't known for risky initiatives just isn't true. What do you call the startup of USA Today? What other company has started a national daily newspaper from scratch and succeeded? Al Neuharth was an Evil Genius. He built Gannett from a chain of 10 newspapers in upstate New York to an international media company, and that didn't happen without taking some risk. Where Neuharth was evil, though, was in emphasizing selling ads over groundbreaking journalism. That was great for quarterly numbers and Wall Street, but bad for the long-term survival of daily newspapers. The fact remains Howe oversimplified Gannett's history, and a deeper appreciation for the company's history might have improved his article.

Howe eats up Tom Callinan's line of bullshit. Callinan is the evil without the genius. When Howe told how Callinan went to college at night for a degree in new media, I was reminded of this from "A Fish Called Wanda:"
Otto: Don't call me stupid.

Wanda: Oh, right! To call you stupid would be an insult to stupid people! I've known sheep that could outwit you. I've worn dresses with higher IQs. But you think you're an intellectual, don't you, ape?

Otto: Apes don't read philosophy.

Wanda: Yes, they do, Otto. They just don't understand it.
Callinan is not the king of new media, and there are a lot of questions Howe could have addressed, but didn't. He thinks its great that the Enquirer has a bunch of programmers putting data online, but he doesn't ask how many reporters the Enquirer has. Howe says the Enquirer's web efforts have attracted dozens of businesses that had never advertised with the Enquirer before, but he didn't ask what they're spending. He presents impressive numbers on how the web efforts are growing, but doesn't question how long that might continue. I thought Wired was better than this.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Thurman, Prosser and busted links

We don't need more proof that the Enquirer has stopped being a real newspaper, but they keep giving us proof. The Newseum has stopped including the Enquirer among its daily compilation of front pages from around the world. The Newseum lists 12 Ohio newspapers, but not the Enquirer. On the Enquirer's archive page, it provides links to PDFs of the front page, but every link I tested was broken.

I say that because I wanted to talk about the Enquirer's decision to put the Odell Thurman story across the top of the front page. I wanted to link to the front page but I can't because the Enquirer has screwed that up, too. I can't understand the twisted logic that let the Thurman story lead the newspaper. Thurman isn't a key player, not like Carson Palmer or Rudi Johnson. Was this really such a surprise?

What was a surprise, a shock, was the death of Skip Prosser. He was a genuine good guy, and I think lots of UC fans liked him, against their better instincts. But Prosser got outplayed by a drug addict. The Enquirer, taking a page from Bill Cunningham, seems to especially like stories about black miscreants, because there are two such stories above the fold on the front page today. Here is the other.

I wouldn't have picked the story on Prosser's death to lead the paper. The media generally and the Enquirer specifcally likes to lionize sports figures because that's easier than finding real heroes in society. But given the choice between stories of Prosser's death and Thurman's extended suspension, I would have chosen Prosser.

There was much other news to choose from for the front page. Both Lexington and Louisville devoted most of their front pages today to the news on the Comair crash. There was the stock market's slide due to growing unease about mortgage investments, and there was more news about Alberto Gonzales and drunk astronauts.

All you have to do is watch the Enquirer's new daily newscast to see that it isn't trying to be the New York Times or even USA Today. With its mix of news about crime, fires and car crashes, and the nutrient-free ramblings of the airheads at Cin Weekly, the Enquirer seems to be trying to out-Fox Ch. 19.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Layoffs, buyouts and clearouts

The Enquirer claims to be transforming into more of a community newspaper, while employing fewer and fewer of us. Now it is clearing out circulation customer service, sending the work to Tulsa instead.
-----Original Message-----
Sent: Friday, July 13, 2007 9:34 AM
To: Cincinnati-All
Subject: Circulation Customer Service change
Importance: High

To: Cincinnati All

Last year, Gannett announced the creation of its Centers of Excellence (COEs). Under this plan, only a few centralized service centers across the country will handle the circulation customer service operations for all of Gannett's local newspapers.

Effective Tuesday, July 17, The Enquirer's customer service functions -- and those of 26 other Gannett newspapers -- will be operated out of COE in Tulsa, Oklahoma. From that point on, all of our Enquirer customer calls and e-mails will be routed to Tulsa.

We expect this transition to be seamless, as local customers will not know that their calls are being routed to Tulsa. The reps there will have all the information they need to serve our customers. However, all of us may occasionally receive calls or emails from local customers who, for some reason or another, choose to contact us for help regarding service-related issues, temporary stops, billing, etc.

If you receive such a call or email, here's how we recommend you handle it:

Phone: Transfer the call to Circulation, extension 4500. Before doing so, please provide the caller with the full phone numbers to reach us directly (513-651-4500 or 1-800-876-4500). Any calls received on these numbers will automatically be routed to the COE in Tulsa starting July 17.

Email: Forward the email to the Tulsa COE at circhelp@cincinnati.com
Over the last several months, we've been working closely with a number of employees here, in Circulation and in other departments, as well as folks at Gannett and in Tulsa, to make this a smooth transition for our customers. And we will continue to work with the staff in Tulsa to ensure our customer service remains top notch.

If you have any questions, please give me a call.

Gary J DiSanto
VP/ Circulation
The Enquirer

There've been some shots taken at DiSanto in the comments on this blog, but he was well regarded before coming to Cincinnati, and the fact that circulation is up a bit recently probably has more to do with him than Callinan's sorry news judgment.

Also, The Nashville Tennessean has asked for 15 newsroom volunteers to take buyouts, and management hints there could be layoffs after that. Can this move be far behind for the Enquirer?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Pleading ignorance

My favorite quote from this Post story, an interview with Enquirer publisher Margaret Buchanan:
Buchanan said no decisions have been made regarding workers in advertising, printing presses and other Enquirer employees who worked on The Post side of the operation.

"We only just heard the news like everyone else that there isn't going to be a Post," Buchanan said.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Another on the move

Gary DiSanto, vice president of circulation, has put his house up for sale. (Link to Clermont County Auditor's site, to confirm his address.) He joins publisher Margaret Buchanan, whose Indian Hill abode remains for sale.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

No surprise, but still a shame

The Cincinnati Post will close at the end of the year. All the speculation about whether it would survive in one form or another is ended. Will anyone miss the Post? Circulation was down below 29,000, and the Post wasn't doing a good job of keeping the Enquirer honest, so I don't know why anyone will miss it.

Could Scripps trade something in its portfolio to Gannett for the Enquirer, to keep a newspaper presence in its home city? And would Scripps bother to keep its headquarters here in Cincinnati? Those are questions not answered by the story in the Post, and I don't expect the Enquirer to ask those questions. There seem to be fresh rumors about a trade, but I'm not on the edge of my seat waiting for it to happen. Why would we expect Scripps to run the Enquirer any better than it ran the Post?

Read the Post story, and see how long it takes for it to mention the fate of the newsroom employees. Another question not answered is whether the Enquirer will take on any of them.

Two tidbits come out of the Post story. The first is that Post's profits from the JOA have been declining, which indicates also how far the Enquirer's profits have fallen -- but Gannett is still making tens of millions of dollars here, and that begs the question why have staff and resources been cut so far? And look at the circulation numbers at the bottom of the story: It looks like the Enquirer's circulation climbed during the years when Larry Beaupre was editor, then tumbled after the Chiquita debacle.

Monday, July 16, 2007

More awards the Enquirer didn't win

A newspaper prints 52 Sunday papers a year. Wouldn't the Enquirer have something that's prizeworthy? A headline maybe? The answer would be no. The American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors, announced winner of their 2007 awards for excellence in feature writing contest, and the Enquirer didn't win any.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

CincyMommy Dearest

A few of the CincyMoms crowd have discovered my blog posting from May, and they are flaming me relentlessly, calling me a bad parent, sexually repressed, and many other terrible, hurtful and highly amusing things. The Pure Romance woman even offered to sell me "Superstretch Lips", to make me a better person. If their assessment of me is as accurate as the "advice" they trade on CincyMoms, then I'd go elsewhere for advice.

Make sure you read this thread at the CincyMoms site. Michael Perry, who oversees the web site, offers an explanation of how the site uses paid "discussion leaders" to boost discussion traffic. He does not, however, identify those discussion leaders, and there's still no mention of this practice on the site's FAQ, so, in my view, CincyMoms is still not conducting itself ethically in this matter.

I'll have more to say later, or maybe not. For now, read and enjoy.

UPDATE: Karen Guitierrez, in a lengthy post on page 6 of the discussion thread mentioned above, answers many questions about the moderator issue. CincyMoms no longer uses paid moderators, she says, and she provides the names of all the previous moderators. She also promises to add this information to the site's FAQ. It's troubling, though, that she blows off this whole dustup like this: "I´m sure I have made some mistakes along the way, and I´ll probably make more." This should have been taken care of months ago. Journalists should think early and often about what's ethical, and that doesn't seem to be on the radar at CincyMoms.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

"Good enough" in action

Since the information center concept was announced months ago, the Enquirer's news philosphy has been to make stories "good enough." Anybody who's ever heard old business saws like "don't let perfection be the enemy of progress," or "paralysis by analysis", can sort of understand where "good enough" is coming from. Here's how the Enquirer defines "good enough":

Good Enough -- Developing a strategy or tactic that will solve a problem (address "the job to be done") that is not a perfect solution, but is "good enough" to address the problem. "Good enough" does not assume satisfaction with mediocrity, but serves as a starting point for a solution that can be improved upon over time. Accepting "good enough" as a operating principle increases the opportunity for quicker "speed to market" with changes and innovation.
That's great if you're Google or Apple, but in an oppressive atmosphere where jobs and expenses are being cut, where salary raises are small and benefits costs are rising, it's a recipe for mediocrity, no matter what the bosses say. And we saw that in action this weekend.

I had high hopes when I saw the headline "Local GOP breaks with Bush" on Sunday morning. This is the kind of story where you should hold your elected officials accountable, but that's not how it worked out. The story just rehashed old quotes from our four senators and four representatives. On the Forum page, the Enquirer got canned, unchallenged quotes from Voinovich, McConnell, Brown, and Bunning, and they excerpted Sen. Richard Lugar's speech from June 25. The Enquirer didn't get an interview with a single one of them. The only live quotes are from three party spokesman, a college professor and Steven Driehaus, who's challenging Chabot.

The Enquirer merely skimmed the surface of this story, and it's because they just collect quotes and facts without digesting them or providing analysis. Is this why the Enquirer has Malia Rulon in Washington, so she can interview party spokesmen on the phone without dialing long distance? It's not impossible to get to Boehner or Voinovich. You just have to know where to look and how to ask. But why demand an interview when a canned quote is "good enough"? What the Enquirer published today is meaningless drek. What's good enough to make the editors of the Enquirer happy just doesn't cut it with the rest of us.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Everywhere but here

On Friday morning, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati dismissed a lawsuit challenging President Bush's domestic spying program. This is a big national story with a Cincinnati dateline, the kind of story the local press should cover like a blanket. By mid afternoon, the AP version of this story was a featured headline on the web sites of the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times had produced its own story on decision.

At the Enquirer's web site, however, the small headline on this story rested under the section "Latest AP news." The Enquirer's reporters were too busy to work on this story because they were tied up getting stories posted on a new Gold's Gym coming to Florence, a state trooper who'd been on Oprah in a car wreck, and two women who'd left their five kids at home alone. The biggest space on the Enquirer's main page was taken up by a poll on whether you think there should be seat belts on school buses.

The Enquirer wouldn't know real news if it jumped up and bit them on the ass.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The information center

Editor & Publisher describes the "information center" concept being implemented throughout Gannett. The article makes too many points to be adequately summarized here. The Enquirer's Hollis Towns is quoted saying the newspaper thinks about online first, print second. Look for the words "do more with less".

The article is a fine wrapup of Gannett's strategy, but I have two small complaints. The story barely touches on whether the information center is someplace any self-respecting journalist would want to work, and long term, if the industry is going to attract competent people, it has to provide a satisfying work environment and competitive salaries. The push online stresses the posting of information that is practically unfiltered and unedited. News about traffic jams and petty crime is great for short-attention-span readers, but I don't think it serves a democracy very well.

And while the story notes that web traffic is rising and circulation is stabilizing, it says nothing about revenue, whether the push to put everything online is paying off with growing revenue and profit, and whether Gannett has even figured out how to make money from this. There is a view within Gannett (and the story doesn't say this, either) that web traffic is about as good as it's going to get, and that the double-digit increases in traffic aren't going to continue forever. The Enquirer likes to brag about it's web traffic, but on closer inspection the numbers just aren't very good.

History shows how Gannett likes to issue edicts from D.C. Gangsters like Towns beat down their staffs to impose these new edicts, but the staffs -- underpaid and overworked -- do this new work with little enthusiasm, and these efforts eventually fall apart. Part of the information center movement should include across-the-board pay increases and improvements in benefits. Morale was already low as this movement began, and with Gannett turning all reporters into general-assignment reporters, morale can't be getting any better.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Poor design, lack of inspiration

As one commenter noted, the Enquirer is shutting down its standalone publications Design and Inspire. This is a big setback for the Enquirer's attempt to forge a new business model. Publications fail for two reasons -- bad content, and inability to sell ads. They suck, and neither readers nor advertisers will bother with them. Read below Margaret Buchanan's spin on this. She pretends to give "reasons" for shutting down the publications, but it's corporatespeak and it's dishonest. In the first bullet point, she calls the publications "superb", but then blathers on about a need to reallocate resources. The fact is the Enquirer keeps trying to do stuff on the cheap, and poor quality leads to poor results. And layoffs -- three people lost their jobs.
To: All Employees

From: Margaret Buchanan

I want to bring everyone up-to-date on some developments happening in our organization, with specific impact on the magazine division.

Inspire magazine will cease publication immediately. There will be one more issue of Design Homes & Gardens magazine (August/September issue).

The reasons behind our decision:
  • While Design and Inspire were superb publications for a time and place, we must continually adapt our strategies and commitment of resources to keep up with changing times, shifting audiences and readership expectations.

  • Based on increasingly sophisticated research, we are finding more effective means of delivering targeted audiences. That’s where we need to focus our resources. We have made and will continue to make investments in new ways of delivering news and information, with stronger results and return on investment for advertisers. Examples of some of those new initiatives: CincyMOMS.com, enhancements to the Community Press & Recorder newspapers, the online Data Center, Our Town magazines, and other ideas in the development stages.

  • We need to be flexible and try new things to add to our core Enquirer and Cincinnati.com readerships. Design and Inspire, while high-quality products, duplicated much of our current strengths and did not add significant reach or frequency. The magazines were not delivering adequate return on investment for our advertising customers and were not delivering expected return on investment for The Enquirer organization.

  • Times change. We learn. And while I am proud of the work many of you associated with the magazines have done, we will be a stronger organization as we tighten our focus on a stronger core Enquirer and Cincinnati.com and targeted initiatives mentioned above.
Margaret Buchanan