Thursday, August 30, 2007

We will tell you what's premium, and you will like it

Today's front page has the big red ball "Premium in this edition" logo. I think I know what a premium is, but I don't know that the Enquirer does. Today's "premium," for instance, is the September calendar of events on the cover of the Life section. If a calendar tells you that the big event for Sept. 16 is the appearance by Loverboy at the hallowed Hamilton County Fairgrounds, should you call it a premium? This calendar also tells us that Sept. 10, 11, 13 and 27 are Premium Days, when we'll "enjoy holiday or bonus content in the Enquirer." Please, enter these dates into the calendar in your iPhone so you'll know to run out to your driveway that morning, gather the newspaper up in your arms and wallow in the wonderfulness of that day's Premium content. Can life get any better?

A premium is something extra, something special. Have the standards at the Enquirer sunk so low that a calendar is a bonus? When the paper devotes just six paragraphs to the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and Bush's trite speech in New Orleans, when the center of the front page is yet another weather story, when the new contestants on "Dancing With The Starts" get nearly as much coverage as Sen. Craig's troubles, a calendar looks like a premium. On most days the Enquirer delivers less that what people expect. When they provide something people expect, they think it's a premium.

UPDATE: The Enquirer this morning reported that its circulation is up 3.4 percent. That's remarkable, as the rest of the newspaper industry is shrinking, and there's news today that ad revenue is plummeting. There have been some very good comments on this topic, so the question now is how much of that circulation increase is attributable to this "premium" scam?

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

More awards the Enquirer didn't win

The Association of Food Journalists announced 42 winners in its 2007 awards competition. Guess who's not among them?

Sunday, August 26, 2007

How to abuse data

The Enquirer's newfound obsession with data is on full display Sunday morning. All three stories on the front page are based on numbers. Greg Korte's look at a Hamilton County home improvement program is all right, but not earth shattering. Denise Smith Amos' review of ACT and SAT scores follows a formula that the Enquirer is wearing out -- find data, quote a couple of "expert" sources (make sure you get an Ohio source and a Kentucky source) and ask a few real people how they "feel" about something, but don't reach any real conclusions. Her article sidesteps the whole debate about whether those tests are overemphasized or whether they actually predict success in college.

The worst of this group, however, is the story that the Enquirer gives most prominent play -- Jessica Brown's take on the large number of speeding tickets written by Arlington Heights police. The core of the story is a pointless discussion of what defines a "speed trap," and this story also reaches no conclusion. Brown seems to take the Arlington Heights officials at their word. It doesn't appear she spent a minute sitting in the village's traffic court or looking at the situations under which drivers were ticketed. All the tickets are public records. Did she review any of them? It appears she interviewed only three drivers, when thousands have been ticketed. This is the barest sort of reporting.

Data are becoming a crutch for Enquirer editors and reporters. They are using found numbers as a substitute for real inquiry and for real reporting. None of today's stories are truly awful, but none is front-page news. The Enquirer is parading these stories as the best work it can produce. It's sad to think that that may be true, that this is the best the Enquirer can do.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The end of old school

The big story inside the Enquirer is the dismissal of Business reporter Jim McNair. Late Thursday afternoon, he was called from the Information Center on the 19th floor to human resources on 16. The rumor is he was told there were complaints about him, but was not told what those complaints were or who made them. He was told he was fired, and was escorted out of the building. He personal belongings are still at his desk.

McNair is old school. He is not a proponent of the journalism of hope and didn't want to write about "good things happening." He wants to put people in jail. His coverage of Enzyte maker Berkeley Premium Nutraceuticals probably helped do exactly that. He relentlessly covered the Erpenbeck and Fiorini financial scandals, and has kept the family feud at Check 'N' Go in the paper.

But McNair's brand of journalism made people inside the paper uncomfortable. The Enquirer has no history of providing this kind of hard-nosed reporting, so there was no natural spot for McNair in the newsroom, no investigative team for him to join and no editors who understand how to produce this kind of journalism It often took months for his work to appear in the paper. The Enquirer didn't see fit to run much of his work on the front page. These include his stories on workers becoming ill at a local flavorings company, and his November 2006 stories on shoddy home construction. Both of those package were published in the Sunday Business section, not on the front page.

McNair was often as hard on his editors as he was on his subjects. That didn't help him win any allies, especially when his stories led to complaints to publisher Margaret Buchanan. In July 2005 they came down hard on him for a factually correct story about Fifth Third's poor performance as an investment advisor to the Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation, because it was seen as unfair to Fifth Third. More recently, his coverage of rising foreclosures, declining home sales and falling prices caused local homebuilders to complain to the publisher. Remember that both Fifth Third and the local real estate industry are very big advertisers in the Enquirer.

Many people in the newsroom are suspicious that McNair was fired because the homebuilders complained too loudly, and that he was fired to placate advertisers. That would be really troubling, and because nobody trusts the Enquirer brain trust, this is what people are left to believe. Since the Enquirer won't say why McNair was fired, this is shaping up as another classic, clumsy personnel move by Tom Callinan. Callinan claims to have a master's degree, but I think it's from the Dick Cheney School of Management.

Read this Friday story and this Saturday story about Cintas, and read what CityBeat wrote weeks ago, and decide for yourself which paper has the spine to take on big business. A newspaper that is begging for advertising money won't admit the ugly truth that many of the businesspeople they take money from are crooks and cheats. Love him or hate him, McNair was good at exposing these people, and that's what a good newspaper is supposed to do. Buchanan, Callinan and the people who run the Enquirer were forced into a choice not only about McNair but about what kind of journalism they want the Enquirer known for. And by their gutless decision, they've exposed themselves.

UPDATE: There's another discussion of McNair's departure here. Two of the commenters, Leah Beth Ward and Gregg Fields, are former Enquirer business reporters. Also, Bill Sloat at the Daily Bellwether and Editor & Publisher have weighed in on this.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

A declining audience

The Shorenstein Center at Harvard has published a study of news on the Internet, and the news isn't good for newspapers like the Enquirer. The study is here, and it's a PDF file. Here's the last two paragraphs of the executive summary:

Our evidence suggests that the Internet is redistributing the news audience in a way that is pressuring some traditional news organizations. Product substitution through the Web is particularly threatening to the print media, whose initial advantage as a “first mover” has all but disappeared. The Internet is also a larger threat to local news organizations than to those that are nationally known. Because the Web reduces the influence of geography on people’s choice of a news source, it inherently favors “brand names”—those relatively few news organizations that readily come to mind to Americans everywhere when they go to the Internet for news.

Although the sites of nontraditional news organizations are a threat to traditional news organizations, the latter have strengths they can leverage on the Web. Local news organizations are “brand names” within their communities, which can be used to their advantage. Their offline reach can also be used to drive traffic to their sites. Most important, they have a product—the news—that people want. Ironically, some news organizations do not feature the day’s news prominently on their websites, forgoing their natural advantage.
The review of newspaper web site traffic shows that overall, traffic growth is basically flatlining. The big "brand name" newspaper web sites like the Times, the Post and USA Today are gaining traffic. Traffic at sites of medium-sized newspapers is shrinking, however, and shrinking fast. The Enquirer was not included in the survey. Gaining traffic are search engine news sites (like Yahoo and Google), bloggers, "aggregators with attitude" and TV and radio sites.

So, newspapers are losing their grip.

The largest threat posed by the Internet to traditional news organizations, however, is the ease with which imaginative or well positioned players from outside the news system can use news to attract an audience. Just as the television networks made their mark as entertainment media before making a serious and successful entry into news in the early 1960s,,, and other search engines and service providers are making a serious and successful foray into news. And if such sites came in through the side door, others have come in through the front door, offering users a form of news that traditional media were not providing. Sites driven by partisanship, by users, and by interactivity are now a significant part of Internet-based news and are likely to grow in audience and influence.
Newspapers are hampered by big bureaucracies and tight budgets. The new players are more nimble, and, in the case of Google, rich. The Enquirer is undermanned in this fight, and as you can see from this list, it doesn't even register among the most popular news sites.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The last unholy act

A Wall Street Journal blog wonders whether Gannett is setting itself up for a management buyout.

That explains everything. All the ridiculous moves we've seen Gannett make recently have been intended to drive the stock price down, to make the deal cheaper. Two years ago, Gannett stock was in the mid-70s, and is now below 50. If management makes a bid, shareholders would have to hope that someone else smells a bargain and makes a counteroffer.

UPDATE, Friday p.m.: Another blog chimed in on this news, but Gannett's CEO denies anything is up. He discloses that in a memo, so there was no opportunity for follow-up questions. How convenient. Also, go back to the Wall Street Journal blog item, and read the comments.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

More Dinkel to come, most likely

Jeni Lee Dinkel goes to jail for 60 days, and the Enquirer gives it the biggest headline of the morning. Can we stop reading about it now? Probably not. The Enquirer has run nearly two dozen stories on this tawdry case, including eight on the front page, five on the front page of the Local section and three editorials. The editorial board doesn't even get this excised about Iraq.

Online advertising will overtake newspaper ad revenues by 2011. Newspapers have missed the boat. The cuts will continue, and the Enquirer will continue to over-cover stories like the Dinkel case in a desperate attempt to drive web traffic, while real news goes uncovered.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Bridge to nowhere

The Enquirer's response today to Wednesday's news of the bridge collapse in Minneapolis is terribly irresponsible. Its local bridge story is the main headline on the front page, and it places the headline "Some bridges here in poor condition" next to a photograph of the wreckage of the I-35 bridge. See the front page here. That strongly implies that the "poor" bridges here are in fact dangerous. The Enquirer hasn't proven that, not even close. All it did was review a database. There's no sign in the story that anyone at the Enquirer ever actually visited any of the bridges listed in the story and accompanying charts. Every county in Ohio has bridges in "poor" condition. That's a long way from saying the bridges in our area are either dangerous or unusually so. The Enquirer simply meant to cause alarm and I'll say it again, that's just irresponsible.

No one else in the region played the story this way. The Plain Dealer's approach is questionable. Its front page headline reads "Could this happen here?", but it's the readers themselves were asking. Its main story isn't very good, but a sidebar says there are three bridges in Cleveland that share their design with the I-35 bridge.

The Akron Beacon-Journal put its story above the fold, though it includes a photo of a local bridge. That avoids the offensive juxtaposition used in the Enquirer, and it shows that someone there actually left the newsroom to look at a bridge.

The Columbus Dispatch put its story below the fold, and seven reporters contributed to the story. The Toledo Blade also put its story below the fold, leading with coverage of the Minneapolis collapse.

In Kentucky, the Louisville Courier-Journal also put its story below the fold. The Lexington Herald-Leader also put its story below the fold, and included a photo of workers on a local bridge.

Put this together with the publishing of the names of the jurors in the Marcus Feisel case, and it shows how little journalistic sense the editors at the Enquirer have.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

This is why it matters

The Wall Street Journal has a front-page story today about the Justice Department's prosecution of Chiquita for its payments to Colombian terrorists for seven years beginning in 1997. I can't provide a link because a subscription is required. Here is the top of the story:
In April 2003 Roderick M. Hills, then-head of Chiquita Brands International Inc.'s audit committee, went to the Department of Justice with other Chiquita representatives with a stunning admission: The company had been making illegal payments to a violent Colombian group that the U.S. branded as terrorists.In years past, the admission might have been enough to get Chiquita off the hook. Companies and their executives who reported wrongdoing and agreed to cooperate often have enjoyed lenient treatment. Many received a "deferred prosecution" in which no charges were filed unless they committed additional crimes.

But things didn't work out that way for Chiquita -- or for Mr. Hills and some colleagues. In March of this year, Chiquita pled guilty to engaging in transactions with a terrorist group and agreed to pay $25 million in fines, the first time a major U.S. company was charged with having financial dealings with terrorists. Now Mr. Hills, a former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, faces the possibility of personal criminal charges. A federal grand jury is looking at his role, and that of other high company officials, in continuing the company payments for almost another year after the meeting with the Justice Department.

The investigation illustrates the recent posture taken by U.S. authorities to prosecute aggressively even when companies turn themselves in for breaking the law. Critics say that strategy could cause difficulties if companies decide they suffer no worse by waiting to get caught. "This case will make companies think twice about self-reporting," says Stetson University law professor Ellen Podgor.

Mr. Hills's lawyer, Reid Weingarten, and lawyers for four other individuals, including former Chiquita chief executive Cyrus Freidheim Jr. and former general counsel Robert Olson, submitted legal memos to federal prosecutors last month arguing why their clients shouldn't be charged with terrorism-related crimes. "That Rod Hills would find himself under investigation for a crime he himself reported is absurd," says Mr. Weingarten. Mr. Hills declined to comment.

The case may turn partly on how friendly a treatment Chiquita officials thought they were getting from U.S. authorities. A paramilitary organization had threatened to kidnap or kill employees on the banana farms of Chiquita's Colombian subsidiary, Banadex, and Chiquita was concerned that its employees could be harmed if it cut the payments immediately. Lawyers familiar with the case say Mr. Hills and Mr. Olson believed senior Justice Department officials understood this and were deferring any demand to stop the payments to the United Self-Defense Forces, known by its Spanish abbreviation AUC. Chiquita ultimately paid $1.7 million over seven years.

The Justice Department denies it gave Chiquita -- the world's largest banana company, with $4.5 billion in sales last year -- any leeway to keep paying. Meanwhile, the case has become something of a political football, with congressional Democrats pledging further investigation into U.S. companies underwriting violence abroad and the toughness of U.S. enforcement.

The Journal did a lot of original reporting -- reviewing court documents, interviewing current and former Chiquita officials. Carl Lindner, who was chairman of Chiquita when the payments began, is not mentions, but the story says Chiquita officials may face prosecution individually.

The Enquirer hasn't written about this since March. The cutbacks on the reporting staff are killing coverage, and the news is getting shallower. The coverage has shifted to a TV news formula of crime, traffic accidents and fires. This has dominated the Enquirer's front page 36 times in the 63 days since June 1. There have been front page stories about Iraq just 12 times since June 1, and only eight of those stories have involved the situation on the ground in Iraq. Over that time, 182 Americans have died in Iraq. Wednesday morning's front page story on Iraq was the first in 13 days. Even on the days we don't get crimes, fires and accidents, we get Harry Potter, the Creation Museum, a high school band raffle and sports news.

The Enquirer has laid down on covering Chiquita. Can you imagine what else we're missing because of the Enquirer's inadequacy?