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Despite Bashings, Enquirer Continues to Move Forward ... to a Tabloid

By Ben L. Kaufman · April 15th, 2009 · On Second Thought
Celebrating Reds Opening Day might be the only local tradition whose popularity and numbers exceed badmouthing The Enquirer.

Hostility to the morning daily is amazing, as is critics’ frequent admission that they don’t subscribe or read it regularly. If they did, the paper might be unique in contemporary American journalism, posting double-digit increases in circulation and ad rates. So let me speak well of my former employer, lest the urge pass.

Yes, it’s thinner. Some familiar features have been dropped. No thoughtful reader expects reviews of books of substance, knowledgeable local movie reviews or environment reporting.

Despite fewer and smaller pages, the quality of serious, local reporting hasn't declined. In some ways, it's more prominent with the addition of veteran hard news reporters. Informed reviews of local music and theater continue to be local; whether you agree with the choices and judgments isn't the issue.

Despite the shrinking space for news, The Enquirer still is printing a lot of good staff photos.

An historic bias in favor of news from Cincinnati and the rest of Hamilton County persists, but the paper continues to carry good stuff by reporters and photographers in the suburban and Kentucky bureaus.

Forget the fluff. There’s much less, but every paper needs some to win and hold a guerrilla audience.

When I talk about news we need to know most and news we need to know first, The Enquirer is pretty good when measured against local dailies in other communities our size in this economy.

I’m not a cynic, if that means a person who hunts rats for lack of nobler game. Cynics don’t teach journalism ethics for decades. I prefer “soiled idealist.” So my prediction is that The Enquirer is going to become even more satisfying if Publisher Margaret Buchanan and Editor Tom Callinan can protect their best people from predation by corporate cost-cutters.

In part, that perception assumes further physical shrinking of the paper. I’m betting that The Enquirer is going to embrace a tabloid format. If it retains or adds advertising, it could become a pretty thick local tab, with one or two stories atop ads on most pages.

My first paper was a tabloid, the Rome Daily American, and it’s an easy format to assemble, hold and read. Big news on Page 1, sports on the back page. Then you turn inside. Only reporters who like to write long stories are likely to object to being spread across the tops of ads on many pages.

By the way, “tabloid” is not a synonym for “sensational” unless your primary literary resource is The National Enquirer. CityBeat is a tabloid. CiN Weekly is a tab. A lot of good and great papers worldwide are tabs.

I’ve written about the likelihood of further reductions in page size — an industry estimate is that half of the cost of a paper is production and distribution, and it’s a logical place to save money.

Now I have support for my guesswork. Gannettblog.blogspot.com sent me to the trade publication Newspapers & Technology, which quotes Enquirer Vice President of Operations Dave Preisser as saying the daily has printed tabloid prototypes and conducted focus groups to gauge reader acceptance of the possible new format. Newspapers & Technology continued, “If execs elect to make the move to change . . . the paper would transform itself from a (shrunken) broadsheet into one measuring approximately 15 inches by 10.5 inches.

Sectioning would remain the same. Preisser said focus groups ‘loved’ the new format and that they particularly liked the additional use of color. He said Gannett hopes to make a decision fairly soon but that no timetable has been set.“

So here is Curmudgeon’s prediction (and hope): the evolving Enquirer will become a tabloid filled with greater and lesser local news that no one else can provide, and anyone who cares about events outside the Tristate will continue to rely on the Internet or cable TV.


Curmudgeon Notes

• As Americans debate changes to our healthcare system, reporters must challenge efforts to romanticize or demonize British and Canadian systems as models to embrace or reject. Neither is a national healthcare system; they're health insurance systems. Neither meets everyone’s expectations or needs. As here, they ration health care and suffer maldistribution of physicians. Every infusion of cash and improvement raises expectations and demands. There is never enough money. Of the two, Canada’s seems better run with fewer lethal lapses.

Because both rely on taxes to pay healthcare professionals, they're socialized and politicized medicine. For good reason, they have become part of Canadian and British identity and pride.

However, Canada and the UK lack powerful lobbies urging legislators to maintain a large uninsured and inadequately treated population as a national asset. Grumbling apart, I’ve heard no one in Canada or the UK embrace the American belief that an inability to pay should limit access to medical care or force a choice between treatment and bankruptcy. To quote a British friend, such a punitive and counterproductive (American) public health policy is “barking mad.” That’s “mad” as insane.

• I’m not alone in appreciating changes at The Enquirer, where some reporters again are enjoying the luxury of time to produce major stories. Editorandpublisher.com, the trade site, says Editor Tom Callinan won his 10th President’s Ring in the annual Gannett awards. He's the third Gannett editor to reach that mark. The Enquirer's news staff was one of Gannett’s Gold Medal winners. Another President's Ring winner is friend and Enquirer alum Ronnie Agnew, executive editor of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss.

Streetvibes Editor Greg Flannery says the $1 monthly newspaper will go biweekly this summer. “We'll publish the first and 15th day of each month beginning July 1. Public response to Streetvibes has generated increased sales, and we believe increasing the frequency of publication will further benefit the vendors.” Flannery has increased the paper's news content since he left CityBeat, where he was news editor. Some reporters contribute to both papers. Streetvibes is published by the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless and sold by its licensed vendors, who buy the papers for 25 cents and keep 75 cents of every sale.

• Obama’s G20 trip to England recalled JFK’s 1963 visit en route to Berlin where he gave his “Ich bin ein berliner” speech at the Wall. I was the London bureau UPI reporter assigned to do whatever our White House correspondents wanted during Kennedy’s overnight visit.

Kennedy made an unscheduled stop in Ireland to visit a sister’s grave and arrived late in England. Waiting at the airport, we watched an impatient Prime Minister Macmillan pacing the tarmac and scanning the gray sky.

“A shitty way to treat a second class power,” a London reporter muttered in a stage whisper; Macmillan flinched visibly at the jibe. Still, Macmillan played his role perfectly, inviting JFK to dine and stay at the prime minster’s country estate.

After the White House correspondents called in their stories, my job was to find a drink. Gods were kind. Someone prevailed on local authorities to waive infamous early closing at a nearby pub. It was jammed with reporters and photographers, a tough bunch, especially the famously thirsty London reporters, whether Brits, South Africans or Aussies.

Apparently, however, word spread that the pub was open very late and a party of Chinless Wonders and debutante dates roared up in their sports cars, burst in ... and fled when the journalists hurled savage, class-conscious abuse at the wealthy young crowd. That didn’t even create a pause in the demands for “a pint of your best..."

Eventually, the pub closed and a local gamekeeper helped disentangle my car from a hedge after I missed a turn delivering UPI’s chief White House correspondent to his hotel. As we struggled, he watched, probably wondering if the London bureau had sent me to kill him. Again, the gods were kind. He didn’t demand my head.

A few hours later, we headed for the tiny country chapel where Kennedy attended mass. No media were inside; locals made room only for an Irish-American president. A village crowd applauded Kennedy and, in an unplanned move, he shook hands and chatted with well-wishers. That upset Secret Service agents. “Excuse me sir, but we don’t do that here,” a local constable said firmly as he restrained an overzealous American who pushed well-wishers back too aggressively.

Then a tree limb cracked. Too many people perched on it for a better view. It was a heart-stopping sound. After a tense moment, it was obvious what happened. No one was injured. Kennedy left and went on to Berlin. Villagers went home to Sunday dinner.

• Do we care whether Michelle Obama violated court etiquette by putting her arm around Queen Elizabeth’s shoulders? Does it matter than the queen responded by putting her arm around the taller woman’s waist? Did the First Lady betray American designers by not wearing their clothes exclusively on the trip? Does she have a right to bare arms?

• Why do publishers think that cutting back on daily home delivery will hold or enhance reader loyalty? It hasn’t happened here, but more and more papers are reducing print editions to fewer than seven days a week while producing a daily online version. I’m not talking about The Kentucky Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and others that are online only. Rather, I’m thinking of papers that are delivering three or four days a week instead of seven to save production costs. They might win this initial skirmish, but the virtual landscape will be littered with former subscribers who became readers of online news for which they pay nothing.

• We’re all accustomed to free online news. Increasingly, publishers urge us to rely on their online sites with their low production costs (and low ad rates). Now some papers are reconsidering the wisdom of that giveaway and are asking how they can charge for their content. Just as they put ads on once-sacred Page 1 news space, papers are looking for other revenue sources as online ads fail to produce sufficient income.

The problem is the flip side of their success in sending us to online sites: They’ve taught us that there is a free lunch. The New York Times tried to combine free access to its news and paid online subscriptions to columnists. Lots of people paid, but The Times dropped the program and readers flooded their free site.

I don’t know of anyone who has successfully charged for what they gave away. That's coming, however. My former paper, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, is discussing this publicly now. Given how awful its bankrupt owners are, I’m not optimistic.


CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: letters@citybeat.com


 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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