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Cincinnati's Hope for a Sole Surviving Daily

By Ben L. Kaufman · June 27th, 2012 · On Second Thought
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I am a pessimist by nature and experience. 

The catch phrase under my senior photo in the high school yearbook was something like, “Whatever your solution is, I have a problem for it.”

My inclination still is to trouble-shoot rather than to jump on passing bandwagons. 

So it is with deep reservations that I admit that maybe, just maybe, Gannett’s years of bloodletting might have left The Enquirer strong enough to provide Cincinnati with printed papers seven days a week as others print fewer daily editions to cut costs and seek elusive profits online. 

New Orleans soon will become the largest American city without a printed daily paper. It’s firing scores of journalists; survivors will write for three remaining print editions and their online complement. 

It could get worse in a hurry. The New Orleans Times-Picayune is a Newhouse paper. So is the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Why wouldn’t the Plain Dealer follow the Times-Picayune and some other Newhouse papers by printing fewer days and shedding staff?  

That could be a hard model to ignore. 

If the Columbus Dispatch hears the Newhouse siren song of earning more by giving customers less, Gannett and The Enquirer might join the dance.  

So whenever I begin to see the bright side of things, I’m tempted to lie down and let it pass. 

I’m prepared to be wrong. As I’ve written, three of the four dailies for whom I worked folded, albeit for different reasons: insufficient income, problems delivering an afternoon paper and sale/merger with competition.  

Owners and investors in search of greater profits have killed dailies. It’ll happen again. It’s their right. Gannett and its Enquirer don’t owe Cincinnatians a daily paper, especially given how few people subscribe. 

But maybe, just maybe, Cincinnati will, in the foreseeable future, escape the fate of the Times-Picayune and other papers going digital or mixing digital and print days. 

Or maybe it’ll happen here 10 years later. Given demographics of newspaper readers, 10 years could be a lifetime warranty.

Here are the elements of my heresy, my refusal to accept the supremacy of bonus-rich corporate executives who abandoned long-term reinvestment in profitable newspapers.  

Stubborn facts still can be profitable in the mix of media now available to existing, if diminished news operations. The Enquirer retained some strong reporters, and their best work is important to our votes and public policy decisions. 

Despite long-term declines in circulation, The Enquirer still has an educated audience to whom it can sell print and online subscriptions. 

To the degree that regional growth involves younger newcomers, they’ll be interested in local news and nonpartisan surveys say people increasingly use mobile devices to get the news.

They might never maneuver a paper at the breakfast table, but they are audiences to be delivered to advertisers and that’s how newspapers always have made a living. 

The test will be whether The Enquirer can maintain traditional reporting standards — timeliness, accuracy, balance, newsworthiness and thoughtful editing — as its staff puts out daily printed papers and evermore demanding online news. 

It doesn’t help that there is intense competitive pressure to get it online first and then get it right if there’s time. 

That’s not uniquely an Enquirer problem. Rather, it began in the mid-19th century with carrier pigeons between cities not yet served by the new telegraph. 

Before long, however, printing innovations at urban dailies and the ubiquity of the unreliable telegraph saw journalists themselves racing to be first. The formula — Who, What, When, Where and Why in the first paragraph — was born. 

Today’s rush to post an Internet story recalls news service competition in the 20th century. Reaching editors with my UPI story 30 seconds before a similar AP story could mean ours was used. No one wanted to be beaten.

That hasn’t changed. TV viewers and online readers are pursued the same way: Tell them first and keep telling them. Maybe, just maybe, they won’t switch channels or online news sites. Profitable political ads come and go; think of them as the undead, always ready to return and suck out our brains. 

But if you want to know what’s happening in Cincinnati, your choices pretty much are The Enquirer, WVXU and CityBeat. Local TV news won’t help and except for CNN, TV network news is frighteningly thin gruel.  

So maybe, just maybe, The Enquirer will hang on as a daily, profiting from its mix of old and new media and quality content. 

CURMUDGEON NOTES:

• Another reason for optimism about the Enquirer: Steven Rosen and Cindi Andrews are writing again for the paper. Steve left years ago to try his hand at writing about cultural affairs. Now I can read his stories about Cincinnati in the Enquirer instead of the New York Times (and CityBeat). He describes his return as  “temporary fulltime in features, primarily contributing to Healthy Living and Home & Style, but also other stories as needed.” Cindi left to edit another publication, then to sell real estate. Now, she’s the temporary fulltime “politics and government reporter.” That’s good, considering the paper’s loss of Howard Wilkinson to early retirement and his fulltime politics reporting and blogging on WVXU. If we’re lucky, “temporary” will be dropped. 

• Article 25, our local $1 street paper dedicated to human rights issues, is doing better than simply surviving. I’ll let editor Greg Flannery explain: “I'm pleased to report another first for Article 25. The International Network of Street Papers has distributed our report on (Cincinnati) indigent cremations on its Street News Service, making it available for re-publication by street papers around the world (link: here). Coming after our first sold-out edition, this is another sign that our paper is gaining traction.” (As I’ve mentioned before, my wife is president of Article 25’s board.) 

• Outside Cincinnati, Henry Heimlich is a diminished figure in the world of lifesaving. Here, however, the Enquirer’s potentially lethal advice — use his eponymous Maneuver on near-drowning victims — remains uncorrected. Even his Heimlich Institute website has taken it down. National water safety experts say there are two reasons to avoid the Maneuver/abdominal thrusts when a victim is pulled from the water. First, if victims vomit and inhale their vomit, that can kill. Second, using the Maneuver delays CPR efforts to get oxygen to the brain. Moreover, Heimlich’s Maneuver to clear a blocked airway is rapidly losing favor as a first response to choking unrelated to drowning. Old-fashion back slaps increasingly are regaining favor although the Heimlich Institute at Deaconess Hospital continues the self-serving admonition, “Don't slap the victim's back” because “This could make matters worse.”

• Once again, the New York Times reports on Merck’s old decision to withdraw painkiller Vioxx from the market “after studies linked it to an increased risk for heart attacks.” And again, the Times doesn’t tell us what the risk was. It knows. The data are public. Vioxx was mentioned again in the Times on Monday because of qualms about safety about its surviving competitor, Celebrex. Here’s what I wrote in 2005 in CityBeat, based on an interview with the Merck executive who oversaw the research: “More than 2,500 people participated in Merck's post-approval three-year clinical trial. It was analyzed in 0-18 month and 19-36 month periods. Merck found essentially no difference between people who took the placebo or Vioxx in the 0-18 month period. That changed in the 19-36 month period. Merck reported about one heart attack, stroke or other vascular death annually among every 263 patients given the placebo. However, among patients who received Vioxx during the same period, there was about one heart attack, stroke or other vascular death annually among every 70 patients. In short, for that 19-36 month period, Vioxx users faced more than three times the risk. During the entire 36-month clinical trial, patients taking Vioxx faced twice the risk of those given the placebo. Reporters could have told us all of that.” They still can if they bother. 

• It’s fascinating how the news media avoid an obvious story when some one like Venezuela’s dictator, Hugo Chavez, goes to Cuba or the Saudi crown prince goes to Switzerland for medical care. With all of their oil income, they can’t find a good doc at home. And if that’s true, imagine what kind of medical care is available to the general public in countries that are or should be awash in oil money. I’m not surprised that Switzerland has top-rated clinics; it can afford them. But impoverished Cuba, a nation that survives on the oil dole? Maybe Castro’s decision long ago to create a credible national health system has something to teach thuggish Chavez. 

• It took Tom Hayden in The Progressive to remind me how the mainstream news media fawn over favored/admired authors. Robert Caro won the Pulitzer for his first book on LBJ and he’s making the rounds for his latest LBJ volume, The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson. None of the interviewers that I read or heard raised issues that Hayden focuses on:

“Hardly mentioned in Caro’s latest 700 pages are two crises, each of which left an indelible stain on the Johnson presidency: his secret dealmaking to deny the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party seating at the 1964 Democratic convention, and his deceits leading to the escalation of the Vietnam War. Rather than minor errors, these decisions led to the polarizations that eventually destroyed LBJ and the potential of the Great Society.” 

Hayden was a leader of the opposition to the Vietnam War and later, a longserving California legislator. His review in the July issue of The Progressive captures his view of Caro and my reaction to Caro’s interviews with fellow national journalists: “Giving LBJ a Pass.” It should also have been “Giving Caro a Pass.” 

• BBC and NPR produce the best broadcast news in English. Not perfect, not perfectly free of bias, but better than anyone else. In recent years, BBC has taken a beating from critics who accused its reporting of being pro-Palestinian and sensationalizing reports on Britain’s decision-making in the runup to join our  invasion of Iraq. Now, according to London’s Independent, BBC faces a “a major investigation by the media watchdog Ofcom into how it allowed news documentaries and other editorial programmes for BBC World News to be commercially influenced. The BBC has broadcast a global apology for serious editorial errors.”

London dailies suggest that BBC execs don’t listen to their own broadcasts. Quoting an internal memo, the papers say 2,400 Global News department employees — including the excellent World Service that Cincinnatians get nightly on WVXU — must "exploit new commercial opportunities [and] maximise the value we create with our journalism." The ability to generate income also is to be part of performance reviews. 

The Independent’s Ian Burrell said John Tusa, a former head of the BBC World Service, called the decision "appalling."  Tusa added, "I can't think of any other head of the World Service who would have used vocabulary like that to tell his broadcasters and journalists what to do." Tusa was managing director of the World Service between 1986 and 1993. He said  "The notion that as a journalist you are having to think about how you can sell or turn your output into money is just so wide of the mark. If he  [Peter Horrocks,  director of Global News] pushes it too far he can start to undermine the values of trust on which the BBC World Service news has existed for 80-odd years. It sounds like management gobbledy-gook." 

My take on this is simple. Self-censorship is an omnipresent stain on journalism. It’s usually meant to avoid provoking some government, power broker or advertiser. If allowed to proceed, BBC invites and enshrines corrupting self-censorship as a virtue. 

• More from the “If your mother says she loves you, check it out” School of Journalism. Andrew Beaujon at Poynter.org, tells the story: “WSOC-TV in Charlotte, N.C., has published one of the most eye-searing retractions to cross my screen in some time: A series of reports that a student photographed in a yearbook had exposed her genitalia to the camera was based not on the photograph, but on ‘MERELY THE UNSUPPORTED OPINION OF ONE OF THE PARENTS OF A STUDENT AT THE HIGH SCHOOL.’  "

Most of the retraction is, he continued, for some reason, in all-caps and  “there are a few other things WSOC needs to clear up:  ‘SOME OF THESE ARTICLES CONTAINED STATEMENTS TO THE EFFECT THAT THE YOUNG LADY STOOD AND LIFTED HER GOWN WAIST HIGH AND INTENTIONALLY EXPOSED HER BARE GENITALS AND PRIVATE PARTS IN ORDER TO MAKE A LASTING IMPRESSION AND LEGACY AT HER ALMA MATER; THAT THE YOUNG LADY THOUGHT ABOUT MAKING THIS LASTING IMPRESSION VAGINA FIRST; THAT THE YEAR BOOK CONTAINED PORNOGRAPHY; AND THAT THERE MIGHT BE SOME CONSIDERATION BY THE SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT OF CRIMINAL CHARGES OR POSSIBLE CHILD PORNOGRAPHY CHARGES.' ”

Beaujon said the station’s original report showed only (the girl’s) shoes. 

 
 
 
 

 

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