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NOLA Could Offer Blueprint for Ohio Papers

By Ben L. Kaufman · July 25th, 2012 · On Second Thought
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The Good and Great of New Orleans have risen up to demand better from Times-Picayune owners and executives.
Their ad hoc citizens group is spitting into the wind. Trying to shame a newspaper owner is futile. It’s an alien emotion. Economics might humble owners and executives, but that pain can be passed on to employees.

My recent Curmudgeon Note laid out my fear that major Ohio papers will embrace the spreading T-P model: Print three days a week and hope readers go to the paper’s website the rest of the time.

The T-P is owned by the Newhouse family. It also owns the Cleveland Plain Dealer. That’s why the ad hoc New Orleans citizens’ group letter and a T-P reporter’s candid memo warrant revisiting this evolution among major dailies. Jimromenesko.com provided the text to the letter and memo. Here’s part of the letter the citizens’ group sent to Newhouse family members:

“Unfortunately and sadly, the considerable goodwill your family enterprise has created in New Orleans in the last 50 years has dissipated in just a few short months because of the decision that took our entire community by surprise. Advance Publications and its leadership have lost the trust and credibility of a significant segment of the community.

“Citizens have publically (sic) protested the proposed new format; prominent civic and business leaders and advertisers have stepped up to speak out against the plan, and an online petition is climbing toward 10,000 signatures, including celebrities like Ed Asner and Garrison Keillor and ordinary New Orleanians whose comments are a tribute to the towering impact of the newspaper you built … It is painful to report that right now it is nearly impossible to find a kind word in these parts about your family or your plan to take away our daily newspaper.”

Then broadcasters Steve and Cokie Roberts, musician Wynton Marsalis and others who signed the letter told the Newhouse family what they really think of them: “… (w)e fear our community has already made its judgment on the three-day publication plan and the damage already realized cannot be undone … If your family does not believe in the future of this great city and its capacity to support a daily newspaper, it is only fair to allow us to find someone who does. If you have ever valued the friendship you have shared with our city and your loyal readers, we ask that you sell the Times-Picayune.”

Poynter Online quoted Donald E. Newhouse, president of Advance Publications, responding, “Advance Publications has no intention of selling The Times­-Picayune. However, NOLA.com says Advance has lined up a buyer, citing an unnamed source.”

Weekend reporter Kari Dequine Hardin’s memo to top editors of the Times-Picayune and NOLA.com is no less harsh for her vulnerability as an employee. She is among the dozens fired in changes that reduced the news staff. Her job ends Sept. 30. Until then, she writes for the NOLA.com website in the absence of daily printed papers. Here is the gist of her memo:

“Compared to other news outlets, our website is a joke. We break news — but no one would know because of the worst news website known to man and the priority setting — whoever is doing it, is totally fucked. Embarrassing, compared to TV. And yet we are focused on digital now? Enhanced? Who is buying this crap?

“Then I get criticized by nola.com — a group of people who still have all their jobs despite our despised website — because a 4th of July story I pitched, wrote, and blogged is in the holiday blog, which apparently is only for certain holidays . . . (O)ur product is suffering. Big time. And you all should be aware of that because it means losing respect in the community and losing readers and I’m not sure ya’ll want to be risking that right now. I talk to the community. A lot. I’m not sure if any of you are on the streets getting the opinions of our readers, you should be — during this time of transition. But if you aren’t — I call tell you that everyone hates our website and is losing respect for us as a hard news leader.”

I won’t repeat what some surviving Enquirer colleagues say about newsroom morale, the website and the Enquirer today, but it’s not far from what the Great and Good and the reporter wrote about the Times-Picayune

CURMUDGEON NOTES:

Enquirer editor Carolyn Washburn’s recent note to readers assures us that the continually shrinking page will elicit readers’ joyous cries of “new and improved!”

Don’t hold your breath.

The 10-1/2 x 14-2/3 page — about the size of the Business Courier — will be printed in Columbus on the Dispatch’s new press. The tabloid should given designers greater freedom to fill the news hole with large photos, graphics and headlines. The local section is so small now that I’m almost inured to diminishing returns on my rising subscription rates.

Page size isn’t the issue; what’s on them is what matters. I’ve worked on tabloid-format dailies in three countries. Today,  few papers are sold on the street and huge headlines to grab passersby are wasted space. “Headless Body in Topless Bar” and “Ford to City: Drop Dead” were perfect in New York but not here. We need smart, patient reporting. That requires space in the paper. Whether we get it has nothing to do with page size. 

• Publisher Margaret Buchanan’s subsequent page 1 note to readers last Sunday was hardly reassuring. It repeats much of editor Carolyn Washburn’s memo (above) and reinforces my fears: “The pages will be organized with fewer jumps so you don’t have to turn pages to continue reading the same story. Headlines will be bolder. The print edition will be more colorful with larger photos and graphics to help tell the stories.

Most importantly, we’ll continue to provide unique in-depth news stories ..."

Buchanan comes from the advertising/business side of Gannett journalism, so maybe she isn’t troubled by the contradiction in her assurances: short stories burdened by big headlines, photos and graphics on tabloid pages can’t be “in-depth” unless they jump from page to page. And she’s promising “fewer jumps.” Is the next innovation with purpose a shift from “readers” to “viewers”? 

• Does the Enquirer have a policy about naming juveniles accused of crimes or is it an adhocracy among editors? When Avondale kids wanted for shoplifting fled in a car, they were named in the first story. When a suburban high school student was accused of a central role in a major drug ring, the first story didn’t name him and said that discretion was Enquirer policy. “Avondale” long has been code for black at the paper. “Suburban” or identifying with a suburban high school means white even if that is no longer a reasonable assumption in many cases. 

• Last Sunday, WVXU carried a fine conversation between Enquirer sports reporter and author John Erardi and WVXU politics reporter (and lifelong Reds fan) Howard Wilkinson. They talked about Barry Larkin and why he was being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. They know their stuff, they obviously enjoy each other’s company, not least because Wilkinson also spent decades at the Enquirer writing about politics and on rare occasion, Reds baseball.

I enjoyed their insights and storytelling even though I’m not a baseball fan. I think I’ve been to three, maybe four Reds games in as many decades. Blame my parents. The Twins didn’t exist when I was a kid; it was Minneapolis Millers v. St. Paul Saints at Nicollet Park in Minneapolis and I don’t remember seeing them. We didn’t have modern Vikings either and the Lakers left town. No way to nurture a fan. 

• I wish I wasn’t eating when I read Dan Horn’s recent encyclopedia update on water quality in the Ohio River. His Enquirer report was well done. The photos were marvelous. My upset was personal: memories. 

When we moved to Cincinnati in 1967, we moored our boat at Elmer & Jenny’s Yacht Club downriver in Bromley, Ky. Wonderful people, but “yacht club”? I don’t think so. 

I water-skied in the river, aware of its water quality but in denial; it’s hard to give up the one sport I enjoyed from childhood ... in Minnesota. I only swam in the Ohio to put on or retrieve skies or to drop the rope and wait for my wife to pick me up. I didn’t swallow. 

I don’t remember infections or gastro-intestinal problems from Ohio River water. After all, I had skied for years in the St. Croix between Minnesota and Wisconsin, in  the industrial Upper Mississippi at the Twin Cities and downriver to the the two rivers merged. God knows what was in those pre-EPA waters then but maybe I brought immunities to the Ohio. 

After three years, we left Elmer & Jenny’s Yacht Club for Rocky Fork Lake near Hillsboro in Highland County. We sought fresher breezes and a ski zone free of barge tows and increasingly wild, mindless boaters in the Ohio’s Cincinnati basin. Cleaner water was a bonus. I still didn’t swallow.  

Recalling the Ohio River in the 1960s — aided by Horn’s detailed story — was the best appetite suppressant I’ve experienced in years. 

• If you’re going to do gotcha journalism, do your homework. A conservative blogger challenged Cleveland columnist Connie Schultz, sure she was a liberal who gets too close to leftwing politicians she covers. “We have found numerous photos of you with Sen. Sherrod Brown. In one of them, you appear to be hugging him. Care to comment?”

Here’s part of Shultz’s response, courtesy of jimromenesko.com: “He’s really cute. He’s also my husband. You know that, right?” Shultz told her former employer, the Plain Dealer where she won a Pulitzer Prize, that she hadn’t named the blogger because she wants him to “pick better company and do better journalism.”

Romensko said Schultz told him in a telephone interview, “I don’t want to be a bully. I can say he was working for one of the larger conservative blogs, but that his name is not in the staff directory. Maybe he’s an intern, maybe an editor was playing a joke on him or maybe he was trying to get a reaction out of me. But I just want him to stop hanging around with those people and learn something out of this.”

Jimromenesko.com (see above) also reports that elsewhere in northern Ohio, the Sandusky Register posted a voice mail message left by Erie County Tom Paul for reporter Andy Ouriel. Paul said there was a mistake in the previous day’s edition. Here is part of the relentlessly F-bombing message: “You don’t know your ass from a fucking hole in the ground. And you know what? — sorry about that but you make me mad. Give me a call back, 419-357-2985, ya shithead.” 

• Louisville’s Courier-Journal chose discretion over valor by not naming two juveniles convicted of sexually assaulting 17-year-old Kentuckian Savannah Dietrich. Lots of people, however, already knew despite the judge’s gag order. She tweeted their names to protest over what she fears will be judicial slaps on their wrists. Dietrich told the Courier-Journal they assaulted her when she passed out after drinking at a party. The youths also shared digital images of the assault with others. After negotiations with prosecutors, the pair pled guilty to first-degree sexual abuse and misdemeanor voyeurism. Dietrich faces up to180 days in jail and a $500 fine if the judge convicts her of contempt. 

• If you’ve followed news stories about the run-up to the London summer Olympics, you must know that security for the events and sites is a shambles, even by British standards of bumbling through. The firm that was paid to provide security failed in every way. The government minister responsible for domestic security failed to respond promptly or adequately. The badly stretched Army — already being dramatically reduced in strength and losing historic regiments — is filling roles designed for civilian rent-a-cops and ushers. One cartoon expressed its contempt for the organizers with soldiers being told they’ll be able to return to Afghanistan after the Olympics. Be grateful that Cincinnati’s bid for this colossal money pit was rejected. 

• Here’s a question I haven’t seen asked by the national press: Do we want a president as detached as Romney says he was from his responsibilities as owner and CEO of Bain? He says he didn’t know if his subordinates were shipping jobs overseas. The screwed up Salt Lake City Olympics — which he did help save — were more important. I believe him. But how does that salvage his claim to being a keen businessman who can sort out our country’s economy? 

• Get over it. With more than 300 million citizens and immigrants and almost as many firearms, Americans have nut jobs and a few will be violent. So I wouldn’t be unhappy if our mainstream news media suffered massacre fatigue. Maybe the latest Colorado shootings will speed that process. Similar fatigue already is evident in diminished foreign/war news.

It isn’t a question of whether to focus on the victims or the shooter or a  search for “reasons.” You don’t ask mass killers for reasons. Given the utter inadequacy of mental health services and our easy access to firearms, our rational response is to accept the risk that someone else will die in irrational mass shootings. That’s a price the NRA and its pusillanimous  legislative allies find acceptable if the alternative is more effective firearm regulation.   

A different rational response might be a news media campaign for a costly, annual federal tax stamp for every high-capacity magazine for every firearm to which they can be fitted. This wouldn’t disarm hunters in any way. Semi-automatic hunting rifles and shotguns don’t have or require 20 or 30 cartridges to put venison or duck on the table. 

The tax would include the stick-like magazines for semi-automatic pistols and submachineguns and the familiar curved magazines for civilian versions of the AK47 and its kin. Drum magazines - like that found at the Aurora theater - can hold scores of rounds and be fitted to some military and military-style weapons as well as the Thompson submachinegun and its descendants. Drums would be covered, too. 

This tax wouldn’t take away anyone’s firearm or testosterone-enhancing firepower. It doesn’t limit the number of rounds  shooters can load into their weapons the way the extinct Clinton-era 10-shot limit did. The sole function of high-capacity magazines is to make it easier to kill lots of people. That’s why real military weapons like the AK47, the M16 or even the World War II Browning Automatic Rifle — the famous BAR — had high-capacity clips. 

The tax would not be a Second Amendment issue ... or shouldn’t be. It copies the longstanding $200 federal tax required for fully automatic weapons owned by civilians. Americans buy those firearms and pay the tax. 

• Americans own more handguns, shotguns and rifles every year and reported violent crime has sharply declined. Coincidence? Absolutely. Second Amendment? When’s the last time you heard about someone with a licensed concealed firearm  and an extra-high-capacity magazine stopping a crazed gunman? Believe me, the news media would be full of such a story or NRA complaints about liberal suppression of a patriotic tale. 

I’m talking about a news media campaign to make it harder to kill lots of people in a few seconds or minutes. However, that throws us into the confused world of acceptable risks. There isn’t a chance in Columbine of doing more than taxing high-capacity magazines when Americans also accept as normal the thousands of daily deaths from drug, tobacco and alcohol abuse, obesity, medical errors, etc. 

• There’s still another related, rational response for the news media to the Batman killings: Give less prominence to nut cases worrying whether the Muslim Brotherhood has a sleeper agent at Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s right elbow, or that less than a 20- or 30-round magazine will allow Mongolian mercenaries in UN blue helmets and black helicopters to enslave us to a world government. On the other hand, while the GOP and its crazier allies promote distrust, fear and hatred of government, don’t expect such courage from the news media. That could risk being seen as partisan. 


CONTACT BEN KAUFMAN: letters@citybeat.com


 
 
 
 

 

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