Is it whom to hate or who to hate?

September 9th, 2010

My deep thought for the day: Because I don’t hate any race, religion or poor people in general I have no one to blame for my fears, doubts and shortcomings. That’s not fair. If only I could fill my heart with rage and hatred I’m sure I would be happier. Don’t expect a deep thought every day. It hurts my head.

My problem is that I’m a mainstream media addict and I devour the work of corporate newspapers and networks. I’m jealous of the happy faces of millionaire ‘journalists’ actively promoting the books or campaigns of anyone willing to attack Mexicans, Muslims, gays, the unemployed, etc., when I realize the answer is right in front of me. I know who to hate. The liberal media.

OK, one more deep thought. Until a couple of years ago I never considered working for a public agency. Now I realize that perhaps that was my calling all along, because as a public servant I’m forbidden from treating anyone differently because of their race, creed, color, religion, country of origin or sexual orientation. What if everyone had to accept that responsibility?

And could that be one reason so many people villify public servants?

The bankruptcy of spirit

May 4th, 2009

Once again, with its recent filing for bankruptcy, The Columbian has come to epitomize the newspaper industry’s woes.

Like every newspaper company that has gone bankrupt, The Columbian cites the overall economic downturn carrying too much debt on the books for its predicament.

Yet like all those other companies, the paper’s problem run much deeper than that. Worse yet, like all those other papers, it refuses to transform itself in any meaningful way.

The arguments are familiar: Operations are cash-flow positive, it has a sustainable business model, the good times will return, and it is not out of touch with its customer base.

Let’s look at each argument.

  • We’re cash-flow positive. Whose balance sheet wouldn’t look rosy if we could all stop paying for our loans and supplies? It’s true that publishing companies have wasted much of the money they have borrowed on over-priced acquisitions and pointless new buildings. But as long as newspapers remain locked in their manufacturing mindset, even frugal companies need to power to feed an extremely capital-intensive business model. Bankruptcy might wipe clean some of the current debt, but it doesn’t solve the longterm problem.
  • We have a sustainable business model. Not if you don’t figure in capital needs. But more to the point, “sustainability” has come to be measured in a paper’s ability to cut services to its customers at a rate more or less equal to its loss of revenue. That’s not sustainability; that’s a death spiral.
  • The good times will return. Maybe. But the erosion of both the advertiser and consumer customer base didn’t start in 2008. It started decades ago, and the overall trajectory has been pointing downhill at a rapidly accelerating rate. So what good times are we going return to? The golden years of the 1950s and ’60s? The times before the internet, 24-hour cable news and all the societal changes of the past few decades? Or just to the times when things were declining at a slower rate than they are right now?
  • We are not out of step with society. In a column about the bankruptcy filing, The Columbian’s editor addressed accusations of bias: “Some let us know what they think is the real reason we’re having problems: We’re too conservative; we’re too liberal; we don’t cover The University of Oregon well enough; we cover The University of Oregon too much. You get the picture.” I guess I get the picture: Papers are going to address charges of bias the same way they cover almost everything else, with bland he-said-she-said analysis. Some say we’re liberal, some say we’re conservative, so they negate each other and prove we are neither. But don’t expect us to examine specific complaints, relative numbers of people who feel a certain way or the depth with which they feel those sentiments. We’ll just arrogantly dismiss everyone who wants answers and change. We’re fair and balanced; we make everybody mad.

There’s not much sport left any more in being a newspaper critic. News executives are going to continue down this suicidal path no matter what anyone says. It’s hard to care about the fate of newspapers now because it appears publishers and editors themselves don’t care.

Their spirits were bankrupt long before their bank accounts were.

Get over it, publishers: Most your wounds are self-inflicted

March 15th, 2009

As paper after paper fails or teeters on the edge of failing, we hear the same refrain from editors and publishers. We’re victims of horrible forces beyond our control.

Clearly that argument bears an element of truth, but it serves no one.

The logic is flawed in part because newspapers could have done something about many of those problems way back when, back when newspaper companies could have bought and sold those silly little internet companies with names such as Yahoo, Google, eBay and CraigsList. Back when companies could have invested in quality instead of quantity, gobbling up each other with borrowed money.

But the real problem with the sense of victimization is that it allows papers to overlook unique problems that could be fixed. How many companies cling stubbornly to the hope that the same executives who caused this mess or allowed it to happen will be the ones to lead them out of it?

How many companies built buildings or bought presses they can’t afford?

How many papers are still slashing their online staffs and marketing for their online products?

How many papers continue to strip their pages of honor rolls, business announcements, robust wedding announcements and obituaries, youth sports? How many still don’t realize that those wasted inches of “filler” contained the names of people who read the paper, who feel a part of it and the community it serves because they see their names and those of their friends in its pages?

How many papers still believe that the way to win readers is to focus efforts on producing the occasional investigative blockbuster, forgetting that even the best investigative pieces usually interest a relatively small slice of readership? Instead of finding an occasional piece worth reading, most of us can go weeks or months without what seems like a blockbuster to us.

How many editors sit around and whine about how their community doesn’t understand how important the paper is, rather than trying to understand what’s important to the community? Variations of “You better buy us whether you want to or not because you’re too stupid to realize how important we are” have become very common, though not very successful, marketing slogans in the newspaper business.

So I have tremendous sympathy for my colleagues still toiling in newsrooms and ad departments across the country. To a large degree, they really are victims of circumstances beyond their control.

I have much less sympathy for most editors, ad directors and publishers, however. They’re more perpetrators than they are victims.

As The Columbian goes …

October 10th, 2008

My employer of 24 years, The Columbian, is facing bankruptcy. It is, in so many ways, a microcosm not only of the newspaper industry but of the broader economy as well.

Society has been changing rapidly, making the traditional newspaper model look old and obsolete. Faced with those societal shifts, the paper could have shifted from its traditional manufacturing model to a knowledge-based model. It did not.

Much like the American auto industry ignored shifting needs and focused ever more on the aspect of its business that was dying instead of evolving for the future, the paper chose to gut its new media efforts to refocus on its dying newsprint product (”The Big Dog” as the paper’s editor was still calling it earlier this year).

Despite plummeting circulation and ad sales, the paper chose to invest heavily. Not in its future, but in real estate. After all, the thinking went, you can’t lose on real estate, can you? So up went a gleaming high-rise headquarters, a monument to a bygone era.

Of course as with the case of our Federal government these past eight years, “investing” really meant “borrowing,” mortgaging the future with no coherent plan for how pay off the debt.

To pay off that debt, the company had to slash spending on its infrastructure and on what John McCain might call its “fundamentals”: the people who create the only real value an information company has. Somehow in the eyes of the big shots, those working-class folks were the problem, not the solution. Lavishing more money on the wealthy owners was the surefire way of having prosperity trickle down to the masses.

So spending on the product shriveled, and customers continued to leave in droves. The future was shot, but the present sure was comfy, all holed up in the new palace.

Comfy, at least, until the banks and real estate experts who had helped fuel this madness realized that they, too, were operating on debt with no coherent plan for paying it off. Now, luckily for them, they had their buddies in the Federal government to bail them out. The argument, of course, is that by stabilizing the supply side, the bailout would trickle down to the companies that actually employ people, and from there trickle down to those hapless “fundamentals” who created the mess in the first place.

And maybe all that will happen. In the meantime, dozens of people who devoted years of their lives to The Columbian are out of work. The paper is losing its gleaming new McHighrise. Bankruptcy looms.

The company says it’s adapting to the changing marketplace. It’s investing in technology to better automate production of the print product, with the side benefit of automating the shoveling of its tired old wares onto those new-fangled internet pipes (pipes that will carry the printed product up to Alaska for Ted Stevens and, yabetcha, Sarah Palin, so she can continue to read all the papers).

Life in the District of Columbian is a mess. Fear grips everyone involved. There’s no certainty that the paper can survive this crisis. If it does survive, it has no plan for surviving the next inevitable crisis. All it has to point to is more than 100 years of history. We’ve always survived, the execs say. This crisis will be no different.

I hope they’re right. For that to happen, however, they’ll need to make dramatic changes. A change of leadership would work wonders. That’s not likely to happen, of course, because the failed leaders who created the mess are just certain that they’re the ones to fix it. The paper is a proud independent - and the leaders believe they form a proven team of mavericks - and therefore perfectly suited to bring about the necessary changes.

In light of all that, I would like to be able to tell my friends still clinging to life on the sinking ship that everything will be OK.

I would love to.

I just can’t.

The crisis hits home

October 8th, 2008

Well, my old home: The Columbian.

The daily paper in Vancouver, WA, is close to filing Chapter 11.

The paper built itself a fancy palace, moving in in January. There’s no kind way to put it. This was a stupid move.

So today the publisher announced that the paper is being forced to move back into its old building. Oh, and unless the company can refinance its current debt, it will file for bankruptcy.

Building the garish palace was a uniquely bad move, but the demise of the company offers lessons for every paper.

About 10 years ago, The Columbian hired a former Gannett editor who quickly stripped the paper of its local character, turning it into a clone of every corporate franchise in the country.

At the same time, the editor and publisher took a hard turn to the right politically.

Also at the same time, the company (which had been a pioneer in digital media) turned newsprint-centric, crippling the website while greatly expanding its print product.

So this newly right-wing, ink-on-paper dynasty did what every right-wing entity does: Go deeply in debt, mortgaging its future for short-term pleasure.

Today, the once-proud institution is a journalistic and business disaster.

I spent 24 years of my life at The Columbian. I felt I was part of a family. Part of something important. So I take no pleasure in saying that the institution I loved so much is now the poster child for the disaster I have been predicting.

I hope The Columbian survives. I hope other papers do, too.

They won’t, however, until they start firing the people at the top who created this mess instead of the hard-working people who are getting the pink slips.

How ya doin’? … No comment

June 29th, 2008

So how is the newspaper industry reacting to its current crisis?

By refusing comment.

Here’s a line from an AP story:

“In fact, the industry group that compiles and releases ad revenue figures, the Newspaper Association of America, this month stopped putting out quarterly press releases with the numbers, though it quietly updated them on its Web site.”

How would the newspaper industry react to such a move by the auto industry, for example? With condemnation. Public’s right to know and all, you know?

Pretty typical hypocrisy from the industry that prides itself on credibility.

Hey publishers! Did you see those Bear Stearns guys?

June 19th, 2008

Newspaper executives claim that no one saw the current crisis in the industry coming, so taking on enormous amounts of debt to erect buildings, buy presses an gobble up other papers was prudent business back when publishers were doing such things. Back in the good old days. A year or two ago.

Now that this unforeseen crisis has hit, the only solution is to shed journalists as fast as possible. And, of course, to boost CEO pay to retain top talent. The thing is, the CEOs are the problem, and the journalists are the only viable solution.

Let’s be blunt. I told you so, at least those of you who had the misfortune to work with me or attend a seminar with me. For more than 15 years, I’ve been telling anyone who would that this crisis was inevitable. So have many others. Our biggest mistake was thinking the crisis would hit sooner than it did.

The poor, pitiful, blindsided publishers are lying to their staffs, their investors and their creditors. The rise of the internet with its inherent disintermediation has been coming for years. Google, eBay, craigslist and others didn’t just spring up last night.

The writing was on the wall about display advertisers as well. The folks making the buying decisions were geezers who missed the revolution right along with publishers. Those geezers are quickly being replaced by people who have grown up digitally and never had the newspaper habit.

Penetration has been plummeting for years. No, decades. Major advertisers have been consolidating for decades. Research firms have been pimping their seemingly too-good-to-be-true “readership” numbers to placate advertisers for decades, and publishers have been complicit (should we talk about TMC numbers?). The environmental movement has been gaining steam for decades right along with the price of natural resources.

For the past decade, publishers have been fooling investors about the profitability of the print side of the business, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge that the web, not print, was all that was keeping classifieds alive.

Today we’re watching Bear Stearns executives being led away in handcuffs for misleading investors. There just might be some newspaper CEOs and CFOs who are squirming a bit watching this spectacle. At the very least, boards should be firing these guys right and left, not increasing their compensation.

But who suffers? Mostly the journalists who get laid off. But also the readers, who have fewer and fewer reasons to pick up the paper every day.

I don’t think the death of newspapers is inevitable.

Unless, of course, the current generation of executives stays in place.

McCain is a maverick, damn it!!!!!!!!!

June 17th, 2008

The mainstream media cling desperately to this storyline. Here’s a classic example from newsweek.com.

The author makes a compelling argument that McCain is not a clone of George Bush, and is instead a maverick. How compelling? Let’s look:

  • McCain either has long held, or recently has adopted, positions nearly identical to Bush’s on every major issue.
  • George Bush governed using a divide-and-conquer strategy developed by Karl Rove (the author forgets to mention that Rove also is advising McCain).
  • McCain will have to deal with a Democratic Congress and probably won’t be seeking another term (the author forgets to mention that Bush has been dealing with a Democratic Congress and isn’t seeking another term).

So there you have it, conclusive evidence that McCain is a maverick, not a Bush clone.

Kill the McPaper

June 16th, 2008

I was no ordinary child. I loved newspapers.

My family would go on road trips throughout the country when I was little. From Detroit, we would venture out to Texas, Oregon, Florida, California, Manitoba … and at every stop I would buy a copy of every newspaper available.

I collected hundreds of them, and kept them in my bedroom closet, where I would read them on cold winter nights. It was like reading an adventure. Each paper had a unique look and personality. Some were staid and polished. Some were amateurish but endearing. Some were printed on colored newsprint. Some called famous politicians by only their first names in headlines. Some had folksy local columns at the top of the front page.

Regardless, I loved every one of them. I can’t imagine a child doing that today. With very few exceptions, newspapers everywhere across America are bland, lifeless corporate clones of each other.

So I read the hue and cry about the redesign at the Orlando Sentinel and think “Is this really so bad?”

At first glance, I don’t like the design. It looks like it puts form before function and trivializes the news. Not only that, but it’s being pushed by the buffoons running Tribune. There are plenty of reasons to dislike it.

But I think there is one big reason to like it: It’s different. It might actually catch the eye of someone (let’s say a young person) who otherwise ignores newspapers. If it can deliver on its visual promise and offer a unique view of its community, it might even hold someone’s interest.

Oldtimers won’t like it at first. Oldtimers don’t like any change at first. Some oldtimers might even drop their subscriptions, although the core readership rarely does that. Compare the risk of that against what’s costing papers their readers today - lack of change - and it seems like a gamble worth trying.

There’s a big risk here for the industry. If the redesign fails to attract new readers, and this particular one just might, papers will become even more hesitant to change, if that’s possible.

Of course, there’s another much bigger problem in this redesign. If folks in Orlando actually like the changes, it probably won’t trigger innovation elsewhere.

We’ll start seeing bland, lifeless corporate clones of it popping up all over North America.

Now let’s ask some real questions …

June 15th, 2008

With their choice of a new host for “Meet The Press,” NBC execs have an opportunity to change the tone of political reporting and help restore some credibility for the mainstream media.

I know, they won’t, but wouldn’t be nice? Speculation centers on David Gregory, Chris Matthews and Joe Scarborough. I have no qualms with Gregory, but Matthews and Scarborough? With either one, we’ll get more softball, wink-wink, nod-nod questions to Republican power brokers and more silly horse-race speculation. Issues, unless you define issues as “Jeremiah Wright,” will lose out again.

So here are some questions we still won’t hear on “Meet The Press” or in newspapers:

  • Senators McCain and Obama, what are your strategies for Iraq?
  • Senator McCain, what exactly will this great victory you promise in Iraq look like? How will we know when we achieve it?
  • Senator McCain, will you make a read-my-lips-style promise of no new preemptive war? Even in Iran?
  • Senator McCain, exactly how much do honestly promise to save by reducing earmarks? Please put that amount in perspective to overall federal spending.
  • Senator Obama, will you commit to providing health care for every American if the insurance industry continues to deny coverage to millions?
  • Senator McCain, do you honestly think buying drugs from Canada and stopping malpractice suits will fix our healthcare system? What’s your Plan B?
  • Senator McCain, I see that you’re paying 25 percent interest on your enormous credit-card debt. Insurance companies and potential employers discriminate against people with bad credit, calling it a “character issue.” Does your bad credit constitute a character issue? If not, will you stand up and fight for ordinary Americans who face this stigma?
  • Senators McCain and Obama, a question for both of you. What will you do about Guantanemo Bay?
  • Another question for both of you. Will you commit, with no conditions, to providing high-quality, no-hassle health care to the thousands of Americans who have been maimed and disabled while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Finally, a question for David Gregory, Chris Matthews, Joe Scarborough and the rest of the press corps: Will you commit to ask these and other substantive questions?

Yeah, didn’t think so. So back to the real issue … should Barack Obama pick someone with a patriotic-sounding name as his running mate? Someone who wears a lapel pin?