Monday, July 21, 2008

Where Did the Competition Go?

You may dislike Lee Abrams' stream of consciousness, which would make Gabriel García Márquez proud. But as an outsider looking in, the chief innovation officer (got to love the title) has some occasional insights. Here’s one from Monday’s memo that leaped out at me.

“One thing I believe needs more attention is paying closer attention to other media. I was at a few Editorial meetings, and they were passionate and intense. But I noticed a lack of attention paid to the competition. Competition meaning everything from Drudge to USA Today to Yahoo to Fox News to Smoking Gun. I'm not taking about fact, the reaction might be "they are all wrong". That's fine...but we don't own news anymore. We are best at it...but there are SO many options that I think it's a critical exercise to have a keen and complete awareness of what everyone else is doing.”

Many newspapers long ago stopped paying attention to anbody else and that’s the way they liked it. Newspaper companies spent millions of dollars buying up their weaker (though sometimes better) crosstown rivals to monopolize advertising revenue and profits. Newspapers got richer, but newsrooms got lazier.

I have worked at papers that were competitive and noncompetitive, and the competitive ones provided a bigger thrill.

At the Sentinel, it was common for stories to be held without fear the competition would scoop us, because the competition had long ceased to exist. News happened when the Sentinel published the story, whenever that was. Over a long period of time – and for the Sentinel that means since the early 1980s – that breeds arrogance, sloppiness, a we’re-the-big-guys-in-town mentality and, in the end, a disregard for the community it serves.

Using the zone editions as an example, in the last 10 years the Volusia edition was beefed up, then slashed, then beefed up again partly in response to competition from the Daytona Beach News-Journal, itself a merger between two newspapers dating to the 1980s. The latest news is, the Volusia section and all zone editions except Lake County’s will be gutted. No need to worry about competition from the News-Journal (which has its own headaches) or anybody else.

These moves contradict the so-called focus on hyper loco. You need a presence in many locations to provide hyper loco coverage. You also need reporters. The reduction or absence of these two critical elements is a clear indication that hyper loco is an illusion.

The Orlando Sentinel will have fewer pages (how about those half pages?) as well as fewer and shorter stories. It will cease to provide meaningful coverage of outlying counties as well as Washington, D.C. (won’t the pols love that). Business and the arts? Forget about it. It closed its fairly cheap Puerto Rico bureau several years ago. The national and international news will be packaged from news services and you won't find such news on the front page, unless the world blows up.

Readers can do a lot better than this on the Web. The Sentinel is not accustomed to factoring in local or national competition. But the immediacy of the Web makes everything local and re-invigorates the news with the competitiveness of years ago. It doesn’t really matter where news comes from. If you read it “somewhere” on the Web and find it in your hyper loco paper the next day, it’s old news, buddy.

Tribune is going to have to teach some old dogs old tricks.


Anonymous said...

Do you have any insight on the recent UCF garbage the Sentinel sports section has been printing as of late? Does this have to do with the arrogance of being the only game in town that you mention?

There has never been any "love" for the home town team and the outright lies that they have been spewing about UCF and George O'Leary lately are atrocious. For example, they recently ran a headline stating that "Plancher's family upset..." after only talking to a SECOND cousin and two friends. What's the matter, couldn't find the family dog? It is so cheap of them to profit off of the loss of this fine young man.

It's nice to read some inside "insight" as to the where the Sentinel's attitude springs from. There will always be those that tow the company line, even after "voluntarily" leaving, don't let them discourage you Maria!

Anonymous said...

You mentioned the half pages. How about the abundance of half-page ads? Over the past weeks, the number of half-page and other larger-than-normal sized ads from traditionally small-wallet advertisers would seem to indicate a fire sale. Bargain deals are being made, it's obvious. It begs the question: When will the price drop so low that the business community will begin to look at the paper as little more than a "shopper"?
Slippery slope to free fall--it's not much of a transition, Sam. Give it away and you pick up an unwholesome name.

Anonymous said...

I left the Sentinel 3 years ago - as a distribution supervisor. Actually, I transferred (inter-tribune) to Newsday in NY. That gig lasted 9 months - 3 months after Zell bought Newsday. Now I'm with North Jersey Media Group -a privatly held company. We're on the skids as well. It seems that there's no forward thinking - The old way is the best way. I've watched, with rapt attention, the slow & steady decline of ALL newspapers, especially Tribune print entities, with a sense disbelief. The old guard will wreck what was once a proud business.

Anonymous said...

None of the three Sentinel blogs I've discovered has posted anything new in a couple of days.
The bigger question: Where Did the Bogs Go?
Or did they sic Maxwell on you?
(Oh, the terror he wreaks....)


Maria Padilla said...

Hey, I'm still here! But I've been having problems with my high-speed connection, which is being repaired. Hopefully, I'll be back to normal soon ...

Anonimo en Orlando said...

Its funny you should mention the high speed issues you are facing at home. Here at the Orlando Sentinel, the Newsroom and TI (Tribune Interactive), and all other internet users are starting to feel the pain of yet another cost cutting effort. It seems that to wonder boy Technology VP Steve Gable, that we are spending waaaay too much on AT&T high bandwidth lines for our Internet traffic. "Let them eat Bright House" he yelled, and as part of a test, we switched our Internet connection over to non-commercial grade Bright House access. The same y'all get at home. Just imagine all those users here vying for connection time.

Well, the phones are ringing off the hook at IBM India (the outsourced technical help desk) with irate users timing out accessing websites. And these are the users that we are relying on to increase our Internet revenue and help save our sinking newspaper! How can they work to improve our presence on the net when they time out trying to access the net?!?

Maria Padilla said...

Hey Anonymous,
Even with my Internet troubles, I have a better high-speed connection than the Sentinel. I have AT&T, not BrightHouse. Still, if you want any help, who knows where the customer service rep is based these days?