Sunday, August 31, 2008

Their Eyes Were Watching Nature

Florida naturalist and author Bill Belleville has taken note of the Orlando Sentinel's coverage of the local flooding, implying that it's gone over the top in its description of nature doing what nature does.

The thing that stood out to him was a line in a recent story about squirrels, gators and other critters "going on the attack" as a result of the recent rains.

"We somehow have lost the language needed to more realistically describe our natural world. We’ve compromised the river’s watershed with hard surfaces, and by doing so, keep rainfall from soaking in the ground," he writes in his blog

That reminds me of a passage in Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God," when Janey is taking a walk before the hurricane strikes. She notices the gators, birds and other wildlife heading in droves in the opposite direction, a good sign that she better take cover, too.

I agree with Belleville that we have lost the ability to read important signs that nature sends our way. Check out his "saunterings." Belleville has great insights, as well as some eery photos of natural Florida.

Can We All Get Along?

The news triumvirate of South Florida --the Miami Herald, the Sun-Sentinel and the Palm Beach Post -- have agreed to share certain content, their respective editors announced Friday. The news exchange also includes the Spanish newspapers El Nuevo Herald, El Sentinel and La Palma of the PB Post.

Somehow, the papers are going to share content while also "preserving" competition. How is this possible? When newspapers share content, it means fewer newspapers will cover the news, regardless of whether it's called "routine" news or some other type of news. It's really that simple.

''Our goal is to better serve our South Florida audiences while protecting the individual brands and identities of our respective newspapers,'' a statement from the editors said, as reported in Editor and Publisher.


This could mean that newspapers, like many online news sites, may become aggregators of news. That is, they publish stories by many different originators. That's not unlike what newspapers do via their membership in the Associated Press: They buy the right to publish other newspapers' stories, most often national and international news.

What the newspapers have done is to bypass AP, which is happening more these days. But here's the danger: They're also bypassing the newsgathering process of their own newsrooms. If you gather news, you gather sources and insight into what is happening in your area. So this is announcement is not necessarily good news for readers who are interested in contrasting news coverage.

Obviously, the newspapers are trying to control costs, save money. It's a nod to the tough economic times the industry is facing that the traditional and long-held rivalries among newspapers that brought readers tough news coverage is giving way to the kumbaya of let's all get along.

Another Paper Bites the Dust

The San Juan Star of Puerto Rico published its last paper Friday after 50 years. Orlando readers may not be familiar with the Star, but the Orlando Sentinel recruited a number of people from the Star. At least six Orlando Sentinel staffers worked there, including former San Juan bureau chief Ivan Roman, former crime and courts reporter Pedro Ruz Gutierrez, former communications desk staffer Vanessa Vazquez, former copy editors Edgardo Martinez and Carlos Galarza, and I.

And that's not counting a few Star alumni who currently work for the Sun-Sentinel. Plus, Ken Cogburn, the former editor of the Orlando Business Journal, was former managing editor of the Star. So the Star must have had an eye for hiring talent.

I replaced Ivan Roman at the Star when he left to join El Nuevo Herald in Miami. I held three different posts over the course of nearly seven years: business editor, assistant managing editor for features and editorial page editor. I returned to the states shortly after the paper was sold. I didn't meet Ruz until I moved to Orlando years later, but I have known Vazquez for years, and worked with her brother Tony, who is now a lawyer. I helped recruit Edgardo Martinez and Carlos Galarza to the Sentinel.

For the uninitiated, the Star was an unusual paper. It was the island's only English-language daily, and won a Pulitzer Prize in its first year of operation for a series of editorials denouncing the Catholic Church's attempt to influence a gubernatorial election. The church was upset about Gov. Luis Munoz Marin's pro-birth control stance. The paper's archives are a treasure trove of Puerto Rican history in the last half of the 20th century.

Many interesting people have passed through the Star's newsroom, including Pulitzer Prize winning author William Kennedy, who was its first managing editor. The story goes that Kennedy turned down Hunter Thompson for a job at the Star. Another staffer Manny Suarez nearly won a Pulitzer for a series of stories on the murder of two youths on a mountaintop known as Cerro Maravilla that involved the police and ensnared then Gov. Carlos Romero Barcelo. According to scuttlebut, Suarez didn't get the prize because the stories, written in the early 1980s, were not all published in the same year.

For 24 years or so, the Star was owned by Scripps Howard, which did an awful job of managing it. I recall that executives came down in January, when the weather got bad in Cincinnati. As far as I could tell, they poured very little money into the paper -- until they got ready to sell it. All of a sudden, there was a flurry of building renovations and computer upgrades.

We learned that Star had been sold through its union during the Christmas holidays of 1993. The paper had a tough union, and the current owner blamed the union's unwillingness to cut benefits and agree to further staff cuts for the paper's demise. Having worked there, I can attest that it's more complicated than that.

The market for an English language paper had been dwindling for years. Plus, the owner squandered what resources he had on a Spanish-language edition, taking on far larger and better-financed rivals. Not a good plan.

I am sad to see it go. For a very long time the Star was the only island paper to write credibly about politics because it didn't have ties to a political party. But it was dysfunctional -- a good friend used to call it the San Juan Star Authority for its government-like sluggishness. Still, of all the papers I've ever worked for, the Star was definitely the liveliest. It had spunk, verve and heart. Adios, amigo.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Advice for the Sentinel

Criticism of the Orlando Sentinel redesign continues to pour in. This is what a posting at Brass Tacks Design, titled "Advice for Orlando," had to say:

“Cosmetic redesigns are a waste of time of money. In contrast, content-driven redesigns can be powerful catalysts for positive, substantive changes to newsroom culture, but only when they transcend superficial changes to fonts, color palettes and grids. . . . If Orlando's redesign fails, it won't be because it went too far . . . It will fail because it didn't go far enough.”

To read the full post, visit

Monday, August 25, 2008

Falling Angel, Devil's Child

In the finance world, companies that experience a drop in credit status are known as "falling angels." Tribune is knocking on Lucifer's door after its senior debt rating was recently slashed.

Credit rating agency Fitch stated last week that Tribune's junk bonds just got junkier, creating the backdrop for potential bankruptcy. In financial talk, that means people who hold these bonds can move to the back of the line. Fitch said Tribune's senior debt holders are likely to get anywhere from 31 cents to 50 cents on the dollar (ouch!) in the event of a "distress." Read bankruptcy. Bear in mind that senior debt is the Top Dog of debt. It gets settled first in a bankruptcy. But nobody said investors would get every penny they are owed.

Tribune's cash-generating machine is stuck in neutral due to a downbeat economy and negative newspaper market. Without sufficient cash on hand, Tribune can't pay down its $13 billion debt.

Tribune entered Junk Hell several years ago. It became a junk bond company in 2006 -- more than a year before Sam Zell came on the scene -- when Standard and Poor's slashed its credit rating. At the time, Tribune's debt was a mere $5 billion. Since then, S&P hasn't stopped slashing Tribune's credit rating.

It's getting crowded in debt hell, because Tribune is keeping company with many fallen angels. Among them: auto giants General Motors, Ford and Chrysler; mortgage company Countrywide and home builders Toll Brothers and Lennar Homes. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are approaching junk status, too.

The New York Times may get pushed down if it doesn't cut its dividend, which credit raters said it needs to do to preserve cash.

When Tribune paid off $800 million of debt after it sold Newsday, I thought perhaps things aren't that bad after all. But it seems Tribune is barely keeping pace. The reduction in Tribune's debt rating fans the flames of hell because company's coming.

Saturday, August 23, 2008


Saturday's newspapers are a good example of how the industry is old, tired and obsolete. A truckload of papers missed the news of presidential candidate Barack Obama's VP pick. Now, you may or may not care about the presidential campaign, but this is a good example of how newspapers are getting scooped. They no longer own their own business, which is breaking news.

If you jut had to know Obama's VP choice, you could have signed up at the candidate's Web site for a text message. In other words, the campaign didn't need newspapers to tell the news. It retained complete control of its own breaking story.

The text message went out early Saturday morning to individual supporters and others first, before it went out to the media. Seems to me, the choice deliberately bypassed Friday night deadlines. As expected, many newspapers were caught flat footed.

In Florida, the St. Pete Times got it (it's not for nothing that the St. Pete Times is the state's best paper), but not the Miami Herald, the Sun-Sentinel, Orlando Sentinel, Palm Beach Post or the Tampa Tribune. (Go to to compare front pages from across the U.S. and 56 other countries every day.)

With the advantage of a 3-hour time difference, many but not all West Coast papers carried the news. In the Midwest, the Chicago Sun-Times had it, but not the Chicago Tribune. East Coast papers as a group didn't fare well. The Washington Post missed it, as did the Washington Times, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Of course, the online version of the papers can make up for the print gaffe. Trouble is, online operations aren't staffed 24 hours a day; however, maybe they should be. That may be an example of new thinking that keeps newspapers competitive, which is what online newsgathering is supposed to do.

Open Your Wallet

In the last couple of weeks, newspapers around the country have bumped up their prices to combat rising production costs, including newsprint. It's debatable whether that's a good idea, but here are some examples.

  • Last week, the newstand price for the daily New York Times rose to $1.50 from $1.25. Home delivery charges are going up 4.5 percent. It's the second year in a row that the NYT has pushed up prices.
  • The Wall Street Journal hiked its price to $2 in late July, following an increase to $1.50 per issue last year. Since 2007, the WSJ newstand cost has gone up 100 percent.
  • The Chicago Tribune recently boosted the price of its Sunday edition to $1.99, up 20 cents. You have to love the old 99-cent trick that avoids round-numbers and gives buyers a penny back.
  • Earlier this year, the Washington Post went up to 50 cents per issue for the daily edition.
  • The San Francisco Chronicle quietly raised its price to 75 cents from 50 cents.
  • The Cleveland Plain Dealer is reportedly mulling a price increase.

Raising the price of a produt for which demand is declining is not a good idea -- unless you want to accelerate the decline. If the price goes up and circulation goes down, what are newspapers going to tell their advertisers? More important, what are they going to charge their advertisers? Rest assured, advertisers will ask for an adjustment to compensate for fewer eyeballs scanning the paper.

Earlier on, in the newspaper paleolithic era, newspapers were thought to be immune to price increases. The catchword phrase was "price insenstive." The thinking was, readers with a habit would be unwilling to go without a morning fix, a quaint idea that reflects the days when newspapers had the "news" mostly to themselves.

Newspapers that continue to think this way do so at their own peril, because they have more competition today than they can count. And new forms of competition are evolving every day. Just an example: If you wanted to know who Barack Obama's running mate was, you didn't have to wait for the newspaper (or TV or radio) to "inform" you. Inquiring minds signed up on Obama's Web page to receive a text message directly to their phones. Who foresaw that text messaging would compete with media for headline-grabbing news?

Don't think that raising the newstand or home delivery price of a paper is the only way to squeeze more revenue from readers. Each time a newspaper cuts its page count, as the Orlando Sentinel and other Tribune papers did, that's a price increase. Each time a newspaper reduces coverage or content, as the Orlando Sentinel and other Tribune papers did, that's a price increase. Each time something like this happens, the reader is getting less for the same price. That's a price increase.

Perhaps national newspapers such as the NYT, WSJ and Washington Post can withstand a price hike. They are a cut above the rest, although they, too, are not immune to circulation declines. (As a buffer, the Washington Post owns Kaplan and other education business, which generates more revenue for the Post than the Post itself.)

Local papers that promise more local coverage while slashing away at page count and content, may experience a stronger backlash as readers begin to see through the empty promises and realize that the "new and improved" paper is actually less so and more expensive, to boot.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Copy Cat Design

The Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel is boasting a beauty makeover.  You can see live pages at  The paper has the USA Today look: big graphics and lots of color. There's also less content. However, I won't insult USA Today with that comparison because USA Today has actually been improving its content with longer stories. 

The Sun-Sentinel, like the Orlando Sentinel, has a big patch of color at the top of A-1.  However, the Sun-Sentinel's is a warmer red hue than the leaden black of Orlando.  Each of the sections is color-coded, so you no longer have to read the section masthead.  Imagine that, a newspaper that doesn't require its readers to read.    

Here's the thing that stands out to me:  the S-in-a-box masthead logo.  It's stylish.  Does it stand for S squared?  Is it an S as in Superman is breaking news stories in a single bound? Whatever it is, it's not original.   

It's eerily similar to the S-in-a-box logo for Salon magazine.    

You be the judge.  

For the Sun-Sentinel logo click here: 

For the Salon logo click here:

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Fire Sale

It's official. The Daytona Beach News Journal is for sale. Parent company News-Journal Corp. has stated it expects to have the paper sold by the end of November -- of this year. Either News-Journal executives have an inside track on a potential deal or somebody is smoking some funny stuff in by the beach.

It could be a case of the latter, given that the paper is in trouble because it had the arrogance to buy the naming rights to a performing arts center for about $13 million without letting its partner Cox Enterprises know. Cox sued. The News-Journal opted to buy out Cox and a federal court set the price at $129 million for Cox's 47 percent ownership share. An appeals court upheld the ruling, and here we are. The paper is for sale to pay off Cox.

Given these end times for newspapers, it's not clear what amount the News-Journal can fetch. The field of newspapers with for sale signs hanging from their banners is getting crowded. Among those on the auction block are the Newark Star-Ledger, Chicago Sun-Times and San Diego Union. The number of companies who probably wish they could put their newspapers up for sale: infinite.

A newspaper for sale today is going to get a rock-bottom price. And that's if they are lucky. If they're unlucky, they will languish for a while on the market until somebody gets the hint: Ain't no interested buyers.

Investors are scared of newspapers, following the continuing debacle at Tribune and McClatchy, to name just two well-known newspaper chains that are taking a soaking. They are drowning in billions of dollars in debt and not generating enough cash flow to pay it off. Financial analysts aren't even covering the newspaper industry anymore, a sure sign newspapers are dead and buried. And trading volume on many newspaper stocks is anemic by Wall Street standards.

As for share price, it's ugly out there. Gannett is trading at $18.65 per share, down nearly 50 percent in the year to date. E.W. Scripps Co. is selling at $7.07 a share, down 30 percent for the year. McClatchy closed at $3.99 per share Tuesday. That's right, $3.99. Murdoch's News. Corp., which bought the Wall Street Journal, has not seen a bump from the sale. Its stock price is $13.90, down nearly 50 percent from the same period a year ago. Even the venerable Gray Lady, the New York Times, with a stock price of $13.57 per share, is down nearly 21 percent thus far this year.

The Daytona Beach News-Journal has a couple of things going for it. First, it pretty much has the market to itself now that the Orlando Sentinel has decided to cut and run from Volusia County. Still, it's also feeling the economic pinch and announced it would close three bureaus and cut 99 staffers from its payroll. It's also a medium-size newspaper with 100,000 daily circulation. Smaller papers generally are outperforming the big guys right now. And the family owned paper, now nearly 80 years old, is an institution in Volusia County. It has a good brand.

Even so, a sale by the end of November -- just three months from now? Somebody needs to put down the pipe and breathe some fresh air.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Goodwill Hunting

Newspaper companies are losing goodwill. And it's not just the good will of readers, who long ago ceased to care, as evidenced by decades of declining newspaper circulation and readership, but also the goodwill or value that is inherent in their newspaper assets.

Goodwill is the je ne sais quoi of the value of something you buy. It doesn't exist as something you can touch and feel. It's an abstract thing such as reputation or brand to which companies assign a dollar value when they make a play for your assets.

At least once a year, accounting rules set by the Financial Accounting Standards Board call for companies to "test" their goodwill and intangible assets for signs of "impairment." FASB requires this test of goodwill and intangibles to determine whether they are holding up or, to put it in FASB parlance, "reflect the underlying economics of those assets."

When newspaper companies went hunting for goodwill at the end of the second quarter, they found huge chunks of it had evaporated into thin air. In other words, there was significant "impairment" in the value of properties acquired earlier.

With the click of a calculator,
  • Tribune eliminated $3.8 billion in goodwill in the second quarter related to the purchase of the Times Mirror newspapers, including the LA Times, Baltimore Sun, Hartford Courant and others, for which Tribune overpaid. That's on top of $130 million in goodwill Tribune eliminated in 2007.
  • Gannett is expected to write off between $2.6 billion and $2.7 billion of goodwill in the second quarter. In 2007, it eliminated $130 million in goodwill from its financial statements.
  • McClatchy last year wrote down $1.37 billion in goodwill related to its buyout of Knight Ridder newspapers, which includes the Miami Herald. At the end of 2007, McClatchy only had $1 billion left in goodwill.

Now, this is not cash money. Heavens forbid. It's a paper loss. But the write down of goodwill is still very significant. It basically means your stuff isn't worth what you thought it was when you plunked down good money ($8 billion in the case of Tribune) to buy some properties or assets.

It's like acknowledging that the wonderful 3 bedroom, 2 bath house you just had to have and paid $150,000 for two years ago is now worth $50,000 -- if that. If you put the house on the market today, you would have to eat $100,ooo of goodwill. And so it is with newspapers.

Nobody would pay $8 billion for Tribune today, and especially not Sam Zell. I'd venture to say he probably has a voodoo doll of Dennis FitzSimons somewhere in his office in Tribune Tower. Zell and others had no choice but to write down the assets.

Newspaper stocks have tanked, and that's a sign of the value of a company. Tribune is not a public company anymore. But McClatchy, for example, is trading at $4.19 a share on very low volume (350,433). Most other newspaper stocks are in the toilet as well.

That's goodwill for you. Here one moment, flushed the next.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Channel Surfing

Sam Zell has made it clear in several stories that the future of Tribune is in television. The newpapers are being scaled down to size and revenue, and retrofitted to serve television, especially local news. The profit is juicier in local televison news because there are no middlemen to suck up a portion of the earnings.

Television news, and especially local television news, wouldn't exist without the newspapers from which they crib stories. It is a truth universally accepted that television doesn't employ one-tenth of the reporting staff that newspapers do (or used to). When you hear the morning news on "all news" cable television or a snippet of news on the morning network shows, the great majority of it is regurgitated from the morning paper.

If you want an example of television's commitment to local news, look no further than crime news. Television didn't veer away from crime news when it was clear that crime was falling across the United States in the 1990s and into the 2000s. Why? Because it's easy to cover crime news. All you need is a police scanner and a backpack journalist, if that. Thoughtful stories require manpower, legwork and time.

If newspapers shrink in size and depth of reporting, you will soon see that reflected in your local news and radio broadcasts. But I digress.

There is one newspaper chain who has nearly abandoned newspapers and has pursued television in a big way. It would not surprise me if Zell is channeling in some way Scripps Howard. (Full disclosure: I once worked for a Scripps Howard paper in San Juan, Puerto Rico.)

Scripps Howard owns about 10 local televsision stations, including two in Florida, plus it's the parent of HGTV, Food Network, DIY Network, Fine Living Network, the Great American Country television network as well as SN Digital, food- and shelter-related interactive businesses. The latter group is known as the Scripps Network.

According to its latest second-quarter results, Scripps Network revenue jumped 13 percent and its profit increased 10 percent, very healthy numbers compared with the dismal state of newspapers. Scripps' local television stations, though down in revenue, are still doing OK, compared with newspapers. There's no mistaking that Scripps Howard is clearly a broadcast company now. Scripps Network revenue makes up nearly 53 percent of all revenue. Combined with local television stations, the figure jumps to 65 percent.

And what of its newspapers? There are 15 of them left, including four in Florida. The largest of its newspapers are probably the Rocky Mountain News and the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Scripps historically has been quick to go the JOA (joint operating agreement) route. The Denver paper now is a JOA after a bruising fight with the Denver Post.

Last year, Scripps closed down its Cincinatti Post and Kentucky Post (across the state line) newspapers after a JOA with Gannett expired. Which is to say, Scripps closed down the newspapers in its very headquarters city (Cincinatti) rather than keep the papers going! This year, Scripps closed its Albuquerque paper when the JOA with Journal Publishing expired.

Do you see a pattern here? How long do you think the Rocky Mountain News will be around? I'm taking all bets.

The point is, Scripps is the wave of Zell's future. When all the slicing and dicing is done at Tribune, it may very well resemble something like Scripps (give or take local television vs. network television) in its overall makeup.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Party's Over

I got a chance to catch up with some Sentinels and ex Sentinels at a party over the weekend. There were lots of hugs and kisses all around. Most people looked exactly the same. A few looked just a tad older, but we won't name names. My apologies for not remembering each person's name, although I missed only one or two. No names will be published here to protect the innocent.

We gathered not to bury the Orlando Sentinel but not exactly to praise it either. The people who are no longer at the Sentinel could fill a house, and we did. There was a palpable sense of loss at how low the paper has fallen. Here's evidence: I was interviewed on talk radio earlier in the day, and the host asked listeners to call in with questions. Not a peep was heard. I'm thinking the guy has really low ratings or expectations of the Sentinel are significantly diminished. In the old days, if you had a comma out of place, you would hear about it from a readers.

Here are some instant impressions from the party:

  • The most popular question was, "Are you still there?"
  • One person was astonished at how the Sentinel buried news of approaching Hurricane Fay inside the paper. In the old days, back when hurricanes mattered (who can forget 2004?), a hurricane would merit page one.
  • Folks talked about how much physical space there was at the paper now. There was a time the Sentinel had a clean mafia who "cited" you if your desk got too dirty or the paperwork out of hand. I was once warned because I didn't have a photo of my husband and daughter in a proper photo frame. Unbelievable, but true, and so Sentinel. Now, there's plenty of room to roam and space to fill. And I guess nobody cares what you do with it.
  • Some folks are enjoying a leaner management. The Sentinel was always known for its top heavy structure (as is Tribune overall), layers of managers who were always looking for an opportunity to get in your way or prove their worth. No more, and what a freedom that is.
  • The best line of the night: The newsroom has become like an emergency ward, where stories are tended to in triage because there are so few people to go around. While that might work in a hospital (and even then it's questionable), in a newsroom stories that aren't at the top of the list often don't get told at all. That's especially true in these lean staff times.

The people who are no longer in daily journalism seemed more relaxed and talked of other things. The ex Sentinels I talked with said they were glad they left. One recent departee said he was sleeping much better.

The people who are still doing newspaper work of course seemed very worried. Everybody is networking and keeping irons in the fire. They know red letter day can come at any moment. And old buddy said, "It used to be that newspapers didn't pay well, but your job was secure. Maria, if you were to walk into the newsroom now, you wouldn't recognize it."

Say amen somebody.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Listen Up

George Crossley of People Power Hour Radio Show, WAMT 1190AM, is dedicating his Saturday show to what's happening at the Orlando Sentinel and the newspaper industry in general.

Tune in if you're interested. Yours truly might be on ...

Get on Board

Follow this link. It will lead you to a petition asking Sam Zell to award seats on the board of directors to Tribune workers and Tribune readers. Sounds like a good idea, considering that at the time of the acquisition, Zell promised that the "employee-owned" newspaper would have employees represented on its board.

It's not really your paper, folks. But you can give it a shot ...

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Orlando's First Newspaper Casualty

Newspaper analysts have been predicting that the industry downturn will produce newspaper closings, and Orlando is seeing its first one. El Nuevo Dia Orlando is shutting down after five years. The five-day-a-week paper, whose last edition is Aug. 29, provided competition among Spanish-language papers (where, by the way, there exists more competition than among English papers).

Although it was the area's only Spanish daily, it couldn't make a go of it. Last year, it reported audited circulation of 25,706 from Monday to Thursday and 38,378 on Fridays. It boasted a pick-up rate of 99.5%. Now El Sentinel and La Prensa, both weeklies, can divvy up what's left of the advertising revenue. But since neither El Sentinel nor La Prensa has strong editorial, the Spanish-speaking community will continue to be ill served.

The wealthy Ferre family of Puerto Rico owned El Nuevo Dia Orlando and two other very successful island dailies. The failure must be hard to swallow. But considering the black hole that was sucking its dollars, it also must be a big big relief.

The Ferre's launched the paper in 2003 and sunk a lot of money in Orlando. They implied they would do whatever it took and wait however long they needed to make the venture work. They were convinced Central Florida's Hispanic population was ripe for the picking. And they were not wrong.

Early on, the company indicated it wanted to team up with the Orlando Sentinel, but Sentinel folks were wary that El Nuevo Dia was elbowing into its market. El Nuevo Dia's interest pushed the Sentinel to finally launch a Spanish newspaper of its own -- after about 15 years of "discussion." If you want to know what's wrong with newspapers, that's a good example right there. Newspaper by committee. The Sentinel's hesitancy allowed La Prensa to have the market to itself and become a local institution.

El Nuevo Dia opened its local offices with a big splash, inviting Orange County and Orlando mayors Richard Crotty and Buddy Dyer. We know all this because El Nuevo Dia Orlando was very good at blowing its own horn in its own pages, complete with pictures.

But the Orlando market turned all their assumptions upside down. El Nuevo Dia thought the Puerto Rican market was all theirs, and it's not. They didn't factor in that about half of Orlando's Puerto Rican population is from other states, not the island. El Nuevo Dia doesn't have a relationship with this sector. Meanwhile, other Hispanics didn't take to the paper because it was perhaps "too Puerto Rican."

El Nuevo Dia also decided to charge 50 cents a day for the paper, when every Spanish newspaper in Orlando, including El Sentinel, is free. Well, the 50 cents dropped to 25 cents, and finally it was a giveaway like all the rest. It didn't have a proper distribution channel. And it was an unknown quantity to the local advertising community.

In addition, El Nuevo Dia never quite got the hang of covering Central Florida, where power is decentralized. In Puerto Rico, power is very centralized in the island government, and the local press spends its day running from press conference to press conference. Not necessarily so in Orlando.

Still, I'm sorry to see the paper go. It was fun while it lasted.

El Nuevo Dia stirred things up in Central Florida's Spanish newspaper market for a while, and that was good.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Tribune's Lalapalooza of a Loss

Sit down, folks. Tribune just reported a second-quarter loss from continuing operations of nearly $4 billion. I hardly know where to begin.

The loss itself is not a surprise, but the size of it is postively staggering. Remember, the figures represent only a three-month period. The loss stems largely from a writedown of newspaper assets. That's a fancy way of saying the newspapers that Sam Zell bought are not worth what they once were. So he's "slashing" their paper value.

But that's not all, losses from discontinued operations totaled $705 million from the sale of Newsday. The charge for severance pay and termination benefits was $15 million, lower than I expected, compared with $27 million in last year's second quarter.

As expected, revenue fell 6 percent to $1.1 billion. And a lot of that is blamed on lower publishing advertising revenue (down 15 percent) and lower classified ad revenue (down 26 percent). When Florida newspapers such as the Tampa Tribune and the Miami Herald earlier reported precipitous drops in revenue and profits, you knew Tribune could be far worse. After all, it has newspapers in two sagging markets: Florida and California. But circulation revenues increased in Fort Lauderdale and Orlando, although daily and Sunday circulation were down for the entire publishing unit.

The Newsday sale sure came in handy. It allowed Zell to pay $807 million in debt ahead of a December bank deadline. Booey for him. Watch your back, though. There's another $600 million payment due next June. Cash on hand plummeted nearly 40 percent to $161 million from $262 million last year. Online revenue is down. And there's still a mountain of debt ($12.5 billion).

I know this may be heresy to some ears, but I actually feel bad for Zell. He bought a bill of goods.
The properties are not worth jack. Consider that $4 billion is half the price that Zell paid for the Tribune Co. Zell's been had but the likes of the old Dennis Fitzsimmons gang at Tribune Tower a well as a sucky newspaper market. Unbelievable.

A man like Zell is not accustomed to losing that kind of money. His language must be getting saltier and saltier.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Read All About It

Follow this link for a story about the "Incredible Shrinking Newspaper" published in the Orlando Weekly.

The local media finally are waking up to the goings on at the region's main daily newspaper. Can somebody tell me if television has taken a serious look?

Passing the Smell Test

In my early days in journalism, a seasoned reporter once said these sage words to me, "Maria," he said rather gruffly, "there is no such thing as new news; there are only new reporters."

I get a kick out of that statement even today, although it is not entirely true. He said this a few years before the personal computer era, which of course revolutionized everything from business to the home. And which I had the privilege to cover.

Beyond that, it's absolutely true that new news comes along all the time. Anybody heard of derivatives? What about the dot-com bust? Who knew about wireless? Hey, how about blogs? Or smart car? Both the senior reporter and the U.S. Patent Office were wrong when they assumed that "everything that needs to be invented has been invented."

And it's also true that there are always new reporters. And a newsroom full of new reporters with no or few veterans is a newsroom without institutional memory. You can figure things out from the clips, but newbies will have fewer seasoned reporters and editors to turn to. It makes a difference to ask, "Hey so-and-so, you covered the Gainesville murders?" Or, "What really happend in that courtroom?" Or, "What was so-and-so really like?"

That reminds me of a true story about a young reporter who was sent to cover an artist with a new album release and a concert to perform. The artist was covering old standards made famous by an artist of another generation. Well, after the interview was nearly over, the reporter asks, "Well, where's so-and-so (the older singer)? I'd like to interview him." So-and-so had been cold and six feet under for many years. Bada bing. I was the editor over this reporter and he never lived that down.

Because the paper cuts have been so deep, especially at Tribune, it risks turning the newsroom into a place filled with people with little knowledge or connection to the local community. It may make reporting shallower -- at least until new folks get their bearings. And when they do, they'll be shown the door too, kicking the negative cycle into gear again.

In a transient community such as Orlando -- where people come and go all the time and roots do not run deep, where people still root for their home teams (where ever home is), and where people generally don't know their neighbors -- it's particularly dangerous to have a newspaper filled with transient journalists as well.

The sense of permanence and connection is sacrificed. The sense of in-depth knowledge about issues and people is diminished. Why bother reading the paper?

A newsroom filled only with oldtimers would be just as bad because there would be no new blood. News people being news people, such a newsroom would also be way too cynical and blase. Balance is what's needed.

But increasingly, that's not what we have. Of course, you can always say the newsroom now mirrors the Orlando community, and because both are newbies, who will know the difference between a story that understands what came before and one that merely passes the smell test for the next day's paper?

Who indeed.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Is El Sentinel Light Going Out?

The Orlando Sentinel's Spanish-language weekly El Sentinel is now down to three staffers thanks to paper cuts. That includes an editor, a copy editor and a reporter. The paper borrows a copy editor from the main desk several times a week. Yahoo!

I wince at what it must feel like to get out the paper. Full disclosure: I helped launch El Sentinel back in 2001 and was its editor for three years. El Sentinel hit the streets with three staffers, which is one more than the weekly has now. The staff topped out at seven, including me.

It was an incredible amount of hard work, week in and week out. No let up. Just more work. Very stressful. We were supposed to start with 16 pages, but launched with 24 and went up from there. It was never only a 16-page paper. And of course, the paper is bilingual, which is little like what Ginger Rogers was to Fred Astaire. We went through similar paces as the Orlando Sentinel, only with significantly less help and in ingles and espanol.

Today, El Sentinel doesn't have as many pages as it once had; it's down to 22 to 24 pages, thanks to paper cuts. And it doesn't contain nearly as many local stories as it used to, thanks to paper cuts. But its weekly circulation is up to about 80,000 - or so they say - from about 65,000 when I left the paper.

Not sure what the revenue figure looks like, but when I was part of El Sentinel it generated about $3 million a year, which may surprise some Sentinels who thought El Sentinel was a waste of resources. The figure underscores the fact that El Sentinel was more about scooping up ad dollars than providing good coverage of the burgeoning Hispanic community.

That $3 million figure has been surpassed by the Sun-Sentinel's el Sentinel, which launched a year after Orlando and is in a more populous and competitive market. Not surprisingly, it has six staffers churning out the weekly. Some of them complain that it's a lot of work but - hey - want to try Orlando?

El Sentinel was always lean, too lean. And I guess it has to take its licks along with the rest of the Orlando Sentinel. But I sure wouldn't want to be behind the masthead.

Saturday, August 2, 2008


The Orlando Sentinel's sister paper to the south, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, just lost its managing editor, Sharon Rosenhause, to paper cuts. Sun-Sentinel blogger Greg Lewis calls Rosenhause "the Queen of Newspaper Diversity" for her commitment to a newsroom that looked like the community it served.

There is another editor around these parts who aspired to that title: Orlando Sentinel Editor Charlotte Hall. It's true that Hall hired Orlando Sentinel Managing Editor, Mark Russell, who is black.

But I've not seen a tangible difference or improvement in coverage of Orlando's burgeoning diverse communities. Therefore, I'm not sure the queenie label will stick on Hall. (Full disclosure: I covered minority affairs for about 4 years at the Sentinel before moving on to other posts. I got to know the different communities pretty well.)

I know some reporters at the Sun-Sentinel and it seemed to me many revered Rosenhause, which leads me to conclude that Rosenhause probably went above and beyond the usual talking points about newsroom diversity. Lewis' blog post indicates a close relationship with Rosenhause, something that I cannot say I witnessed in Orlando between Hall and any reporter. So, "revere" would not be a word to describe the Orlando situation.

If you have a different perspective on Hall's contribution to Orlando's newsroom diversity, please leave your comments.

To read more of Lewis's blog post on Rosenhause, follow this link:

Lift Every Voice

Want to voice your opinion to Tribune? There is now a link to a survey you can take that gauges Tribune employees' interest in gathering to discuss changes at the company. Follow the Yellow Brick Road: And remember, keep it clean!

Zell Speaks

Check out the story in this weeks Business Week magazine about Sam Zell and Tribune (, appropriately titled "Sam Zell's Deal from Hell."

A lot of the material is stuff we already know, based on the New Yorker piece on Zell published a while ago and also info on the Tribune buyout deal. Still, I think lots of us would shake our heads in agreement with the Business Week assessment that the buyout is "a transaction that's shaping up to be one of the most disastrous the media world has ever seen."

And that's because Zell saddled Tribune with billions in additonal debt, which now leaves him little wiggle room. Of course, from an investor standpoint, Zell's small down payment (only $300 million or so) is smart (whether you like it or not).

Zell cannot be held responsible for the double-digit declines in ad revenue and tumbling circulation. All of that was happening way before he came on the scene.

Still, the story contains material that should send chills down your Florida spine.

Big Return
"Zell doesn't need Tribune to thrive; merely keeping it alive could earn him an astronomical return when it comes time to sell. That has always been the goal."

Newspapers Sacrificed
"With the newspaper industry in free fall, Zell's new survival plan is to build out Tribune's broadcasting and Internet groups, which represent 24% of revenues, and slash costs in the newspaper group."

Financial Assessment
" '... Tribune might violate [loan agreements] in the near term…as early as December.' "
(We knew that.)

TV News
Beefing up lcoal tv news in Fort Lauderdale and Chicago, with newspapers feeding the content. However, with staff cuts and lower news to ad ratio, the questions remains, what content?

Not So Merry December
"Zell says the casualties will be 'significantly greater' by year end. "