Saturday, February 28, 2009

It's Mourning in America

A newspaper died this week. Will anyone notice? Will anybody care?

The Rocky Mountain News shut down Friday, about a month-and-a-half away from its 150th anniversary. It must have been wrenching for the staff. Newspaper people dedicate a lot of time and energy to their jobs. This is a great letdown.

Scripps owned the paper, and I predicted on this blog oh so many posts ago that the company would spike the entire paper, since it had ample precedent.

Scripps earlier closed the paper in its own home town of Cincinnati. What newspaper company does that? One that doesn't put a whole lot of stake in newspapers anymore. Scripps is now into HGTV, which it owns, than into breaking news.

So we can't say we didn't see this one coming. It was in the making for some time, considering the Rocky was in a joint operating agreement before it closed. The JOA often is a prelude to death.

We have another chronicle of a death foretold: It appears the SF Chronicle also is gasping for air, and may close any day now. It's shocking to see the newspaper industry down on its knees like this. The industry was so utterly unprepared for technological changes in news gathering and delivery. We are a long way from Kansas now--and boy do we know it.

This week the American Society of Newspaper Editors canceled its annual conference due to little interest. I'd say this is a good move. It would be hard to justify a junket to (fill in the blank) while editors everywhere are mercilessly axing staff and newspaper content and pages. Why that would have been the newspaper equivalent of auto industry honchos flying to Washington on private jets to beg Congress for money. Only in this case, editors would be wringing their bloody hands over cocktails.

Speaking of which, begging for money--either directly to Congress or in the form of sponsored stories or investigative series-- is what some newspaper companies are weighing.

Bad idea.

I realize these are desperate times, but newspapers are supposed to be free of any outside influence. If newspapers want to have freedom of the press, they have to take it on the chin and find a new business model, one that doesn't depend on sponsorship or government loans of any kind.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

What Ever Happened to Shame?

It used to be that when alleged bad people did alleged bad things, you could detect a teensy-weensy bit of shame in their attitude or that of their families: The head held low, the biting of the lips, the inability to look you in the eye.

Oh, how that has changed.

Now, when alleged bad people do alleged bad things they get the 15 minutes of fame (maybe even wealth) that Andy Warhol predicted would be every one's due. Instead of the perp walk, you get the cat walk. Instead of a jail sentence, you get a book contract that, hopefully, will turn into a television movie of the week. And it's not just the alleged perp who's strutting his or her stuff before the world's stage. It's the whole dang family.

I am referring, of course, to the Casey Anthony case. Casey's parents have appeared on major television shows, including "Larry King." We now know that when Caylee's remains were found they stayed at the Ritz Hotel, courtesy of ABC television. Casey's dad cannot even try to commit suicide in private.

And now there's also Haleigh Cummings' father's girlfriend, who didn't waste time appearing on the "Today" show, ostensibly to defend herself or her relatives. When it was announced the little girl was missing, Casey's dad -- all better now -- made a beeline to Satsuma in Putnam County in a show of solidarity.

I have wondered throughout all of this: Doesn't anybody agonize in private anymore? Doesn't anybody close the door and say they would like to be left alone? (This is valid only if attempted before the big-publicity cry for help, before the big-publicity search and rescue effort, before the big-publicity help-me-find-my-missing-child poster and before the daily press conference updates.)

Must the press and television pull back the curtain a la Wizard of Oz each and every time to show the family mayhem and dysfunction? Shouldn't the media do a little pulling back of their own?

Does the press and television always have to work itself into a tizzy about one more missing child, as if other nameless, faceless children do not go missing everyday that are never found and that we never hear about. Why Caylee and not the others? Why Haleigh and not the others? Is anybody still looking for or writing about Trenton Duckett? And why does it seem that these things are happening only in Florida?

The glare of television lights and scribblings in reporter's notebooks have greatly diminished the sense of private agony and sometimes shame that, to my mind, was a lot healthier for the family and the community. It has also diminished the media's sense of credibility.

We are all now under siege from the mutual exploitation society that exists between the parents/relatives of the chosen few missing children and the press and television. Once on the stage, you can't yank these folks off. Once the television ratings, newspaper circulation or online "uniques" soar, you can't get the media to retrench.

We will hear and read about the Casey Anthony case everyday whether there is news to report or not. We will get the daily videotape or photo of the family, lawyers or other folks who weasel their way into the spotlight.

Now, to the delight of the media, we have two such cases. I can see the headline: Haleigh and Caley: What Went Wrong? It's a great stroke of luck for the media that the names happen to rhyme.

I am not unsympathetic to the cause of missing children. I am a mom and I know what I would do if someone tried to harm my child. But I am unsympathetic to the hoopla, hullabaloo and carnival sideshow that has little to do with the cause of missing children.

For the sake of decency and credibility, someone please draw the curtain. Bring back a little shame and embarrassment for the good of the community.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Millions of Trees Saved

No, you didn't imagine that your paper is getting thinner and less newsy.

Newspapers in the United States consumed 16 percent less newsprint in 2008 than the year before. That's 5.2 million tonnes, down from 6.2 million tonnes -- or a clean 1 million tonne, according to an item in Editor and Publisher this week.

The decline in newsprint consumption is accelerating as papers move more content online and cut back on pages and page widths in the paper product. Things may get worse for newspapers, but better for the trees in 2009.

Newsprint use was down nearly 24 percent last December, according to E&P, which cited the Pulp and Paper Products Council. Newsprint companies are reducing output to meet lower demand, which is also good for trees. U.S. paper mills are running at only 80 percent of capacity. Naturally, prices are falling too.

Although the decline of the traditional newspaper business and business model is lamentable, there is always and upside and this is it. Fewer trees will be sacrificed to print newspapers that fewer and fewer people are reading.

That's newspapers 0, Earth 1.

So That's Where the Money Went

A Tampa Tribune credit manager and his wife allegedly swindled the newspaper out of $1 million by creating a private credit collection company and diverting checks to a private account.

The couple, Lynda and Charles T. Wilson, were arrested Thursday in Tampa. The scheme took place over a 10-year period, indicating folks at the Tampa Trib weren't minding the store. Newspaper executives said it recovered most of the money from insurance. So I guess that means, what the hey! The wife may negotiate a plea deal, which presumably includes ratting out on her husband.

And we wonder how the newspaper business got to this state.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Incredibly Shrinking Severance

Shoulda. Woulda. Coulda.

Right about now, scores of Sentinels are wishing they had volunteered to take the earlier Tribune buyouts. That's because Tribune's bankruptcy judge this week approved the company's motion to significantly reduce the severance offered to employees in any future buyout/firings.

Instead of getting two weeks of pay for every year at the Sentinel, as many former Sentinels did, future ex-Sentinels will get only two weeks for the first year of work and one week for every year thereafter. That's equivalent to about half the severance offered in earlier buyouts.

It used to be that a Sentinel who spent 20 years at the Orange Avenue lockup, would get 40 weeks of severance pay when he/she walked out the facility for good. Now, that's down to 21 weeks of pay. Basically, nearly a year of pay was reduced to about six months of pay.

Severance is severance, and I'm sure folks are glad to get it. But what a difference that five to six months is going to make. The economy being what it is means people are likelier to be unemployed for a longer period of time.

And don't count on cashing out your pension plan in a lump-sum payment. Tribune just sent out a notice stating that for the time being, "The plan is prevented from offering eligible participants the option of receiving a lump sum ...".

These moves are a strong indication that Tribune is sharpening its ax again. Why else put this motion before the bankruptcy judge? The LA Times already got its notice. About 300 people are out. Watch out for rolling heads at other newspapers, including the Sentinel.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Tribune's Major Creditors Owed Big Bucks

The Fort Lauderdale folks who got left out in the cold by Tribune banktruptcy got me thinking about the company's other creditors. So I looked it up. Some of this information has appeared in print and online, although I don't think in its complete form.

So here are Tribune's 30 largest creditors, as disclosed in Tribune's bankruptcy papers, in ascending order. Drum roll, please:

30. Paramount Pictures, $1.6 million
29. Nielsen Media Research, 1.8 m
28. Sony Pictures Television, 2.1 m
27. Tower PT, LLC (an equity investment company), 2.2 m
26. Tower DC, LLC, 2.3 m
25. Tower EH, LLC, 2.6 m
24. Horst Bergman (former executive owed retirement and deferred compensation), 2.6 m
23. Bowater Inc., 2.7 m
22. Raymond Jansen Jr. (former executive), 2.8 m
21. Tower MS, LLC, 2.8 m
20. Tower JK, LLC, 3.3 m
19. Abitibi Consolidated, 4.1 m
18. Robert Erburu (former executive), 4.3 million
17. NBC Universal Domestic TV Distribution, 4.9 m
16. SP Newsprint Co., 5.1 m
15. Buena Vista Entertainment (Disney), 6.2 m
14. Twentieth Television, 8 m
13. Mark Willes (former LA Times executive dubbed the "Cereal Killer"), 11.2 m
12. Warner Bros. Television, 23.7 m
11. Deutsche Bank National Trust (notes), 69.5m
10. Deutsche Bank (debentures), 82 m
9. Deutsche Bank (more debentures), 84.9 m
8. Deutsche Bank (more, more debentures), 98.7 m
7. Barclays Capital, 142.9 m
6. Deutsche Bank (more, more, more debentures), 148 m
5. Deutsche Bank (unsecured notes), 330 m
4. Deutsche Bank (more unsecured notes), 450 m
3. Deutsche Bank (subordinated debentures), 900 m
2. Merrill Lynch Capital (bridge loan), $1.6 billion

And the No. 1 creditor is .....

1. JP Morgan Chase Bank, NA ... $8.57 billion

Now we know why Wall Street is in such a funk, lending big chunks of money to companies (and individuals) that can't afford to pay their debt.

The off-duty cops and the city of Fort Lauderdale, with $800 owed (see earlier post), are so way down the list that they're invisible. But what happens at the local level matters.

Wouldn't you like to know what Central Florida companies are owed money by the Orlando Sentinel?

Left Out in the Cold

The New Times of Broward-Palm Beach posted an item Monday that shows the ripple effect of a bankruptcy filing (see it here Tribune apparently owes some off duty police officers and the city of Fort Lauderdale more than $800 for past services related to last year's Sun-Sentinel-sponsored CityLink Beer Fest.

In the big picture scheme of things, 800 bucks is nothing. But you have to put this in the context of thousands of what Queen of Mean Leona Helmsley called "the little people" getting stiffed because of Tribune's bankruptcy filing last December.

$800 here and $800 there -- Fort Lauderdale today, Hartford tomorrow -- and pretty soon you've got big money. The city of Fort Lauderdale and the off-duty officers have no recourse but to go to the back of the line, along with hundreds of other unsecured creditors, and hope they will someday get paid -- pennies on the dollar.

It's not right, but we all know life ain't fair.