Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Greed is Good

At a hearing this week, Tribune Co.'s bankruptcy judge approved more than $13 million in bonuses to nearly 700 employees for their work last year, but denied about $2 million in severance payments to about 60 employees who were laid off before the company entered bankruptcy proceedings.

The employees had an average length of service of 20 years. According to the court, "Tribune had not demonstrated that the payments were necessary to the operation of the company," according to a story in the Wall Street Journal. However, the judge left the door open for the employees, stating that "if asked," he would order the severance funds to be held in escrow, pending reorganization.

The $60,000 question now is, will somebody at the "employee-owned company" ask, hmmm?

In another intriguing nugget of news, Tribune chief financial officer Chandler Bigelow III testified that no Tribune paper lost money last year (emphasis mine), while 21 broadcast stations gained advertising market share, according to the Associated Press. Company strategic initiatives are expected to generate $425 million in annual cash flow; other deals may reap more than $1 billion in proceeds.

Crocodile tears.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Gimme Shelter

The Senate Commerce Committee's recent hearings on the future of newspapers brought together some fascinating characters--Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post meets David Simon of The Wire meets Sen. John Kerry.

Of course, Kerry got everything off to a fine, fine start, saying newspapers were an "endangered species."

I found the different approaches to the issues intriguing. Huffington, as expected, is all about the Internet and where news gathering is headed. Simon doesn't mind opening the door to government interference. Alberto Ibarguen, formerly of the Miami Herald, was insightful, reminding everyone that newspapers weren't all that great when they were great. James Moroney of the Dallas Morning News was particularly depressing and galling. He went to Washington looking for corporate welfare, and he probably flew there in first class (but, who knows, maybe a private jet).

Here in condensed form are some random quotes and information. Does not include everyone who testified, just the folks I thought would be most interesting.

Arianna Huffington's testimony was the shortest, at 4 pages, but the most spot on:

“We are actually in the midst of a Golden Age for news consumers.”

“It’s important to remember that the future of quality journalism is not dependent on the future of newspapers.”

“Digital news is a classic case of ‘disruptive innovation’—a development that newspapers ignored for far too long.”

“For far too long, traditional media have been afflicted with Attention Deficit Disorder—they are far too quick to drop a story — even a good one, in their eagerness to move on to the Next Big Thing. Online journalists, meanwhile, tend to have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. . . they chomp down on a story and stay with it, refusing to move off it until they’ve gotten down to the marrow. In the future, these two will come together and create a much healthier kind of journalism.”

“The discussion needs to move from ‘How do we save newspapers?’ to ‘How do we strengthen journalism?—via whatever platform it is delivered.”

“I am convinced that journalism’s best days lie ahead."

David Simon's testimony was the longest--10 pages--although he kept insisting he shouldn't be testifying because he hasn't worked in daily journalism since the early 1990s.

“I’m tired of hearing myself on this subject.” (!)

“The parasite is slowly killing the host.” (There are no parasites, Simon.)

“My industry butchered itself and we did so at the behest of Wall Street and the same unfettered, free-market logic that has proved so disastrous for so many American industries. And the original sin of American newspapering lies, indeed, in going to Wall Street in the first place.”

“We pretend to an undeserved martyrdom at the hands of new technology.”

Simon rightly states that public financing of journalism would “pull both sides from their comfort zone and prove unacceptable to all.”

He pushes for the creation of nonprofit status for newspapers (as if employee-owned has helped Tribune employees much) and for relaxing certain anti-trust prohibitions to protect newspaper copyrights (and create monopoly power).

Alberto Ibarguen, formerly of the Miami Herald, now with the John Knight Foundation, 5 pages:

“Mine is not a lament for the past that excluded many in our society, especially women and minorities, from the main pages of a newspaper. Nor do I pine for the symbolic authority of three, broadcast television, white male anchors. I enthusiastically welcome the democratization of media and am thrilled by its possibilities.”

“I confess to great qualms to the role of government in [journalism].”

Ibarguen pushed for universal digital access and adoption, as did Huffington. He also asked for the removal of laws that prohibit the combination of print and broadcast journalism (bad idea), saying it deserves a "fresh look." (Tribune pushed for this for far too long, instead of focusing on changing technology and delivery.)

“We will be a nation of media users, not consumers” (Yes sirree).

James Moroney, publisher, Dallas Morning News, 9 pages:

Pushed for tax relief via an extended period for a carryback period for net operating losses.

Greater antitrust flexibility to experiment with innovative content distribution and cost-saving arrangements (bad idea; I love it when free enterprise folks ask for monopolies).

Fair compensation from Internet companies for content. (In other words, a wall, which is a bad idea.)

True businessman. All business, no heart.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Up, Up and Away

For the second time this year, and in what seems like a counter intuitive move, the Orlando Sentinel hiked the price of its single-copy daily paper to $1. Back in March, the Sentinel increased the price of its single copy daily to 75 cents from 50 cents, according to Editor and Publisher.

If this is true, the Sentinel would have jacked up the single-copy price of the daily paper 100 percent in less than six months. Doesn't seem to make sense at a moment when there's a recession raging, people are losing their jobs and have less money, the Sentinel's news staff has been cut to the bone, news coverage and news pages are dwindling, and so is the paper's circulation (down more than 9 percent in the latest reporting period).

Then again, this is an industry grasping for new cash. As if to confirm it, the New York Times followed suit this week. The newsstand price for the Times' weekday and Saturday editions will go up to $2 effective June 1, up from $1.50. Its Sunday paper will sell for $6. Geesh. That's the second time in less than a year that the Times has pushed up prices.

My take: This move will drive more people to the Internet, where they can read the papers for free. In the end, the newspaper industry is accelerating its own demise.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Shoehorn Journalism

If you want to read a heated discussion of what people are whispering about the Orlando Sentinel redesign, its layoffs and what the future holds, visit Charles Apple's blog at

Some folks have been going at it hammer and tong for several days about the goings on at the Orlando Sentinel. They are mostly taking visuals guru Bonita Burton to task for what some say is "callousness" in handling recent newspaper changes and layoffs. Others are beating up on Nick Masuda, a senior designer, for "sucking up" to Burton. And if that's not enough for you, the commentators have resurrected the ghost of Oxycontin. It's that bad.

It's good stuff, as gossip goes. Only a few people have gone on the record, including Burton (I think), Masuda and former Orlando Sentinel AME Sean Holton, who defended the copy desk against allegations that it fouled up Oxycontin.

There's discussion of templates as the future look of the Sentinel and other Tribune papers. That's why the copy desks have been gutted. Copy will flow directly from reporters' heads directly onto the page. Did anyone say stream of consciousness? I doubt we will discover the new William Faulkner.

It's obvious that the new owners have little taste or respect for journalism or the personality and uniqueness of the cities in which the newspapers are based. This is now a one-size-fits-all approach.

I've got one thought about all this: One-size-fits-all didn't work for pantyhose, guys. What makes Tribune honchos think it will work for newspapers?