Friday, February 27, 2009

I'm feeling like an obituary writer

If it's a day that ends in a "y", it's time to report that another newspaper has folded.

This time, it's Denver's Rocky Mountain News. Yes, it's far away from New Haven and far away from New York, but now Denver has only one news source that lands on the porch. The Coloradans who counted on the feisty paper now have to turn to the Post.

Closer to home, the Hartford Courant fired another few dozen from its newsroom and about 100 people altogether. I talked about one of them in my last post, but there are so many more stories. I just cannot go into them now.

I just sit in wonder as the brain trust that runs these papers plays out the end of their reigns, like a scorpion that stung itself.  The scorpion lashes out with its stinger, madly trying this and that to save itself, but in vain. 

The geniuses who now run the New Haven Register and other Journal-Register papers still haven't figured out that if you run a story on your own home page before it appears in the paper, you haven't scooped yourself. 

The Gannett papers in Westchester and Putnam counties of New York, for whom I labored for nearly 15 years, still haven't figured out that you need to bring news to people that they care about. So now, to save a few dollars, they are printing the Poughkeepsie Journal in Westchester, which gives the PoJo a lot earlier deadline. So much for night meetings, sports events and the rest of the news people care about.

So what do the Journal-Register geniuses do? Instead of jumping at the chance to profit by Gannett's errors, they shut down the papers they own in that neck of the woods. So now, not only do the folks in Putnam County lose out once, they lose out twice. The daily Journal News has little Putnam news, but the alternative weeklies are no more. 

And they wonder why chain newspapers are dying.

You would think the folks at Hearst who just bought three newspapers whose circulation areas border Putnam and northern Westchester would jump at the chance to compete in areas where a weakened Gannett circulates. Hearst publishes the Danbury News Times, just across the border from Putnam, and the Greenwich Time and Stamford Advocate, which border southern and central Westchester. 

So, will they? Only time will tell.

By the way, have you heard what Hearst is up to?  They apparently don't have enough reporters to get the news, so they are partnering with Helium, a blogging service. They're paying $20 for a 400-word story and asking people who are Helium subscribers to give their opinions on various issues. The Connecticut Post in Bridgeport is one of the test beds for this scheme.

I just hope they hire enough editors to separate the bad writing and the rumor-mongering from real news. 

One of the problems, as I've said before, with citizen journalism is that many of the citizens think opinion and rumors are news. They're not. News is defined as the best possible version of the truth. That means, you find out about a story, or cover a meeting and divine the truth. How do you do that?

If you have to ask, please, please don't answer the Connecticut Post's ads for Helium reporters.

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Here is the weekend already. I hope the rain and snow hold off. Sunday is March 1, and next week, we set the clocks ahead already. We've almost made it to spring.

Have a great weekend and, for those in the Tribe, a wonderful Shabbos.

Until next time...

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

That sickening feeling shows up again

This is going to be a short post. I hadn't planned on writing today, but I have to.

Yesterday, as you who read the New Haven Independent already know, I covered the governor's visit to New Haven to cheer lead for her budget to a dozen business and academic leaders and tell them that all was going to be OK.

It turned out that the meeting was closed to the press and the governor was going to join us in the small conference room after she had her tour of Sargent Manufacturing (20 minutes) and the meeting (another 35 minutes.) So, as so often is the case, we cooled our heels.

One of the reporters in the room was Mark Pazniokas, the veteran Hartford Courant political and State Capitol reporter. I hadn't met Mark before...our paths hadn't crossed. I enjoyed chatting with him, with Tom Monahan, who has been kicking around for Channel 30 for more than three decades, and Jodi Latina of Channel 8, who is just a joy to be around. 

Jody had an intern with her, who displayed the wide-eyed wonder of the young at a bunch of pros just sitting around telling war stories and talking, of course, about the state of the business and what had happened to the New Haven Register's parent company and the further bloodletting that was expected at the Courant.

Nobody in the room expected that Pazniokas would hear later that night, after he filed his stories, of course, that his 24 years at the Courant were over. 

There also was a reporter from the Register who didn't take part in the chatting. After the news conference, which lasted about 20 minutes at which Pazniokas asked the most questions, I asked the Register reporter how she was doing. She said "I'm doing just fine."

Ah, the bright eyes of the young.

I write this because I really was shocked at Pazniokas' dismissal. I guess I shouldn't be after the now-bankrupt Journal Register Co. fired Greg Hladky, who had reported at the Capitol for 25 years or more and whose work was carried by five JRC newspapers. 

I thought the Courant was better than that. 

Silly me.

Until next time...

Sunday, February 22, 2009

If you're surprised, you haven't been paying attention

You've heard, I'm sure, that the company that owns the New Haven Register, Connecticut's second-largest newspaper, has filed for protection and reorganization under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Act. 

You may not have heard, however, that under the filing, it asks the court permission to pay out $1.7 million in bonuses to 30 top managers and employees if it meets certain criteria.

If you're surprised by either of these facts, you haven't been paying attention.

What this means is that the companies that run the two largest Connecticut newspapers have declared themselves to be bankrupt. It doesn't necessarily means they are closing anytime soon. 

The Tribune Co., owner of the Hartford Courant, is itself owned by Sam Zell, a multibillionaire real estate investor who knows little or nothing about newspapers. He's proven that. 

The path of the Journal-Register Co. that led, almost as inevitably as a Greek tragedy, to bankruptcy court is much more twisted. I saw much of that from the inside. Grab a drink and get comfortable.

Let me take a little pause here and confess that I am not an unbiased observer of these proceedings. For nearly 15 years, I labored for the Jackson Newspapers, the company that owned the New Haven Register, the Journal-Courier of New Haven and, for a tantalizingly short time, The Hartford Times. That's where I joined the fray.

Through that time, from the inside and later from the outside, I saw this bunch snatch defeat from the very jaws of victory time and again.

When I signed on to The Hartford Times in 1973, it was owned by the Gannett Co., into whose employ I later signed on and, after another nearly 15 years (do you see a pattern here?) took an early retirement a couple of years ago. 

Like many afternoon papers, The Times' circulation and advertising had fallen, due in no small measure to the advent of nightly television news. So, Gannett put it up for sale and the Jackson Newspapers decided to buy it. 

Gannett had cooked the circulation books, so the Jacksons took them to court. The higher a newspaper's circulation, the more it can charge for advertising. Reporters for the Hartford Courant, The Times' longtime rival, read the Jackson's lawsuit against Gannett, found that The Times' circulation was much lower than advertisers had been told, and gleefully published all that, plus the Jackson family's infighting that came out during the suit. Advertisers deserted in droves.

At the same time, the Jacksons tried to bolster circulation in the poorer sections of Hartford. Unfortunately, the people they chose to partner with were some of the most hated merchants who, for example, boosted food prices whenever welfare checks were issued.

All this, plus some dirty fighting by Courant advertising sales people, led inevitably to that black day in October 1976 when The Times' presses ran for the last time.

Some Times employees ended up in New Haven, me among them. 

It was not a wonderful time in New Haven. Lionel Jackson Sr., owner of the Jackson Newspapers, had the managerial style of a sweatshop owner. Pay little, demand much, but show your beneficence at Christmas by giving each worker a turkey. 

As a consequence, some brave souls tried to certify The Newspaper Guild as a bargaining unit for the newsroom and advertising departments. The Jacksons brooked no union interference, the union was stupid and my first two years or so were tough, with no raises, bad working conditions and a cloud hanging over all our heads.

But then came the bright dawn. The Jacksons promised raises and vast improvements if the union were decertified. They were as good as their word. Old man Jackson retired and let his son, Lionel Jackson Jr., known as Stewart, run the papers. The effect was immediate. The Journal-Courier was redesigned, the staff was energized and the paper won dozens of journalism and design awards. It was great time to work there. 

Of course, the Jacksons soon snatched defeat from the very jaws of victory again. The infighting plaguing the Jackson family had never stopped and Stewart Jackson finally decided he had had enough. In 1986, the papers were sold, first to a game show producer named Mark Goodson and then to Ralph Ingersoll II, a rich guy who used junk bonds (think Mike Milken) to put up the $185 million paid for the New Haven papers. 

Ingersoll was chased from his company a couple of years later after a foolish and vain attempt to start a tabloid newspaper in St. Louis. The paper was sold to the Journal-Register Co. of Pennsylvania. 

As the losses mounted because of the crushing debt, the recession that overtook the nation in the late 1980s and many bad business moves, layoffs were inevitable. I survived the first three rounds. In the fourth round, the editor and publisher, Tom Geyer, refused to lay off any more staffers, even under threat of being fired himself. He was sacked on a Monday, and I joined the class on Tuesday. It was October again, this time in 1990.

Since then, I've watched the fray from afar. I still have friends in the papers and they reported on one attempt after another to bolster the bottom line by emaciating the coverage and staff. The Journal Register tried bought more papers, hoping they would bail out the rising debt. It was doomed to failure. 

The Register always had dedicated journalists who try their best to tell stories with words and pictures, no matter what is thrown in their path. That continues to this day, but is hampered by bad management decisions and ineptitude.  They lost a talented city editor a couple of years ago because they didn't know how to integrate the physical newspaper and the Internet.

I have a stake in this bankruptcy -- I get a small pension from the Register. I'm not worried about that. If the place goes bust, the government guarantees the pension. 

What I'm worried about is the staff of the Register. If they bought stock in their company, it's gone. They will have to contend with doing more but with fewer resources. I'm also worried about the city. It needs a daily newspaper. The New Haven Independent, for which I write, is doing a great job covering City Hall and some communities, but it cannot cover all the stories that appear in a daily newspaper. 

I take no glee in seeing JRC go bankrupt -- not that they don't deserve it. The problem is, the fat cats will be fine. They always take care of themselves.

I worry for my friends and colleagues on the paper and I worry that yet again, a light that needs to shine on the politicians and bureaucrats who run our cities and towns will be dimmed.

Until next time...

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Things have changed at Capitol; not for the better

Happy Thursday. 

Yours truly took a sentimental journey yesterday (Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2009) to the state Capitol in Hartford to cover a story for the New Haven Independent. Back when I was working for the New Haven Register, nearly a generation ago, I spent quite a bit of time up there, covering statewide stories pertaining to New Haven business and real estate.

Back the, the press room was humming, with dozens of reporters squeezed into the two press rooms at the Capitol. There was a constant buzz in the room then. The major papers had a half-dozen people each and when the committees were conducting public hearings on bills about your beat, you got up there, too. 

There was no way only a half-dozen reporters were going to be able to cover all that was going on. Jim Mutrie and Alan Schoenhaus and Steve Kochko and Chris Blake and Greg Hladky and many others stalked the Capitol, fighting for the beat on a story.

Today, there are just as many hearings going on...I covered one on Tweed-New Haven Airport by the Transportation and Commerce committees. At the same time, there was a hearing on the budget by Appropriations and Judiciary was also hearing from interested parties.

Was there interest? The line to sign up to testify before Appropriations was as long as a football field. 
What has changed was the coverage. In one press room, Catherine Stuart, who calls herself CT New Junkie, was alone. She does a masterful job of covering the Capitol and the Independent uses many of her dispatches. Later, there was another reporter and another desk had some (Rockville-Manchester) Journal-Inquirers on it, which means a reporter lived there sometime.

The room was a mess of old furniture and chairs that looked as if they were the leftovers from somebody's garage sale.

The old press room was scruffy, but not like that. I didn't go up to the old auxiliary press room, which now is the television room. The accommodations might be better, but I was hauling around a lot of stuff and didn't want to climb another flight of stairs.

It was good to see Tom Monahan, the venerable Channel 30 reporter, wandering into the hearing room. A reporter for the New Haven Advocate was up at the Cap as well.

There is a lot going on in state government, yet the news organizations are cutting back and cutting back. The light that the press is supposed to shine on government leaves a lot of shadows for the politicians and bureaucrats to hide in. 

It's a shame. Now, the Tribune Co. apparently has told its operating units, The Hartford Courant and the  Advocate, to expect more cutting.

I just don't see how this will end well.

Page 2

It looks as if Benyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu will be the next prime minister of Israel.

Before you start putting on sackcloth and sitting in ashes, remember that true progress with the Palestinians has come while what people in this nation call hard-liners were in power in Israel. We went through the list last time, but Menachem Begin, Bibi (last time) and Ariel Sharon all presided over significant concessions to the Arabs. 

Not that it did any good.

I just wonder if the Hamas is talking about a  cease-fire because they feel Bibi will head the government and they also feel they can talk to him. Some Arabs are more comfortable with hard-liners than with wishy-washy types like Ehud Olmert, the guy who will be out of power when Bibi can form a government. 

Bibi is an American-style politician, which means he knows how to compromise. I just hope Avigdor Lieberman (no relation) can be kept to heel. He's dangerous.  And I'm glad the Cabinet won't talk about a cease-fire with Hamas until the terrorists hand back the soldier they captured years ago. 

There's a sad old joke about marriage being a give and take situation -- he gives and she takes. That's what it's been like the past 60 years. Israel gives and the Arabs, as Abba Eban loved to say, never miss an opportunity to miss and opportunity.

Proud grandpa shows off

Below, there is some video of my granddaughter, Tamar Spoerri, getting her Chumash, which is a Hebrew name for the Five Books of Moses. It's a right of passage in her school and she did well at it. It also allows grandpa to show off his new skills. Journalists these days have to be proficient in video, as well as still photography. And you must know how to edit video.

 I was taught by a master: Melissa Bailey of the Independent. It's fun and there is another example with the Tweed story I was referring to in the top segment.

So, as they say, without further ado, here is Tamar's ceremony, photographed and edited by  Len of Len's (still and video) Lens.

Until next time...

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy birthday, Mr. Lincoln

Happy Thursday and happy birthday, Honest Abe. 

Today is Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday. In my opinion, not enough of a fuss is being made about it. Mr. Lincoln has been an inspiration to generations of politicians, lawyers and at least one journalist (me). 

I spent some time living in the Washington area about a decade ago and when I was really down, missing my family and trying to figure out things, I would walk over the Memorial Bridge from Arlington to the Lincoln Memorial. At night, when there wasn't anyone to throw a net over me, I might even have a conversation with Mr. Lincoln. It helped.

Anyway, happy birthday to a true genius and a man whom too many half-baked historians have judged through late-2oth and 21st century criteria. He knew that preserving the union was paramount. He knew the Emancipation Proclamation had no teeth, would not free one slave, but would burrow into the British psyche and would not allow England to enter the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy. 

The South could never have won the Civil War. The North fought it with one hand tied around its back, just as we are now fighting a two-front war and you would never know it looking at Main Street America. It was the same back then. Many historians feel that England would never have entered the war no matter what, but Lincoln's genius checkmated any possibility and assured that the Union would come out of the war a strong state, ready for its place on the world stage.

So, happy birthday, Mr. Lincoln. I hope you would have liked what we did with the nation you fought so hard to preserve. 

Page 2

The Rev, a dear friend and former colleague of whom I have spoken a number of times, posted a comment asking what I thought of the Israeli elections.

First of all, nobody yet knows how they will shake out. Both Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former Prime Minister Benyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu are claiming victory, but there are 30-something parties vying in this election and it looks as if Avigdor Lieberman, the head of a rightist party, might end up the kingmaker.

That will take weeks to shake out. Until then, it'll be politics as usual in Israel  -- in other words, chaos. But then again, it's the only true democracy in the region, so a little chaos should be expected. After the 2000 election, we in the U.S. don't have the right to criticize anyone. 

For whom an I rooting? Let's look at the history. Except for the last time around, when Yitzhak Rabin tried to give away the store to Yasser Arafat and Arafat wouldn't take it, all of truly meaningful peace treaties were made by so-called Israeli hard-liners. That title is wrong, but that's another story. 

The people who really gave up a lot in a failed attempt to buy peace were Menachem Begin, the guy who blew up the King David Hotel before the British left, and Bibi Netanyahu, who gave up 85 percent of the West Bank to the Arabs. Arafat, as the late Israeli hero Abba Eban loved to say, never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. 

Bibi gave up Hebron and Jericho. The Palestinians, with Israeli help, built a casino there and could have cleaned up, but again, they never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Instead of cleaning up, they shot the place up and now it's just another monument to that lost opportunity, as is the Palestinian parliament building in Abu Dis. That community easily could have become subsumed into Jerusalem and given the Palestinians their capital in that city.

Ariel Sharon, the man who was wrongly blamed for the Lebanon massacres in the 1980s, was the guy who hatched the plan to give up Gaza. 

All in all, I guess I'm for Bibi. He's smart, articulate in Hebrew and in idiomatic English (studied at Harvard) and can speak well for Israel. He's tough, but the Arabs respect toughness and seem to do better negotiating with a tough person rather than a pushover.

I hope that answers your question, Rev. It's great to hear from you. We really do need to get together. 

Page 3

I never thought I'd say this, but hurray for Congress. 

I watched the hearings by Barney Frank's House banking panel Wednesday. Of course, there was the usual bombast by congressmen and women, but they got the heads of the major banks, Bank of America, Citi, Wells Fargo and others, to promise not to foreclose on owner-occupied houses until the committee comes up with its plan to help homeowners who can be saved. 

Some bankers went farther, saying they would halt foreclosures not only on the loans they made or inherited, but would halt them on loans they were servicing for other banks or brokers. Frank said Congress was working on language that would protect the banks from lawsuits arising out of that. 

The industry is starting to come around. I've seen copies of letters sent by banks to homeowners lowering interest rates, bringing loans up to date and other moves. The banks initiated those actions. Lawyers had postponed foreclosure sales, giving homeowners a chance to hold onto their homes. 

This is all to the good. I just hope we learned our lesson -- not only the bankers and brokers, but all of us. In the end, it's each of us who must know what we can afford and what we can't. We must be able to say, "I can't afford this. It would be nice to have my own home with a backyard my kids can play in, but I just can't do this right now." It's hard to say that -- damn hard. But we need to be able to do that. 

I heard one of the stimulus packages would make car-loan interest tax deductible. That's good for two reasons. It might help the car industry. And it takes away the impetus to take out a home-equity loan, which is tax-deductible, to buy the car. 

How many formerly rich people are in trouble on their mortgages because they took the equity -- the difference between what a house is worth and how much you owe on it -- and bought the Bimmer or Jag or big Audi or Range Rover? The answer is lots.

Page 4

The more I read out this octuplets' mother, the madder I get. She's doing this all on our backs. Food stamps, state and federal aid, student loans and the rest were used to pay for this self-indulgent claptrap. California's Medicaid system and the hospital where she gave birth will have to swallow much of the rest.

The problem is, friends, that this selfish woman could start a backlash that would have people ganging up on folks who really need the aid through no fault of their own. That would indeed be a shame. We Americans are soft-hearted people, always willing to help the little guy who is struggling.

It's just too bad there are so many who undeserving or crooked people who are too willing to  help themselves.

Until next time...

Monday, February 9, 2009

The winter of our discontent

Wow, has it really been nearly a month between postings? With work, mostly at the New Haven Independent, and a bout of illness, time does fly. 

The last time we got together, Barack Obama was still president-elect. Now, he's president and has been for nearly three weeks. Wow. He's had some stumbles, but mostly he's done what he said he would do, and is on the way to throw some more money into that huge maw that is the sinking economy.

Friend wife, who hasn't been a full-time journalist for many years and admits losing that killer instinct, carps about the state of journalism these days, and I'm not sure she's all that wrong. For example, we've lost some really good people who might have done well in the Cabinet because they messed up on their taxes. 

Tom Daschle, who was to be health secretary, was forced to withdraw his name because he made so much money as a lobbyist and didn't pay taxes on some of it. I don't know for sure, but I'd be happy to bet a goodly part of my much-diminished savings that he didn't do his own taxes. I'd also bet that he really didn't set out to not pay his taxes on his whole income. 

So, what do we get? The guy who could have played Lyndon Johnson to Obama's John Kennedy is no longer in that role. OK, I can be a bit obtuse some time. So, let's take this one step at a time.

I don't think there are too many people in the nation these days who feel we are getting the best medical care that's possible. There are too many disparate groups out there, each pursuing its own goals for its own good. We need a comprehensive medical policy, call it whatever you want: socialized medicine, single-payer, national medical plan or whatever.

Obama has great ideas, but, like John Kennedy, is a little weak on how to get them through Congress. Daschle would have been great with that, just like Johnson got many of Kennedy's ideas through Congress. But that won't happen now. The medical fix we get probably won't be as good as the one we could have gotten. Nobody's perfect. If a person can help the nation, who cares if it took him or her a little longer to pay taxes.

Page 2

Just because you can do a thing doesn't mean that you should do that thing. Ask Angela Suleman.

She's the mother of Nadya Suleman, the woman who gave birth to octuplets, eight kids at one fell swoop, while she already had six at home. Angela was caring for those kids at home while her daughter went out and got herself pregnant with the eight through in-vitro fertilization. 

In fact, the same doctor who implanted the first six also did the eight-is-not-enough job. The grandmother calls the whole thing "unconscionable." She should know. She's the one who has to take care of the feeding and diapering and cleaning while her daughter sits in the hospital, doing interviews with the press and the media. 

That doctor should lose his license, the mother should get her tubes tied and we should not have to witness this ridiculous display of ego.

Page 3

Everybody says so. It's the worst winter in a long time. There has been snow on the ground for weeks and, although we may be experiencing the January thaw in February, there's no reason to think the cold and snow will end anytime soon. 

But, although the groundhog saw its shadow and predicted six more weeks of winter, the spring season has begun. Today (Feb. 9, 2009) is the birthday for the trees in Israel. Today, all the almond trees in the whole nation burst into bloom. It's a beautiful sight. Soon, flowers will fill the hillsides in the part of the nation that's not desert. The rainy season is coming to an end and soon it will be warm enough to swim in the Dead Sea or the waters of Ein Gedi

Page 4

I covered our congresswoman, Rosa DeLauro, as she blew into New Haven to cheerlead for the president's recovery plan. There, I saw an old friend and one of the best economists around, Nick Perna. Nick was one of my sources way back when. Come to think of it, that was the last time we were in trouble financially -- the late 80s and early 90s. 

Nick also was one of the people who tried to warn people not to buy houses they couldn't afford and not to take the equity out of their houses to buy BMWs and Audis. Too bad more people didn't listen then. Now, Perna says that if the president's recovery plan is put into effect, we might see the beginning of the end to this recession in late summer. 

I hope he's right. I'm sick of it. I've been sick of it for a long time now. 

Until next time...