Monday, March 30, 2009

Sorry, Winston, it is the beginning of the end

Winston Churchill, marking a 1942 victory in Africa against the Germans, said "Now is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."

I've always liked that quote. It was inspiring and forward-looking: optimism from one of the great leaders and inspirers of our age.

But it is not for now. After reading that the Hartford Courant's publisher has been given his walking papers and replaced with the general-manager of Tribune's television stations, I knew this was the beginning of the end for real newspaper journalism in Connecticut. 

The two stations, WTXX and WTIC-TV, will have studios in the Courant building. The press release accompanying the New Haven Independent story on the move, crows about "creating the largest print/broadcasting news-gathering operation in Connecticut." 

"This is the future of media," said Randy Michaels, Tribune's chief operating officer. "Whether in print, over the air, or online -- the delivery mechanism isn't as important as the unique, rich nature of the content provided."

Michaels would have you believe this is innovation at its zenith, new, different, forward-looking. Nah. Gannett has been doing this for years in Westchester, with its (lower Hudson Valley - get it?), which started out with a WCBS-TV studio in the Journal-News building and now has a TV camera in the newsroom and a strong Web site, along with a daily newspaper and video updates at scheduled times during the day.

Gannett has figured out that if you put a story uncovered by one of your reporters on line or on television before it is printed in your newspaper, you haven't scooped yourself. I don't think the New Haven Register has figured that out yet. 

Paul Bass, in his Independent story, asks if this move by the Courant is a strategy to save money or to increase the coverage of the state and the region by the Tribune entity. 

It may be both. The Journal-News' newsroom has a lot of empty desks, and those still working there have been asked to do a lot more with a lot fewer bodies -- editing both the paper and the Web site, which is constantly updated.  When you do that, quality has to suffer. I don't care how good you are, quality has to suffer when fewer people are asked to do a lot more. 

Look at today's New York Times. On the front, eight people died in that nursing home tragedy. On the index page, it's six. The story says eight. Years ago, that almost never happened. Now, it's routine.

The Tribune release says the delivery system isn't as important as the news itself. When you are talking about news in papers and on the 'Net, that's right. Television is a whole other thing.

Stories for television are reported and written differently from those in print, whether that print is on paper or Internet. Photos, maps and other graphics are important to newspaper stories; photos, graphics and videos complement Internet-based stories such as those in the Independent. But the written word still conveys the story. Words can create images in readers' minds that photos and graphics cannot. They convey the facts.  

Television is different. In television, the picture is king. Stories are produced differently, reported differently and certainly written differently. There is no 13-second sound bite in newspapers. 

It's just different. So how does a guy who managed a television station run a newspaper? True, most newspaper publishers come from the business side of the business. But they understand newspaper ads, newspaper budgets, newspaper problems. Can this television guy understand the Courant and its problems and, more importantly, its potentials? 

I worked in news in Connecticut for nearly 30 years. I worked in the Hartford-New Haven corridor for most of it. No matter where you were, you compared yourself to the Hartford Courant. It was always the 800-pound guerrilla, whether you liked it or not. 

Were Bob Conrad and Bill Ryan of the Hartford Times better than anyone the Courant had at the state Capitol? Sure, but the overall package at the Courant was better. They had a dozen people to throw at a story, when the Times or the New Haven Register had maybe two. They had the money, the resources. No more.

I hope this works out at the Courant. Connecticut needs at least one strong daily newspaper.

Hearst has newspapers in Fairfield County, but Fairfield County thinks it's New York. Papers in New Haven and Torrington and Middletown are part of the bankrupt Journal-Register. Papers in New London, Norwalk, Waterbury, Rockville-Manchester, Windham and Meriden are independents somehow hanging on. Whether the businessman who bought papers in Bristol and New Britain from Journal-Register can succeed is still way up in the air. 

I think sites like the Independent are the future of print journalism in Connecticut. I'm not saying that because I do work for it. I'm saying that because I don't think this experiment in Hartford will work.

As Tevya said in "Fiddler on the Roof," a fish may fall in love with a bird, but where would they live? I think there is a fish falling in love with a bird in Hartford. And I think that match is the beginning of the end for newspapers in Connecticut.

I hope I'm wrong. As God is my judge, I hope I'm wrong. But I don't think I am.

Until next time...

Friday, March 27, 2009

Just a few words, positively

Happy Friday.

It's getting late and the sun soon will begin going down, but I just wanted to share a few words before it's time to sign off for the Sabbath.

First of all, I want all of you drivers out there, the ones with Connecticut licenses and registrations, to give yourselves a big round of applause. I mean it, give yourselves a hand.

Yes, it's me.

I returned the other day from Maryland, near Washington, D.C., and those people are really nuts. There is a plethora of intersections where there are multiple left-turn lanes. The problem is that often the number of lanes decreases very close to the intersections. That means traffic has to merge. 

Thereby hangs the tale. Nobody wants to give up his or her spot or, heaven forfend, let someone merge in front of his or her car. There is a problem with signs. The sign over the lane here indicates that this ramp is on the left. Not so. The ramp is on the right; only the sign is on the left. So you have to blend over a couple of lanes. Hah! 

There is also a lack of recognition of the blind spot. A driver will pull up on your right, the nose of his car (or her car) even with the center of your rear door. And stay there. And stay there. Then, when you need to move to the right, well, you get the idea. 

Fortunately, the worst that occurred was some long honks on horns and evil looks, which, I assure you, were returned in kind. Oh, yes, those Virginia drivers are no better.

I think it may be the competitiveness of those who work for, or service, the government. 

Page 2

It was such a nice day today that I feel like ending on a positive note. I will find something positive about the recession. 

You say this is a hopeless task? Au contraire. It seems that attendance is forecasted to be down at major league baseball parks and prices are forecasted to at least not increase, if not decease.

That means it may be possible to find a ticket to a Red Sox game without having to pay a scalper, or Stub Hub, which is a legal, er, conveyance organization. The Sox have been sold out since popes were Italian, so perhaps that might change. 

Page 3

Sunday marks the unveiling of Jerry Gross' tombstone. As those who have been longtime readers remember, Jerry was one of those guys whom everybody knew and liked. He was always looking out for others. Let's put it this way: At Jerry's funeral, there wasn't a dry eye or an empty seat in Jimmy Shure's funeral home. Everybody was there. 

Jerry died after a car crash. The dangerous intersection that he lived on, and where the crash occurred, has not been fixed. 
A tomb is unveiled after 11 months, the length of time Jews believe it takes even the worst if us to get into heaven. Jerry, I am sure, took a whole lot less time than that.

Page 4

It's supposed to be a crummy weather weekend, so stay in and watch the UConn games. Perhaps both UConn teams will make it to their respective final fours. 
So have a great weekend and for those in the Tribe, who will have to watch the men's game on rerun, a wonderful Shabbos.

Until next time...

Friday, March 20, 2009

It's not the journalists' fault that newspapers are dying

Happy Friday and happy spring.

I have a favorite thing to say on the first day of spring. I attribute it to the humorist Ogden Nash. I'm not sure he said it, and I don't want to find out because I like the ditty and I like Ogden Nash. 
It goes: "Spring has sprung/ the grass is riz/ I wonder where/the birdies is."
Now please don't look it up and tell me that he didn't write this thing. It's a once-a-year thing and I've gotten it out of my system.
For those who don't know Nash, he wrote little poems like:A panther is a leopard/that hasn't been peppered. If you see a panther crouch/prepare to say 'Ouch.' Better yet, when called by a panther/don't anther."

Anyway, happy spring.

Page 2

I told you so! The depression in the newspaper business isn't the journalists' fault. It isn't that there aren't enough happy stories for young people, or enough stories about rock or hip-hop stars or enough stories about cars. People are still reading the paper. 

It's the greed of the newspaper owners, many if not most of whom are corporate bottom-feeders and bottom-liners who have piled on too much debt. The papers, like, for example, the New Haven Register in Connecticut, make money. It's that the paper's owners, Journal Register Corp., piled on so much debt buying it and the dozens of other publications they had owned, that they finally drowned in the debt.

Read an expert about it here.

Some good news: The San Diego Union has been bought by a deal maker who thought enough of the newspaper business in general and the paper in particular to buy it. Thank you.

The Tuscon papers, one of which is owned by Gannett, still teeter at the brink. It's one of those well-close-it-unless-someone-buys-it deals. That way, the killer company can blame someone else for the paper folding.

In the meantime, papers still soldier on. I read the Register today. It had some news in it, thanks to Mark Zaretsky and Mary O'Leary. These veterans, among a few others, keep the paper going by hard work, sometimes with no pay for some of the number of hours they put in. Mark beat me on the Tweed story by working all day Sunday. I was at my daughter and son-in-law's playing with my grandchildren. That comes first. Could I have gotten the story had I been home that Sunday? I'd like to think so. 

So instead I got the back story on how this deal was completed after 40 years of strife. I guess what I'm trying to say is that the Reg is lucky to have people like Mark and Mary. Other papers also have reporters and editors they don't deserve, but they are getting rid of them quickly. 

In Westchester, it was the Rev and Pennsylvania Mike and Dan the Van Man and many others. It's in the blood. Get the story. Make sure it's right. Worry about the fine points, like getting paid, later. 

It's never been that way in the electronic media, for the most part. Of course there are exceptions. 

Page 3

This wouldn't be Len's Lens without some carping, so here goes. Let me do my Andy Rooney impression. I've met him and have a good Andy Rooney story. But only in private. 

Did ya ever think about how rude the checkers are in supermarkets? I'm not talking about the places like Trader Joe's or Edge of the Woods, a vegetarian, health-food supermarket in New Haven. They're fine.

I'm mostly talking about Stop & Shop. I don't know where they get these kids, but they can't be made to pass an intelligence test. They must work cheap, and that's all the test the store needs. I'm sure the problem isn't just at that one store. It must be chain-wide.
For example, I brought in a bag to pack my groceries in. It was a large, sturdy bag. All of my order would have fit into that bag. But the checker put a couple of things into the bag and then proceeded to bag the rest of my order in plastic bags.

Then she proceeded to hand my change and receipts to me. While I was putting these things away (maybe 10 seconds), the next order came flying down. She couldn't have waited those 10 seconds so I could clear my stuff off the counter?

This isn't the first time this has happened. Not by a long shot. Why do places like Trader Joe's have such nice, smart, genial checkers and Stop & Shop such dregs? 

Look, Stop & Shop has gotten much better in stocking the kind of foods I like, in reacting to complaints. 

For example, I like Ken's ranch salad dressing, the lite kind. So Stop & Shop replaced it with their own brand. The problem is: their brand isn't certified kosher, while Ken's is. I told them about it. Within weeks, the Ken's dressing reappeared. Wonderful.

Why ruin it with idiots at the checkout counter? 

Page 4

Tomorrow is March 21, the traditional first day of spring. 

It's also the birthday of two who are near and dear. Older one first. Paula Weber of Marlborough, my sister, will be one year closer to 60. 
Mike Olkin, Andrea's husband, also celebrates a birthday tomorrow. When you are as young as Mike, it's pointless to tease about age.

Happy birthday to both. 

Page 5

I put the snow shovel away today. If we get snow next week, blame me. Otherwise, it looks like a great weekend to get out and enjoy. The weather is slowly getting warmer and there is no hint of rain until at least Thursday. For now that is. So, have a great weekend and for those in the Tribe, a great Shabbos.

Until next time...

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Spring is sprung (almost) but print media is still frozen

Happy St. Patrick's Day to our Irish friends. To everyone else, welcome to the continuing paper print media funeral.

I've been busy working at the New Haven Independent, one of the forward-looking news media that, one hopes, will be the future of what we now call print journalism.  That and being sick kept me away from my favorite blog. To all of you who checked in from time to time, thanks. I'll try not to stay away so long. And yes, I feel much better. 

This has not been a good month or so for print journalism. You already know the Rocky (Denver's former Rocky Mountain News) has closed, leaving Denver a one-newspaper town. Now, Seattle's P-I, the Post-Intelligencer, has published its last print edition, leaving this great city with but one newspaper and an on-line publication.

I just sent a nasty note to the folks at Helium, which started out as a blogging site, much like the Blogspot that hosts this posting. 

They are soliciting contributions of opinion on various issues from amateurs. The latest was an issue in Fairfield (the solicitation mentioned a Fairfield County Board of Education which, of course, does not exist.) I got back a note, saying they are not displacing journalists, but just asking for opinions from citizens. The Independent has room for opinions at the end of stories. The Independent doesn't need a firm to solicit those opinions. 

The folks at Helium think they are not hurting journalists. They are wrong.

With the goings on at Journal-Register and 48 people taking a buyout at the Hearst newspapers in Connecticut (Bridgeport, Stamford, Greenwich, Danbury and some weeklies). To take a buyout in this market is an act of desperation, brought about by two things.

I write about this from first-person experience, having taken such a buyout from Gannett, couched as an early retirement plan.

First, you take it because you realize that if you don't take the buyout, when the inevitable layoffs come, your name will be first on the hit parade. You realize that the incentives to sweeten the offer are, in all probability, much better than the parting gifts you will get with a real layoff.

Second, you realize that the place for which you are working is not even remotely the place at which you came to work years before. The management has changed, the strategies have changed, the things that were important to you are not important to management.

You signed on to improve your little piece of the world. That's not important to your bosses now. Money is.

The sad thing is you are forced to make the decision yourself. In my case, it was easy. The offer was really good, and the place for which I worked was run by people who did not see the newspaper the way I did. It doesn't make them bad people. Not in my case. 

I had worked for the New Haven Register and the Journal-Courier. They were fine newspapers with dedicated, talented journalists. The New Haven Register still has dedicated, talented writers, editors and photographers. 

I also know some of the people who work for Hearst, especially in Bridgeport. They are talented and dedicated as well. And, I would guess, some of them will be unemployed a month from now.

I wish them all the luck there is. 

Until next time...