Thursday, April 23, 2009

Antitrust hearing looks at diversity

Are antitrust laws killing the newspaper industry? That's the argument media executives from made to congress this week, asking for an exemption to the laws regulating media consolidation, arguing that consolidation is the only way to preserve the industry's falling revenues.

So far, the Justice Department isn't convinced. Carl Shapiro, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Economics at the Justice Department's Antitrust Division told a House panel "We do not believe any new exemptions for newspapers are necessary."

Bernie Lunzer, President of the Newspaper Guild, testified that allowing MediaNews and Hearst to absorb more newspapers into their regional chains may do "do more harm than good" to readers and communities.

The largest concern we have about such a monopoly in Northern California is that an answer to the very real problems that exist in our industry will remain unanswered and that real innovation will be stifled. The two large corporations behind this initiative will only have forestalled their inevitable reckoning. The result will be underserved communities.

Lunzer isn't the only voice challenging the perceived "need" to homogenize content and reduce operations by slashing staff. Many believe that this trend toward consolidation and cost-cutting - which began long before the introduction of the internet - bears at least part of the blame for newspaper's diminished relevance.

Ryan Blethen argues that media conglomerates have been imperfect stewards for newspapers, and increasing their presence won't solve the problem.

The public-ownership model is disintegrating. That is what Congress must understand. We have a chance to put newspapers and professional journalism back in stewardship of smaller entities that care about community.

Lunzer agrees that ownership models, not industry conditions, may be the best solution for the newspaper industry.

If there is to be serious consideration of the problems facing newspapers, Congress needs to look at alternative ownership ideas, like employee stock ownership, non-profit approaches and the new L3C concept. The L3C approach would allow publications to serve a stated social purpose in exchange for the ability to accept non-profit foundation money. Smaller, more committed news operations will be more successful in providing real coverage to communities. Bigger is not better. The current financial crisis is evidence of this.

It boils down to a simple question: Why are newspapers failing? If the answer is simply that archaic print media is no match for the faster, leaner online competition, then consolidation seems to make sense. But that argument overlooks the fact that for most community newspapers, there is no natural online competition. The internet is a boon for economies of scale, where your market is quite literally national, if not global. For most newspapers, this isn't the case. And there are few community-centric online newsgathering operations, and virtually none that operate on the scale of a local newspaper.

In other words, newspapers have stacked the table against themselves by relying on national and international content that puts them squarely at odds with online outlets. Wire news is cheaper - but the competition, as we've seen, is much stiffer. That's a fight most print outlets have been unable to win.

It's true that classified advertising is gone, or severely diminished, and those losses have hurt the industry. And there's no indication that money will ever come back. But the revenue losses from classified advertising alone aren't enough to put most newspapers out of business. Adjusting projections and expectations to more modest goals, and focusing on developing content that's truly relevant will do more to preserve newspaper fortunes than simply drawing more ink out of the same tired well, and running identical pages across several newspapers, in a region that's larger than many states. Readers are smart enough to know when they're not being served, and the earnings sheet reflects their disappointment. More of the same won't change that.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

DN proposal could avert layoffs

MediaNews has informed the Guild that it intends to lay off five newsroom staffers at the Los Angeles Daily news by the end of the week as part of its declared need to reduce Daily News newsroom expenses by 15 percent. As reported yesterday to Guild members, the positions identified by the company include three metro reporters, one photographer and one graphic artist.

The Guild has been discussing a plan with the company that could avert or reduce the planned lay offs by allowing some workers at the Daily News to volunteer for a reduced work week for a period of six months.

While the Guild is opposed to any reduction in force by the company, such a plan may offer an option in lieu of more drastic workforce reductions.

Guild members that opt to take the reduced hours under the proposed plan would retain the same hourly rate of pay and still receive all health benefits afforded to full time employees.

Guild representatives are meeting with the company on Wednesday to further discuss this proposal.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Nonprofit success

Voice of San Diego, the nonprofit online news Web site, has been recognized by Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc., for their Redevelopment Investigations series.

NPR's Alex Cohen calls it one of the "most prestigious national awards" in his her coverage of the award.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Tuesday Roundup

Three plus six equals one

It's been confirmed that April 20 is LANG's D-Day for transferring copy editors of the Daily News, PT and Breeze to the universal copy desk at the San Gabriel Valley Tribune facility in West Covina. Daily Breeze EiC Phillip Sanfield sent out a memo on Monday informing Breeze and former-PT copy editors that Monday April 20, the day following Long Beach Grand Prix coverage, would be their first day in West Covina. Daily News employees report being told the same date.

MediaNews options

Gary Scott has an excellent article on the options available to MediaNews Group in the wake of the foreberance agreement recently negotiated with its lenders and announced last week. This includes a startling prediction by former Los Angeles Daily News editor Ron Kaye that MediaNews will unload all of the LANG papers and be gone from Southern California by mid-summer.

Better late than never

After years of giving away content for free on the Internet and letting online aggregators steal content with few repercussions, it appears that the newspaper industry is finally beginning to see that content costs money to generate and news organizations should be compensated for this work appearing in the digital world.

The AP on Monday announced that while it prefers to work out solutions with websites now using its content without permission, such as Huffington Post, Yahoo and Google, the trade association would resort to legal remedies to either block unpermitted use of AP content or force such users to pay for the content.

“We can no longer stand by and watch others walk off with our work under misguided legal theories,“ AP Chairman and MNG head Dean Singleton said at the AP annual meeting being held in San Diego. "We are mad as hell, and we are not going to take it any more," said Singleton, using the oft-quoted line from mentally deranged and obsolete newsman Howard Beal from the film "Network."

Monday, April 6, 2009

Jody Collins transfers to San Gabe

A member forwarded us the following memo from Press-Telegram executive city editor John Futch:

Jody Collins, who has been a steady beacon on the Press-Telegram city desk, will be joining the consolidated production operation in San Gabriel in a few weeks. Jody has pulled us through so many tough evenings with her great skills and unflappable good humor and we'll miss that. On the other hand, she'll only be a phone call away and will bring her vast knowledge of the Long Beach area to the folks up there.

Good news for Jody is it's a hop, skip and a jump away from home, so the driving time will be shorter, and hopefully the time around Hunter will be a lot longer.

But that doesn't make it easier for us, who enjoy her presence at 300 Oceangate.

Obviously we'll have to rework the city desk editor operation, and this is a work in progress.

The move will happen sometime after the Grand Prix, date TBA. And we'll keep you updated on a proper sendoff.


In a newsroom full of hard-working journalists, Jody stood out for bearing the increasing demands of an ever-shrinking staff with dignity and grace. She was always willing to meet the needs of the newsroom without hesitation. That's the quintessential definition of a professional journalist, and a Jody always did her best to set the standard. We know she'll be an asset to the the Tribune, and we wish her the best of luck.

Jody sent us this message regarding her transfer:

I've really enjoyed the time I've spent working with the amazing, dedicated and talented staff at the Press-Telegram - first at 604 Pine and now at 300 Oceangate.

I've learned so much about the craft of good journalism from you over the past seven years and will miss working together in the same office each day. This place is a family and it will be hard to walk out those doors for good.

I will, however, be able to keep an eye on your work, albeit from a different desk. I will do my best to be an advocate for the Press-Telegram in my next adventure.

Thanks for all that you do to make the P-T interesting and relevant to our readers every day. I'll miss you. I'll be at JCOLLINS on Unisys if you need to find me.


Friday, April 3, 2009

Friday round-up

MediaNews Group has reached a forbearance agreement with its lenders, according to a report in the New York Times. A forbearance agreement is where the debtor and the creditor both acknowledge there is a financial problem and arrange a payment schedule that will allow the debtor to make moves to regain its financial footing. While not specified in the NYT article, it should be noted that forbearance agreements typically include a drop-dead date by which time the debtor must straighten out its finances or face default to the lenders. This could all mean that unless MNG revenues dramatically increase, more "cost cutting" is likely.

The Los Angeles Newspaper Group announced further company-wide cost cutting measures Thursday. The latest move freezes vacation accrual for all non-Guild employees, as well as management, between April 5 and July 4. LANG is also asking these employees to take any vacation time already on the books.
The move does not apply to LANG employees under a Guild contract at the Press-Telegram and the Daily News.
Gary Scott at reporter-g and LA Observed have posted several internal management memos explaining the freeze from the MNG perspective.