Another one bites the dust

Just got reading this story on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer going web-only starting today.

It makes me sad to see any newspaper go under, but it is clear that the P-I was already on life support. It had nearly 170 employees, almost all in the newsroom, because the Seattle Times put out its paper and handled its production.

What’s scary is the new web site promises residents full coverage, but doesn’t mention, as the Times story does, that the number of employees is dropping from 170 to about 25. The rest of the content will be produced by bloggers and stuff produced by other Hearst Corporation products — in other words, other publications that still have full time news gathering employees.

The idea is to have costs that match revenue, and I get that, but if this trend continues to its logical conclusion, one has to ask “who will produce that content that everyone else wants to use?” If everyone gets it from somewhere else, nobody will have anything to give.

There are several blogs in Top of Utah that rely now on bloggers for commentary, but what they usually comment on is the content of the Standard-Examiner and other papers around here.

If we go away, will Weber Forum have someone who goes to every City Council meeting and then spends all of the next day chasing down leads? Oh, sure, they can find someone to go to a meeting or two, and that someone may get angry enough about a particular subject to make a few calls and chase stuff down, but for sustained time spent someone has to be paid because, otherwise, they have to have a job somewhere else. Volunteer efforts like that peter out quickly, I know from sad experience.

The fate of the P-I reminds me of the first paper I worked at, while still in college. In 1970 I did an internship at the Palm Beach Times, an afternoon paper that was published in conjunction with the Palm Beach Post in a joint operating  arrangement very similar to the Seattle papers. We even shared a newsroom, divided by a row of filing cabinets or a small wall, or something, I forget. They did their thing, we did ours.

I’m not sure what happened to the Times, and I sadly say that even after spending 20 minutes pondering the web site of something called the Palm Beach Times but published by someone with a land address in Tallahassee, Florida, way the heck on the other end of the state.

There is no local news, just some national and a lot of celebrety stuff, and the paper seems pretty strongly linked to advertising, mentioning its hotel search service along with its news coverage. So I’m guessing the Times went the way of all flesh and its name got taken over by what now calls itself the Times Media Group.

The Palm Beach Post is still up and running. It was always the big guy anyway, just as the Seattle Times is in Seattle. With luck the P-I’s demise will give the Seattle Times a better shot at survival.

I do not like to think of the alternative. Without newspapers to cover the news, how will people find out what’s going on? Solid investigative reporting, the sort of thing that takes weeks or months, already seems to be a dying art, and the abuses of government are growing as a result. This does not bode well for the future.

So, what should you do? Everyone give your kids a gift subscription to the Standard-Examiner, of course. And tell the kids to read it.

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13 Responses to Another one bites the dust

  1. Curmudgeon says:

    Mr. T:

    You wrote: “There are several blogs in Top of Utah that rely now on bloggers for commentary, but what they usually comment on is the content of the Standard-Examiner and other papers around here. If we go away, will Weber [County] Forum have someone who goes to every City Council meeting and then spends all of the next day chasing down leads? Oh, sure, they can find someone to go to a meeting or two, and that someone may get angry enough about a particular subject to make a few calls and chase stuff down, but for sustained time spent someone has to be paid because, otherwise, they have to have a job somewhere else. Volunteer efforts like that peter out quickly, I know from sad experience.”

    All true. Which is why I think it essential the SE survives as a daily newspaper. And why I subscribe, and urge others to. Often But your post assumes, or seems to, that something like WCF is being touted as an alternative to the SE. I think that’s wrong. It, and other community blogs like it, serve, if they work well, as supplements to papers like the SE, not substitutes [with occasional exceptions].

    One of the main purposes of a home town paper is to foster, encourage, enable, even provoke, discussion among its readers and other residents about local public affairs. It’s something you do, or try to, often in your column. When a blog like WCF takes an SE story as a means of generating discussion about some public issue, I think the SE’s editors should look upon that as a good thing. It’s extending the range of the public discussion the SE story enabled. It’s assisting the SE in fulfilling one of the most important functions of municipal dallies. And it points non-subscribers to your story on the paper’s on line site.

    A second function local community blogs have is providing a venue for press criticism. This too can be beneficial to both the paper and the community. The SE’s opening up on line opportunities for press criticism is relatively new and may start shifting the location of some of it now. But until the SE opened its new web blogs, places like the WCF were the only real options for quick and extended public discussion of what the SE — our only home town news source — was doing poorly, and doing well. It provided a venue for discussion, pro and con, about particular stories, paper policies and about what the paper was not doing that some thought it should be doing. This too is I think a good thing. And no, letters to the editor [chosen for publication at an editor's discretion] are not a sufficient alternative. Again, I’d think the editors would welcome an on-going public discussion of how well the paper is doing. They should.

    Finally, community blogs can occasionally break news or dig some out that the local paper has either not unearthed, or has chosen not to print. It was Dan S. who via a GRAMA request, dug out the emails exposing the administration’s attempts to use UTA grant funds to pay for a gondola feasibility study, and the story went up on WCF. Then SE then picked up on the story. And the WCF recently put up a column by Dan S. [which the SE refused to print; it was offered to the paper as an op ed piece first] regarding Envision Ogden’s involvement in the last municipal election. The blog provided an alternative way to get out there, so to speak, a story the SE refused to cover during the election, and refused to include even as an op ed piece by a reader, more recently.

    You’re absolutely right, I think, that community based blogs like WCF are not and cannot be substitutes for daily papers like the SE. But they can serve as useful supplements to a paper like the SE, in the ways discussed above.

  2. Charles Trentelman says:

    I agree with you pretty well completely — what bugs me is that many people say “Well, the Weber County Forum had this, why didn’t you? Guess I’ll get my news there now!” — it’s not that hard to scoop a newspaper these days, given staffing levels and so on — we can’t be everywhere all the time.

    What’s even more scary is the people who think that all they news they need is on the internet — they don’t know what it is they don’t know.
    You can help — tell yur students that a subscription to the paper is a class requirement — not those freebies on campus, they have to subscribe — they’re reading local history in the making./

  3. Rudi says:

    I’m in 100% agreement with you and Curm, Charlie.

    Weber County Forum has never claimed to be a replacement for paid print journalism:

    Anther one bites the dust

  4. dan s. says:

    Whether we like it or not (and I certainly don’t), newspapers are in a downward spiral. As ad revenue declines, newspapers cut staff, lower their hiring standards, and shy away from any topic that might offend advertisers. Their content decreases and becomes less relevant, so they lose readers and ad revenue drops even more.

    I have no idea how to stop this process. But if the Standard-Examiner wants to slow it down, how about cooperating with the folks who are trying to help out by digging up information you otherwise would have missed? Instead, you seem to shun any news gathering by amateurs. In fact, I get the impression that if I want the Standard-Examiner to cover a story, I’m better off not trying to help.

  5. Charles Trentelman says:

    I wish the impending demise of newspapers were that simple, Dan.

    Actually, a lot of newspapers are still making money if you consider only their revenue and immediate overhead, such as wages, production costs and stuff like that.

    If those were the only costs involved, a lot more newspapers would be able to weather these hard times. We’d lose a few, sure, but that’s life. If all you have to do is adjust outgo to match income, you can beat hard times.

    Problem is, during the boom-boom years way back in ancient history of 2002=2006, a lot of newspapers were bought up by conglomerates who saddled them with debt to pay for the papers they just bought, and then tried to structure the papers to pay off that debt. Those structures were designed according to the finances of the day.

    Sadly, financies are now a lot different, and suddenly even papers making money aren’t making enough money to pay fixed debt payments that can’t be reduced, which is causing all the grim talk.

    The Standard-Examiner was in precisely this position16 years ago until it was bought by its current owners , those so severely lambasted in the Weber Forum today. Several years before that, the Hatch family bought controlling interest in the paper from the Glasmann family, which had owned 51 percent. The Hatches wanted the whole 100 percent and paid top dollar — $65 million is the figure I’ve heard.

    The economy went down right after that, national advertising withered, and suddenly the S-E, which was a very money making proposition, supporting Channel 2 and who knows what else in the hatch empire, suddenly had a severe cash flow problem. The Hatches were forced to sell and here we are. Considering that we probably would have folded if the Sandusky folk hadn’t bought us up, I’m glad they did. We had wage freezes and furloughs for two years running before the sale.

    So, yeah, newspapers are a struggling medium, but their struggle has been catalyzed by the finance industries inability to realize that values of homes, among other things, don’t always go up.

  6. dan s. says:

    Charlie,

    First of all, I don’t speak for Weber County Forum. While others on the Forum may have expressed opinions about the Standard’s current owners, I never have.

    The financial complications you describe are obviously important for some papers, over the short term. I’m not convinced that they’re important for the industry as a whole over the long term.

    Anyhow, I’d be interested to see your response to the rest of my comment, and to this related comment from Carl H. on Weber County Forum: “One of the major obstacles for the print media jourmalist is that they’ll always belive [sic] they should own the monopoly and should continue to be the information gatekeepers…” Well? Are you willing to share your gatekeeper role with the amateurs, or are you intent on being a monopoly?

  7. ctrentelman says:

    You’re kidding, right?

    A monopoly?

    OK, go back to the top and read my first post again. Go on, the rest of us will wait.

    (um…te-tum………………………………………..te tum ………………….)

    OK, done? Got it?

    For whatever reason you want, newspapers are FAILING! They are increasingly being replaced, for good or ill, in people’s minds by the INTERNET. By BLOGGERS. By WEB SITES. By freaking TWITTER.

    And, frankly, we are scrambling like hell to maintain a modicum of market share so we can attract enough advertisers to our print and web sites, to pay the light bill, my outrageous salary, and the cost of newsprint, which really is outrageous. This hardly defines a monopoly. Feels more like a sick moose being attacked by wild dogs, you want my opinion.

    More seriously — you seem to have a basic misunderstanding of how we work. You seem to be a bit dichotomous (am I married to a social worker or what?) in your thinking on this. While your comments really ought to be addressed by the National Society of Newspaper Editors, I shall try.

    I am freely happy to admit that there are times when someone posts something to a blog we at the paper don’t know about. I think early discussion of the out-of-bounds skiing guiding thing at Snowbasin may even be an example. Someone noticed the chatter of rumors, or something, and the boss said \Hey, Charlie, check this out.\

    So I did. As I recall I even mentioned the forum chatter.

    So why don’t we do that all the time? Because you guys are not the only \amateur\ journalists in the crowd. I get daily emails from people who have uncovered the latest, greatest scandal of the universe and want to know why we don’t print it, exactly as they wrote it. Some are local, some are national, some are easily solved with a phone call, some are beyond the realm of wizards.

    Like the guy who wanted to know why I didn’t do a column/story on how Mexico, Canada and the US were going to unite as one nation with UN troops patrolling the streets. The new currency is being minted right now in Colorado.

    Yeah, I know, I’m part of the conspiracy. I’m keeping it secret that Obama was really born in Kenya, too. Keep it under your hat. The trilateral commission has ears everywhere.

    But that’s extreme and easily dismissed.

    Lots more shows up, much of it legit, or at least seemingly legit. Some is worth checking, some is not, and it all has to compete with everything else we have to do.

    And that’s fine. Triage is part of what we do.

    What frustrates us is when someone comes in with \news\ that is obviously opinion, with an axe to grind, but to them it is \truth\ as in TRUTH or maybe even T*R*U*T*H!!!

    I\m not saying this is the stuff that shows up on WCF, by the way. I’m just saying.

    My best example of this was when I was covering the Weber County governmental change debate a decade ago. I had, on two successive days, no kidding, very angry/frustrated calls from the leaders of both sides of that debate seriously asking why I was writing stories that were so screamingly obviously favoring, if not actually in bed with, the other side.

    They were really pissed, all of them. I’ve never felt so uniformly hated. It was kinda fun.

    Do we outright dismiss news tips from anywhere? Heck, no. We get, and act on, them every day. If we don’t act on your news tip, does that mean you are wrong?

    Not necessarily. Maybe its something you see as a great wrong that we simply don’t. It may be something about which you are technically correct, in a narrow sense, but the offense is not egregious enough for us to make a big deal about. More than once I’ve gotten halfway into checking something like that out and said to myself \Ya know, I don’t really care about this.\

    If I don’t, it is a safe bet the readers won’t.

    We’ve got to be careful because, yes, in one way we do insist on being gatekeepers of what we print for one very good reason: It is my name that goes on my story and it is my butt that gets sued if that story is wrong.

    Not yours. Mine.

    For that reason I do my best to make sure that every story or column I do can be defended, in court, without the aid of a so-called amateur reporter who let me know the tip.

    And, yes, I have failed to do this on occasion, and I have paid. It sucks. I learned.

    The paper’s been burned by this sort of thing before. I wasn’t part of the team that did the story, but back in pre-history of the 1980s the S-E and Channel 2 did a joint expose on contractor cheating at Thiokol.

    I forget the details, but Channel 2 had a reporter who was all hep about it, he had a source who was a disgruntled employee who had been fired for exposing contractor abuse, and we joined in because we were trying to be part of the Hatch Media Empire gang, or something. This was a time we even had a TV camera broadcasting from our newsroom. So we went with it.

    Bad move. Turned out the guy who was the source, who had been fired for allegedly fighting this corruption, forgot to tell us that he was really fired for sleeping on the job.

    \But me being able to sleep on the job proves how sloppy they were!\ he screamed.

    Did us no good. We had egg on our face, and a very poor relationship with a major employer in our circulation area, for a very long time, and it really sucked that they were right to be angry.

    Do we dislike amateur journalists? Heck no. Call any time. Chat. We’ll listen, we’ll act as we can.

    But we write the stories. It’s our newspaper but, more important, it’s out butt.

  8. Curmudgeon says:

    Mr. T:

    Seems to me the reason people occasionally get annoyed when the SE refuses to follow up a story, or print an op ed piece that offers documentary support for what it claims, is precisely because the SE, as a daily, has the kind of credibility and wider access that a blog posting in most instances does not. It’s precisely because people understand the importance of what the SE prints that they complain when it appears to ignore significant stories.

    And certainly no responsible person would argue that the SE should print un-sourced stories or stories it had not checked out. [In fact, part of what occasionally annoys me about the SE's reporting is the paper's willingness to accept and print unchecked statements by elected officials. I'd argue that fact checking the claims of elected officials speaking in their capacity as elected officials is, or ought to be, one of the jobs reporerts should do as a matter of course. Too often, they seem not to.]

    Of course the SE should not print as news the latest paranoia -du-jour from where ever it comes. But neither should it, as your post above comes close at times to doing, broadly dismiss over-the-transom submissions as off-the-wall and not to be taken seriously. If you read blogs much [left or right] — or even read the SE’s comments postings — it becomes pretty clear pretty fast that you have to sift and winnow, to be able to separate the credible and reasonable from the ranting chaff.

    One more point. You wrote: “If I don’t [think it's interesting] , it is a safe bet the readers won’t.” With all due respect to your experience in the business, and your [I think] admirable nose for news, Mr. T., that statement has a faint whiff of arrogance about it. Those who work within any large institution, if it becomes isolated enough, can become insular and lose touch with what “the public” thinks about what it’s doing, can begin to think their own insular judgment about what the public ought to find interesting is an infallible guide to what the public will find interesting. Talk to the launchers of “New Coke” about how that works. This happens more than I like to think about in University administrations for example. [Note: that comment is based on nearly 48 years of experience at universities and colleges in five states. It i should not be read as a comment on WSU's current administration. It was not intended as such.]

    Blogs provide a way, only one, but a way none the less and I think a very useful one, for those who edit papers, who make news decisions, to get some outside feed back, quickly and from a reasonably broad range of readers, about the decisions they’ve made about what to cover and what not to cover.

  9. dan s. says:

    Wow. I see I struck a nerve. Nice rant, Charlie.

    I really appreciate being compared to U.N. conspiracy theorists. Thanks.

    Curm is right: Even if the trend doesn’t look good, for the time being the Standard-Examiner has a near monopoly as a credible and widely read source of Top-o-Utah news.

    Use this power wisely.

  10. ctrentelman says:

    there’s that near monopoly thing again. I guess I should be flattered. But, like Peter Parker, I will try to use this power for good.

    Can’t speak for Tim Gurrister, though.

  11. Curmudgeon says:

    Mr. T:

    Well, the SE does have a “near monopoly as a credible widely read source for Top O Utah news.” Note the emphasis on “credible” and “widely read.” One of the weaknesses of [and strengths of] community blogs is that most anybody can post most anything [within some very broad limits]. Look at your own paper’s comments postings for examples of how that works. Consequently, blog postings do not carry the kind of credibility something the SE publishes as news. Not by a long shot. However weak the paper industry may be, “I read it in the paper” still carries a lot more weight than “I read it on a blog.”.

    And Ogden lives in the news shadow of Salt Lake City with respect to broadcast media. Ogden news is thin on the ground out of the SL TV news programs, and when Ogden does appear on them, it’s usually because we’ve had the shockingest crime or the goriest car wreck for that news cycle, or the most spectacular fire. As Dan said, as far as highly credible widely read [or seen] news sources for Ogden go, you guys are it. Blogs can do something useful around the edges, true, but cannot come close to the SE as a “credible widely read” news source. Which, again, is why the SE refusing to cover or even look into seriously the Envision Ogden story for example, and its refusing to print an op-ed piece [so it wouldn't be your butts on the line], sourced from public documents, is for some of your readers —- I’d say many of your readers — a serious matter.

    I’m beginning to think I think more highly of your profession and your paper and its importance than you do.

  12. dan s. says:

    Not only does the S-E have a near monopoly as a credible and widely read source of Top-o-Utah news–I see that Blogging the Rambler has a near monopoly on comment posts on the S-E website. Congratulations, Charlie!

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