Thursday, October 13, 2005

RIP, N-S.

Everyone who works for an afternoon daily knows it's doomed. Hell, everyone who works for a newspaper knows it's doomed, or at least bound for the sort of profound change that will make it so different you can't even remember why you chose journalism for a career.

Honestly, when I left The News-Sentinel early this year, I figured the place had, at the very outside, five years left. My last six months as a copy editor there were instructive -- and, demotion and all, I can't say I'd trade them. After the Fellowship, I needed a place to hunker down and think for a while. And there was the paper's death spiral to consider, too; remember the scene in "Citizen Kane" when Susan Alexander has her opera debut? She's awful, and the camera does that long, long tilt up to the stagehands in the rafters, who look at one another, and one holds his nose? I think: Would I rather be onstage, singing with Susan Alexander, or that stagehand?

That was the gift of the copy desk. You got to be backstage at a bad opera.

Anyway, when the paper finally folded, I figured I'd come back to the Fort, and I and my ex-colleagues would go next door to Henry's, and we'd close the place down, cry, tell stories and spend a good chunk of everybody's severance. (I would buy many rounds, to support the troops.) In other words, we'd have a goddamn proper newspaper wake. Any newspaper deserves a wake, and we would have that Pulitzer Prize ('83, local general or spot news reporting) to toast one last time.

Today, however, it looks like the last men and women standing won't get even that:

Several staff members at the News-Sentinel said a plan has been discussed to turn the 172-year-old afternoon newspaper into a predominately online publication. However, the paper's publisher and editor deny such a plan exists.

In addition to writing short stories for the Internet, reporters would be equipped with video cameras so video images could accompany the online articles, they said.

Under the plan, they added, the News-Sentinel would continue to put out some non-daily print publications that could include longer, project stories and a Neighbors section, which includes honor rolls, club news and other community items. Austin said such a plan does not exist.

"I have meetings with my employees, but it has never been discussed," Austin said. "There is no such plan. There has never been such a plan."

Huh. So instead of shutting it down proper-like, they're just going to squeeze it to death, until the last man standing is too tired and demoralized to go next door and lift a glass.

And what a crafty strategy! I deliver a hat tip to its Rovian genius. Everybody knows the future of the newspaper is online. Why not make a clumsy stab at doing it badly and then, when it fails, you can blame the staff! "YOU just weren't down with the program, which is, after all, the FUTURE," the brass can say. It's the Harriet Miers nomination in newsprint.

But maybe they wouldn't do it badly. Maybe they'd do what such a radical transition would need -- a ground-up redesign of the site, intense staff training in new ways to tell stories and how to use the web's possibilities, a virtual nuking of departmental walls and a reimagination of the product that really seeks to push the limits of what is possible. In other words, do more than give reporters video cameras and lay a whip to their backs.

Then I remember what it took to get the carpet cleaned in that place. How grudgingly every penny was spent, how ruthlessly the budget was hacked, and I figure: No.

Anyway, there is no plan. And there has never been such a plan.

Oy.

My sincere sympathies to all. You don't deserve it.

Posted on October 13, 2005 09:36 PM
Comments

Tim Bayliss: I have a plan.
Frank Pembleton: A plan?
Tim: Yeah. A very clever plan.
Frank: Bayliss has a clever plan.
Tim: Do you have a plan, Frank?
Frank: I admit it. I have no plan.

Posted by: ashley at October 13, 2005 09:51 PM

"Predominately." As a description of its prospects it seems somehow, poetically, fitting. Quite in keeping with what gets past the copy desk these days sans Nance and for that matter quite a few other sharp-eyed people from the past who genuinely cared about the quality of the product.

I won't mourn its loss; I'm grieving for what it once was under Helene Foellinger, the pre-Knight-Ridder owner, who's probably rolling in her grave. (I imagine she'd also be royally pissed at what's happened to the Foellinger Foundation which under the stewardship of its current board of directors has taken on a different charitable purpose than that which was originally intended by the great benefactress.)

There's still room in this town for two papers. Two good ones, that is. One couldn't have orchestrated a subterfuge more lethal to the News-Sentinel than what passes for management there these days. One of the things I used to take pride in was the fact a town this size could support two robust dailies. I believe it still can. And if there's a venture capitalist out there who'd give me free reign, I'd love to have at it.

The recipe is really quite simple. Produce that which you'd want to read yourself.

Posted by: alex at October 13, 2005 09:59 PM

No comment, just:

http://www.startribune.com/stories/535/5661998.html

Posted by: Jeff at October 14, 2005 07:09 AM

The #1 daily in our town has slowly, grudgingly developed a website for its content.

The only way you can access it - by having a full subscription to the print version.

TPTB simply cannot conceive there are readers who may want just one format or the other. And of course the website is just a basic cut-and-paste of the print stories, for there is no point in exploiting the potential of an interactive media that's probably just a fad anyway...

Posted by: Randy at October 14, 2005 09:52 AM

i see i was not alone when i skidded off the road at "predominately."
distinct pattern to the video camera plan: arm disrespected, demoralized workers with (obsolete) equipment, the P.O. for which likely equals two reporter salaries, and probably purchased off the back of a truck somewhere. {{aside: videography is its own discipline and requires training (home movies, anyone?).}} in two years in San Jose, nobody remembers whose bad idea it was. the so-90s MBO concept falls flat in the goldrush for fatty-fat margins and plumped up share prices. welcome to the Montgomery Burns school of newspaper management.

Posted by: joodyb at October 14, 2005 11:21 AM

As somewhat of an expert an closing newspapers of all shapes and size, the claim that "nothing important is going to change" rings false. Thanks, Nancy, for lending your talents to this discussion.

Posted by: Craig Ladwig at October 14, 2005 12:16 PM

Leo Morris says you're bitter and should know better...

http://blogs.fortwayne.com/opening_arguments/2005/10/on_the_shoddy_s.html#comments

Posted by: Jamie at October 14, 2005 01:42 PM

Yes, I saw that. Leo's position is a bit indefensible, isn't it? Either his bosses are liars or his colleagues are. To believe him, you have to believe the (yes, yes, anonymous, I know) staffers quoted in the original story are fabulists of the first order. Either that, or stupid -- unable to tell a "brainstorming session" from a glimpse of the grim, dark future.

When trying to determine which witness is being, er, less than forthcoming, detectives look at motive. That's what I'm doing.

But I wanted to respond to Craig's point (hi, Craig; it's been a while), which he's making elsewhere today: That newspapers are failing because they've lost the public's trust. This is a rather gross oversimplification, and a favorite of the right wing, where Craig resides. I may be biased -- because as a godless heathen liberal of the first order, newspapers are written by my people -- but I think the biggest reason is the most obvious one:

THERE'S NOTHING TO READ IN THE GODDAMN THINGS ANYMORE.

I take two daily newspapers at home -- the NYT and the WSJ. This is like ordering two Denny's Grand Slam breakfasts, plus a double side of bacon. Yes, they're imperfect. Yes, they're frequently infuriating. Yes, the editorial pages (of both, Craig! of both!) drive me insane. And yet I continue to read. Because there's content there. Because they don't seem to be edited with the idea that their readers are morons. I have all those reactions I mentioned above, but never this one: Boredom.

I started getting both these papers when I lived in Fort Wayne, and the thin gruel of the dailies there was simply too much to bear. I got my local news, sure, but rarely in a way that surprised, delighted or made me think of an issue in a new way. There were standout reporters at both papers, and I looked for their bylines. But they weren't enough to sustain interest in either paper for longer than it took to slurp down half a glass of orange juice.

When my paper sent a team to Afghanistan last fall, a trip more promo'd than an exclusive interview with God Himself, I looked every day for the Clock Graphic, which ran repeatedly with the story packages. The Clock Graphic told readers that it was actually 13 hours later in Afghanistan. There was also the How We Got There Graphic, which told me that the reporter-photographer flew on an airplane first to Chicago, then to London, then to Dubai, and on to Kabul from there. As though without it, readers might think they teleported there, or perhaps went overland by mule train. This, also, ran several times.

But my paper is hardly alone. I look at lots of local dailies below the respected-regional level, and I see the same stories over and over again: Someone Who Died But Left a Legacy of Love. A Plucky Athlete Struggles Back From a Career-Changing Injury. And, of course, the deadly Smart Parenting story -- How to Balance Work and Family.

It wasn't always like this. I remember some great stories in the Fort Wayne papers. My friend Ron did a wonderful feature on a grade-school troublemaker who, when he was finally given some attention, turned out to have an IQ well into the genius range. His folks were blue-collar working class and had no idea how to keep their son intellectually stimulated. The story was on how everybody was working it out. It was a fabulous read. It would have been right at home in the Washington Post Style section.

But it wasn't useful! It didn't have utility! It didn't have a million boxes (what is IQ? how is it measured?) and sidebars (so you think YOUR kid's a genius, too -- here's where to get help!) and "useful takeaways," which consultants are always telling editors readers want. It was just a good story, well-told.

I remember Alan laboring mightily, as an editor, to polish up another great tale, about Filipino war brides in Fort Wayne, women who married American GIs and came here as young women, lonely and isolated. One by one, they found each other, and started playing mah-jongg together every week, lunch parties where they'd cook their native dishes and feel at home for a little while. It was a sweet little slice-of-life piece, and it made you feel happy and sad all at once.

You know what the upper-management-level criticism of it was? "It could have used a sidebar on how to play mah-jongg." I'm not kidding.

So anyway, Craig, think what you will about why people are letting their subscriptions lapse. Maybe they do mistrust the corporate owner and the circuit-riding management. But I think what happens is, one day they look at all the papers sitting by the front door, still rolled up in their wrappers, and they think, "Why pay good money for this?"

Posted by: Nance at October 14, 2005 02:31 PM

Kudos, Nancy. You're right on the money about newspapers. And it goes double for local TV news which I know you have previously dissed.

Posted by: Cynthia at October 14, 2005 03:13 PM

Some days I think that if there's a way out of this mess, what I'm doing might be part of it. And some days, I think I merely have managed to wangle a seat on the highest point of the Titanic. The question wouldn't bother me so much if, like, the future of the country wasn't at stake.

Posted by: Lex at October 14, 2005 04:00 PM

Well, the N-S story depressed me yesterday - and I followed the link above and was taken aback by these bits from Morris:

"Nancy Nall, a former staffer who did some great work here but is bitter about her last few years, lets that bitterness get the better of her and jumps in when she should know better."

As a long time reader/fan of hers, I didn’t detect any “bitterness” in Nance’s N-S piece; it struck me as more of a melancholy rumination than a spiteful screed. Mr Morris’s cavalier imputation of spite and bitterness as Nancy’s motivation – after taking to task other people (such as Mitch Harper!) for “wild speculation” struck me as flatly ridiculous. (or was it actually his considered opinion? Still ridiculous, but all the more surprising, from him)

And then he goes on –

“If she really does care about the paper and the people who still work there, she shouldn't speed along the demise by helping spread rumors disguised as real in4mation."

I honestly cannot determine what his meaning is here. If “the plan” doesn’t exist, then one cannot by any means ‘speed it along’. And anyway – that rumors exist in the first place is in itself ‘real in4mation’. Readers of this ‘real in4mation’ are always free to believe or disbelieve it – regardless whether it has the Morris’ imprimatur of “real in4mation”.

All that said – I confess that I am an apostatic N-S subscriber. Worse, the J-G (clearly the inferior paper) has me! – or at least they have me 43% of the time. See – Nance is right – the sight of 3 or 4 rolled up newspapers each week is a deal breaker. But the J-G lets me subscribe Sunday only – and they throw in the Friday and Saturday paper, too; so I get the paper 3 days a week, and when I have the time and inclination to read it.


Posted by: brian stouder at October 14, 2005 04:12 PM

Jeez, read Romenesko yesterday and was shocked -- for a moment -- at what the old Snooze-Central may about become. I left in '91, you could read the writing on the wall back then. RIFs they were called, reductions in force. Older reporters were being squeezed out to make room for page designers. Glad I got out while I could. Still remember the glory days fondly when the reporting staff (including Nancy and her Telling Tales) was one of the best I'd ever worked with. We worked hard, played harder and the city was all the better for it. Sad to say, I read the paper online now from time to time and it just seems a shadow of its former self. Nancy, if you're hosting that newspaper wake at Henry's let me know. I'll hop a flight from Japan.

Remember what Paul Sann, former executive of the New York Post, once said: "No matter what happens, newspapers will always break your fucking heart."


Posted by: David at October 15, 2005 04:26 AM

When I heard a radio talk show host say that the average age of a newspaper reader is now 55 years old, I knew it was only a matter of time. Then, three days later, speculation about the N-S and the 'net. What I want to know is how I got to be the same age as the average newspaper reader and if most are like me, started reading it at about 8 years old and been reading it daily every since, regardless of quality, I've got to read it.

Posted by: Dave at October 15, 2005 10:23 AM

My only question is this: Why is anybody surprised? It's just another example of Fort Wayne going down the tubes.

Wasn't it just this year that another news standard -- Channel 33 -- was bought by a competitor and shut down as a local news service? This after taking a well-known entity -- WKJG -- and renaming WISE (a curious selection, given the wisdom of the decision.)

I grew up in Fort Wayne and, while I thought it was a backwater place at the time, it really was a wonderful city. I was a paper carrier for The News-Sentinel from about the 7th grade through my sophomore year in high school. I was educated in Fort Wayne Community Schools. Remember field trips to Eckrich and Seyfert Potato Chips? Where are they today -- gone with the wind that swept away International Harvester and much of the city's manufacturing base.

The viability of afternoon papers (once called the evening paper) has been questionable for the last 30 years, at least. Television took its toll on them years ago and it was only through joint operating agreements that most were able to survive. I wrote for several small-town newspapers in northern Indiana during the 1980s and 1990s, but they were essentially "niche" publications that survived on loyal advertisers and local subscribers.

Now, the Internet is challenging the entire concept of the printed newspaper. Remember "The Jetsons" -- George sitting down with his cup of coffee at the big TV screen to read the morning headlines? We may be there. And television news is being affected by this change, as well.

The News-Sentinel was a great newspaper because of the determination and commitment of a great lady, Helene Foellinger. As with many other enterprises, once she died, the institution lost its vision -- and its heart.

When The News-Sentinel folds -- and it will -- I will mourn it. But I will mourn it not as a needless death, but as the timely passing of an old friend who lived a great life.

Posted by: Jim Billings at October 20, 2005 10:21 AM

Hi Nancy!
Speaking of great N-S memories and stories, go back to July 23, 1986. If you have access to the archives you'll understand the humor in this comment: "...I looked out my window and there were a bunch of midgets setting up a circus tent in my backyard!...", or something to that effect.

LONG LIVE THE TOBY TYLER CIRCUS!

Posted by: Pete Battistini at October 24, 2005 05:55 PM
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