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April 19 2012

14:26

Narrative gold: Eli Sanders and his Pulitzer-winning crime saga

“The prosecutor wanted to know about window coverings. He asked: Which windows in the house on South Rose Street, the house where you woke up to him standing over you with a knife that night – which windows had curtains that blocked out the rest of the world and which did not?”

So begins Eli Sanders’ story “The Bravest Woman in Seattle,” which this week won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. The category usually offers up an unforgettable narrative and this year gave us a story – and an exciting writer – that we otherwise might have missed.

Sanders’ elegantly tense portrayal of a home invasion, double rape and murder appeared last June in The Stranger, a Seattle weekly, but Sanders’ coverage of suspect Isaiah Kalebu started long before that. In “The Mind of Kalebu,” which ran in the fall of 2009, Sanders examined loopholes in the criminal justice system’s treatment of mentally unstable suspects. His reporting ultimately led us into the courtroom, as murder victim Teresa Butz’s partner testified:

The attacks became more sadistic. Things began to happen that were beyond the worst imagining of Butz’s partner. She felt like she was going to be ripped in half. She thought: “He’s not going to kill me with a knife, but he’s going to kill me this way.”

Then she heard Butz say: “Why are you cutting me? Why are you cutting me?”

The man said to Butz: “Shut up, or I’m going to kill your girlfriend.”

He took the women into another room in the house, where he pulled another knife out of a pair of jeans he’d left on a guest bed.

The story he had been telling them, the story Butz’s partner had been telling her- self, the story that he just wanted sex and was not going to hurt them, now completely shattered. “In that moment I just knew he was going to kill us,” Butz’s partner told the court. “I just knew. There was something different in his gaze. There was this kind of looking. I didn’t feel fear from him, I didn’t feel anger from him, I just felt this nothing.”

We asked four Pulitzer winners, a Pulitzer judge and a legendary contributor to the craft of narrative journalism what they thought made the story special. Here’s what they said:

I’ve never read a court story like “The Bravest Woman in Seattle” – never in 28 years of journalism. I don’t know that anyone has read a trial story containing such painstaking detail and emotion; containing so many elements of the human instinct to survive in the face of the near inevitability of death.

“The Bravest Woman in Seattle” has all the elements of a work of fiction until the reader quickly reaches the chilling realization that this case was real. This was not some made-up crime novel. The people who were the subjects of this story, the heroes of it, too, were human beings, though savagely treated.

The power of this story is in the incredible writing, which made me care deeply for two women who were strangers to me, who were living normal lives before a knife-wielding man sexually assaulted and tormented them. “The Bravest Woman in Seattle” leaves readers clinging to hope that all ends well. The readers pray for the victims’ survival and that the bad guy gets caught. It is a challenge of human will to stay with this story. There is the temptation to leave for fear it will rip at your own emotions. Once the mind wraps itself around the facts in the case (although it is impossible to comprehend how one human could be so cruel to another), the reader is left to draw her own conclusions about whether the convicted man got what he deserved.

Ronnie Agnew is a four-time Pulitzer Prize judge and sat on this year’s feature writing jury. He is the executive director of Mississippi Public Broadcasting and the former executive editor of The Clarion-Ledger, in Jackson, Miss. He has worked as a reporter and editor in Ohio, Alabama and Mississippi.

***

As the Pulitzer board noted this week, Eli Sanders’ “The Bravest Woman in Seattle” is “a haunting story of a woman who survived a brutal attack that took the life of her partner.” It is also the story of the woman telling that story: The citation commends Sanders’ use of her courtroom testimony to “construct a moving narrative.”

But it is also the story of Sanders, a reporter, responding to the woman’s telling of that haunting story. And that extra level of narrative, I think, is the source of the story’s riveting power.

Sanders calls the survivor “the bravest woman in Seattle.’’ Maybe that is true. But what matters is that we feel the rawness of his admiration for her courage, and of his rage on her behalf. It takes journalistic bravery to expose yourself, as well as your subject, to the reader. And it takes a rare skill to do it, as Sanders does, almost entirely with telling details, structure and intensity of tone. Seeking to transport us into the head of the woman whose story he is telling, Sanders places us at the same time into his own. He quotes her as well as her thoughts, channeling her with an authority born of his observation, of his participation as a reporter covering the emotionally charged event: “I am not scared,’’ he imagines her thinking. “I have nothing to hide here. Not anymore. Not for something as important as this, the opportunity to put him away.’’

You risk credibility when you do this, even in a story where no one can fault you for sympathizing with the woman on the stand. Maybe especially in a story like this, reporters bend over backward to be fair, to maintain a safe distance. But Sanders’ understated honesty makes us trust him. The reporter next to him cried, he says. “I cried.’’

How much of the graphic information about the rapes and murder, we hear Sanders wondering, about his role in this drama, is right to include? “Some of her testimony from this day is not going to be recounted in this story,’’ he decides.

One of my favorite passages comes when Sanders observes the mother of Teresa Butz, the partner who was murdered:

She is a small woman, just like her daughter. If this woman can absorb, at the level of detail required for proof before a jury, the particulars of what happened to her daughter – can view the bloody crime scene photographs, can listen to the 911 call from a neighbor leaning over her blood-soaked daughter and screaming, “Ma’am, please wake up! Please wake up!” (while, to the 911 operator pleading, “Please hurry, please hurry”), can hear the testimony about DNA evidence and what orifices it was recovered from – then no one else in this courtroom can dare turn away.

Here, Sanders transports us to all three levels of the story at once. We are in the moment of the attack, we are listening to the horrifying details unfold in the courtroom, and we are in Sanders’ own head, flinching from those details yet increasingly convinced that there is a moral imperative in relaying them.

Amy Harmon is a two-time Pulitzer winner and a New York Times national correspondent who covers the impact of science and technology on American life. Her series “The DNA Age” won the 2008 Pulitzer for explanatory reporting, and in 2001 she shared the prize for national reporting, for the series “How Race Is Lived in America.”

***

“Maybe he could use that love against them.”

In Eli Sanders’ searing narrative about the rapes of two women and the murder of one of them, that single sentence reveals the writer’s mastery of his subject. In the midst of all the horror, we are reminded of the victims’ love for one another and experience an excruciating clash of emotions.

With his command of pace, rhythm, vivid description and multiple perspectives, Sanders switches between courtroom and crime, and from the victims’ point of view to the narrator’s, always taking care to be honest without being sensational.

The tension in the story comes as much from what is not said as what is. Instead of detailing every grim act, we get the reactions to the survivor’s descriptions of those acts – from the bailiff, the court reporter, the prosecutor, even another reporter. By the end, we are reminded that violence is not ordinary, nor are the victims of violence.

If ever a story was three-dimensional, “The Bravest Woman in Seattle” is it. The story lives not only in time and space, but in consciousness. A testament to its power and truthfulness is that the survivor, who asked not to be named by Sanders, was moved to identify herself after the story’s publication.

Amy Ellis Nutt won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2011 for “The Wreck of the Lady Mary,” and was a finalist in 2008 for “The Accidental Artist.” A reporter at the Newark Star-Ledger, she’s also an adjunct professor in the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard.

***

The writing is rhythmic, concise. Every sentence does what it should in narrative: reveals more about character or moves the action forward. And while the details are beyond grisly, Sanders frames them in a way that forces – obligates – readers to withstand them.

Raquel Rutledge won the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting in 2010 for her Milwaukee Journal Sentinel series “Cashing in on Kids.” An investigative reporter on the Watchdog Team, she is a Nieman Fellow at Harvard.

***

Sometimes details are nitroglycerin. As a kid, I knew about nitroglycerin only from Road Runner cartoons – this stuff is incredibly explosive yet there was always plenty of it, and the characters always seemed destined to drop it. Back then, I didn’t know that in tiny doses, in heart medication, it can save a life. As reporters entrusted with powerful details, we sometimes wind up like the coyote trying desperately to cradle them before the ground falls away.

Not here. I was continually impressed with the way Sanders blended the horrific details with a strong instinct for story and, most importantly, care. It’s a crucial combination, as I think he sets this up as more of a campfire story than a courtroom story. He starts off with a scene, then tells us that he’s going to tell us a story. He actually allows us a chance to smile. He lets Teresa Butz’s partner lay the foundation for how honest this story is going to be. He foreshadows some of it, knowing that won’t make it easier when we get there, but at least we know to prepare. Then he tells us we’ve seen enough. Then he immerses us again.

The scenes in this story will join so many others in the feature writing category that haunt and teach through searing detail and restraint, among them one particular child in a car in Gene Weingarten’s “Fatal Distraction,” a little girl’s room/closet in Lane DeGregory’s “The Girl in the Window,” and the description of the dead boy in the snow in Barry Siegel’s “A Father’s Pain….”

In “The Bravest Woman in Seattle,” Sanders also finds that balance between the explicit and delicate, guaranteeing that though readers may pause, brace themselves or close their eyes they’ll keep going. We have to continue, because Sanders has allowed Butz’s partner to take us by the hand and show us why we must. By building elements of the story’s framework on the details that make us cringe, Sanders demands that we read until the last word – actually the last nine words – so that by the time we reach that scream, it has been transformed into pure strength.

Jim Sheeler won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2006, for a Rocky Mountain News story that chronicled nearly a year in the life of a U.S. Marine casualty notification officer and the families he touched. His subsequent book, “Final Salute,” was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award.  He holds the Shirley Wormser Professorship in Journalism and Media Writing at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

***

The story is admirable in a similar (though of course less profound and courageous) way as its subject is admirable. Throughout, Sanders stresses the survivor’s reasons for going through the ordeal of testifying, writing early on:

This happened to me. You must listen. This happened to us. You must hear who was lost. You must hear what he did. You must hear how Teresa fought him. You must hear what I loved about her. You must know what he took from us. This happened.

Later, he says that the mother of the murder victim, Teresa Butz, was in court and observes: “If a woman can absorb, at the level of detail required for proof before jury, the particulars of what happened to her daughter…. then no one else in this courtroom can dare turn away.”

The accumulation of such comments begins to suggest, in a subtle way, that Sanders and we (the readers) are also participating in the very painful but also brave and important act of taking in this testimony. Later in the story he writes that in the aftermath of the crime, “civilization, which did not stop this from happening, which did not even know this was happening, slowly returned.” The persuasive suggestion is that this article is a part of that slow return: listening to the woman bear witness, without turning away, is the least we can do.

I’ll add, in passing, something I might have asked Sanders if I had been his editor. It strikes me that the bravest woman in Seattle, maybe the bravest woman in the history of Seattle, may have been Teresa Butz, whose actions, as described in the story, ultimately saved her partner’s life even as she was losing her own. Do you think it might make sense to put a little more emphasis on Butz? Just asking.

Ben Yagoda has written about language, writing and other topics for Slate, the New York Times Book Review, the New York Times magazine, The American Scholar, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and many others. He’s a professor of English at the University of Delaware and the author of, among other books, “About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made” and “The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing.” His “The Art of Fact,” coauthored with Kevin Kerrane, is a staple of narrative journalism classrooms. His forthcoming book is “How to Not Write Bad.”

 ***

This year’s two features finalists were also rivetingly memorable, and each ran with compelling multimedia components. In “A Chance in Hell,” Corinne Reilly of the Virginian-Pilot told the story of two weeks in a NATO hospital in Afghanistan. A glimpse:

A few minutes later the soldier is in the operating room. He’s writhing now more than shaking. Through the moans, he’s mumbling three words over and over.

“This is bad. This is bad. This is bad.”

He keeps lifting his head, trying to get a look.

On the end of the bed, the last right boot he ever put on is lying at an angle that’s all wrong, a sweaty foot still inside. The calf above it is a shredded mess of uniform, flesh, dirt and grass. Nothing about it looks real.

Above that there is no discernible knee, just a thin stretch of filthy skin barely hanging onto what’s left of a thigh, which looks a lot like the mangled calf, except for one thing: Among the blood and mud, there is a little white inchworm, scrunching and straightening, slowly making its way across a bit of dying muscle.

Somehow it survived an explosion the soldier may not.

Around him, a dozen people are preparing for surgery. The room smells like damp earth, rubbing alcohol and blood.

“Hang in there one more minute, bud,” the anesthesiologist says, trying uselessly to soothe his patient. “Everything’s gonna be OK in just a minute.”

A nurse walks in. Next to the boot, she sets down a medical form.

It says the soldier’s name is Eddie Ward.

It says he is 19 years old.

And in “Punched Out,” John Branch of The New York Times told the story of the life and death of hockey enforcer Derek Boogaard:

Boogaard, with a backlog of frustrations, wanted to quit during training camp in 2000. He was 18. He called his father to tell him. He told his teammates he had a plane ticket home. Tobin ultimately persuaded him to stay.

And, suddenly, Boogaard started to win fights.

“His first year in the W.H.L., I think, it was mostly adjusting to his frame, not knowing how to use his reach,” Ryan Boogaard said. “I think he felt more comfortable with that frame in his second year in the W.H.L., and he did a lot better.”

He quickly  avenged his broken-jaw loss to Mike Lee.  He beat Mat Sommerfeld, a rival who had torn Boogaard’s name from the back of his uniform and  held it over his head after an earlier conquest. One Web site put Boogaard’s record at 18-4-4 in fights that season. One poll named him the toughest player in the W.H.L.’s Western Conference.

When Boogaard took the ice, a buzz rippled through Prince George’s arena, which routinely had capacity crowds of 5,995. One side of the arena would shout “Boo!” and the other would shout “Gaard!”

He scored only once in 61 games for Prince George in 2000-1. He recorded 245 penalty minutes, ranking eighth in the W.H.L. He was, finally, an enforcer, appreciated by one team, feared by all others.

This continues Pulitzer Week on Storyboard. On Tuesday, Anna Griffin looked at Walt Harrington’s story about Pulitzer-winning poet Rita Dove’s writing process in our “Why’s this so good?” series. On Friday, we’ll post a video, transcript and interactive index of Pulitzer-winning novelist Paul Harding’s recent standing-room-only appearance at the Nieman Foundation.

In the meantime, you’ll find the citations, works and biographies for all of this year’s Pulitzer winners here.

November 15 2010

17:00

Comments and free samples: How the Honolulu Civil Beat is trying to build an audience (and its name)

“You’re starting from absolute scratch. That’s a big hill to climb.”

That’s not an excuse, but it is the reality of the news startup that John Temple is describing. Temple is the editor of the Honolulu Civil Beat, the online-only news source that made a big splash earlier this year because of its pay-first mentality. As envisioned by Temple, and by Civil Beat founders Pierre Omidyar and Randy Ching, most of the content on the Civil Beat site sits behind a paywall.

As far as startups go, the Civil Beat had news futurists curious about whether a media organization could get readers to pay for news upfront — particularly since Civil Beat has the advantage/disadvantage of starting from a paid subscription model out of the box, as opposed to introducing one after the fact. The big question — it almost seems like a sphinxian riddle — is how do you get people to pay for your work if they can’t readily access it?

In the first six months, the answer seems to be a lot of hustle on the part of Temple and his staff. They’ve aggressively pursued coverage on land use and money issues, placed an emphasis on data, and are engaging readers on and offline. And one other thing: They’re giving away free samples on CivilBeat.com.

“When you’re working at an established organization, you’re building on so much tradition. And here you’re not. You’re developing everything,” said Temple, who is more than familiar with established organizations having been editor and publisher of the departed Rocky Mountain News.

Doling out free content

Where Civil Beat has to be creative, Temple told me, is in making a connection to readers and turning them into site members. “The challenge of course is to have enough people feel that you’re essential that they want to support you and pay for your services,” he said. (Temple said they aren’t releasing numbers on Civil Beat memberships or site traffic just yet. Though he did say this: “People who are willing to sign up at the early phase of a new news product like this with high aspirations — there’s low churn rate with those people.”)

The paywall also sprouts leaks on certain days, when some Civil Beat stories are viewable to the public — generally reporting on the government or elections, Temple said. The Civil Beat homepage, as well as its Twitter feed, also provide a basic understanding of the day’s news in a less-than-closed off way. Temple said it’s been important, as a matter of marketing as well as gaining the public’s trust, to demonstrate to readers that their news is not completely hidden away.

Which is why they went one step further, offering the equivalent of “free ice cream sundaes!” with complete free access to the site on certain days. The free content days are timed around stories the staff believe are in the public interest or enterprise stories they’d like to see reach a wider audience. Temple said they recognize that in order for readers to decide whether they want to spend money on the Civil Beat, they should be able to sample it first.

What the Civil Beat shares in common with many news organizations is the belief in the strength of their journalism as the primary draw for the public, be it land development and environmental stories or campaign funding news. It’s a mix of news basics in new forms, with the Civil Beat reporter/hosts fact-checking (similar to PolitiFact) statements from politicians and parsing data for document-driven reports on subjects like public employee salaries.

“We share with the readership the experience in gathering those records and encountering government agencies,” Temple said. “In some ways that has been very provocative, because we’ve written about how difficult it is to get information and how government agencies treat us.”

Building community

As a small news organization willing to experiment with coverage areas, reader engagement, and ways readers can pay for content, Temple said it was necessary to have an open dialogue with members about changes to the Civil Beat. The company blog has become a place to discuss their journalism and ask for suggested interview questions. Temple said it’s also been useful as they’ve also tinkered with the subscription levels and pricing, offering a 15-day trial for $0.99 and adding a $0.99 cent per month discussion membership to take part in comments. (Comments are free to view, just not to leave.)

And speaking of comments, Temple says they have nothing but good things to report. Discussions have largely remained civil, even while spirited. Members use their real names or can use a screen name (though Civil Beat staff know members’ real identities, thanks to the subscription process). And what may be most surprising to editors dealing with comments elsewhere: “We don’t even have a profanity filter on our comments — anybody can post anything in our comments. It’s all self regulated,” Temple said.

The Civil Beat seems to be making its biggest bet on reader engagement, not just as a method of outreach, but also as content for the site. The debates between readers, ranging from education reform to a proposed Honolulu rail project are filled with long, thoughtful posts, often citing links for background. In turn, Civil Beat staff will invite members to write blog posts spun off from discussions or on other topical issues. “Obviously, the core content is the journalism that we produce, but the comments and the discussion create a whole other level of content,” Temple said.

They’re also reverse engineering the idea of comments as the new “public square,” by holding events (called “Beatups”) on issues like the judicial nomination process and the merger of the Honolulu Advertiser and Honolulu Star-Bulletin. The events are open to members, with non-members able to join for as little as the $0.99 commenting subscription.

Temple wants to not just inspire the daily conversation, but be a part of it — and yes, to get people to help pay for their work along the way. By making select stories open and comments visible, the strategy appears to be letting outsiders have just enough of a taste (or get them riled up for a debate) to pique their curiosity. The idea for the Civil Beat is to prove its worth as a news organization through their work while being open with readers about how they operate. And with substantial financial backing, it can afford to give its strategy some time to develop.

“If you look at most news organizations, and of course they’ve all evolved over the years, there’s still a pretty defensive posture,” Temple said. “We don’t think that’s a healthy way to approach it and I think our members have responded really positively to that. They want to feel that they can talk to you.”

January 18 2010

17:51

Singleton’s next chapter: Can he steer MediaNews to a digital future?

[Our regular contributor Martin Langeveld spent 13 years as a publisher in MediaNews Group. That gives him an inside perspective on the company's bankruptcy filing, which he shares with us here. —Ed.]

In August 2006, as part of a deal that netted MediaNews Group the Contra Costa Times, San Jose Mercury News, and the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Hearst Corporation agreed to make a $300 million equity investment in MediaNews. At that point, the peak of MediaNews’ company’s expansion and with revenue and cash flow at an all-time high, the holdings of the principal stockholders — the Singleton and Scudder families — net of debt, were arguably worth more than $500 million each.

But last Friday, whatever was left of that equity, as well as Hearst’s stake (not finalized until a year later), evaporated as part of an announced plan to file a “prepackaged” Chapter 11 bankruptcy. For Hearst, it’s a hefty writeoff of a bad investment. For the Scudders, it’s a bitter payoff after nearly 25 years of active participation in MediaNews management. For MediaNews CEO William Dean Singleton and his financial wizard, company president Joseph (Jody) L. Lodovic IV, it’s a fresh start (which includes a 20 percent equity stake for the duo, and retained control of the company).

Could readers of the company’s papers now see new investment in its newsgathering capabilities, long hammered by budget reductions? For MediaNews employees, could this be an opportunity to participate in the transformation of the company into a truly digital enterprise? Both answers depend on what kind of vision is shared by Singleton, Lodovic, and the former bondholders who are now their equity partners.

MediaNews’ story

In 1983, Singleton, then a brash 32-year-old newspaperman who already had bought and sold several newspapers, enlisted the help of his friend Richard B. Scudder to buy  the Gloucester County Times in New Jersey. Scudder, former publisher of the Newark Evening News (which his family owned for three generation before selling it in 1972), was founder and president of the Garden State Paper Co., the first commercial-scale producer of recycled newsprint.

Singleton and Scudder went on to create MediaNews Group in March 1985, and steered the company through a long series of deals that eventually built it into the sixth-largest newspaper group (by circulation) in the country — today it owns 54 daily newspapers with a total weekday circulation of about 2.3 million, plus a slew of weeklies and niche products. It also has a television station in Anchorage and a group of radio stations in Texas.

From the outset, Singleton and Scudder agreed to manage MediaNews for growth, and never to pay dividends. Neither of the partners ever personally owned any stock — they put it in trusts for Scudder’s children and grandchildren and for Singleton’s future children. Singleton was only 33, unmarried and childless at the time, but Scudder was 72, so the trust strategy would avoid inheritance taxes in the event of his death.

The company never went public, but because a small portion of its debt was publicly held, it was required for years to file disclosures with the SEC, providing a detailed window into the complex financial structure that enabled its growth. (That window closed in 2008 when the company reached an agreement with bondholders to avoid the filings.)

The financial wizard behind the company’s financial maneuvers was Jody Lodovic, who became chief financial officer in the early 1990s and rose to become president. Together, Singleton and Lodovic created partnerships with Gannett in Texas and New Mexico and with Gannett and Stephens Media in California to which each company contributed its newspapers, with MediaNews assuming the management. They pioneered the concept of “clusters” of papers that could realize economies of scale. They deftly exploited joint operating agreements in Detroit, Charleston, W.V., York, Penn., Salt Lake City and ultimately in Denver at the conclusion of a long battle between MediaNews’ flagship paper, the Denver Post, and the Rocky Mountain News. At times, when cash was tight or they got offers they couldn’t refuse, they sold papers, including the original New Jersey cluster dear to Dick Scudder’s heart.

For Singleton, the elimination of most his company’s debt is a long-delayed goal. As early as 1996, at a retreat for the group’s management and publishers, he outlined strategies including a few more years of acquisitions followed by a push to reduce debt. But somehow, acquisition opportunities kept coming along, and debt reduction was put off. Singleton began to feel that at some point, there would be only two or three newspaper companies left standing, and he wanted MediaNews to be one. To be in the running, the company had to keep growing. Ultimately, revenue tanked not long after the final big deals with McClatchy and Hearst, and MediaNews found itself in workout last April. Given the complexity of its financial structure, it’s not surprising that it took eight months to package the bankruptcy.

For Singleton, it’s not the first disappointing turn, but certainly the biggest. In 1975, pre-MediaNews and at the age of 24, Singleton was involved in an attempt to revive the Fort Worth Press, which had been closed by E. W. Scripps after losing money for two decades. The venture ended in failure after three months. MediaNews bought, but couldn’t make a go of the Dallas Times-Herald, which was closed a few years after Singleton sold it. Later, MediaNews bought the Houston Post but couldn’t make it profitable and sold the assets to Hearst, which owned the dominant Houston Chronicle. Hearst paid $120 million and immediately closed the Post. (The laid-off staffers, calling themselves the Toasted Posties, set up an early social networking site of sorts to stay in touch and swap gossip about Singleton; it was succeeded by a now-dormant blog, and later by a Facebook page.)

Known as a cost-cutter

Though he continues to have a reputation for ruthlessly cutting costs when necessary, Singleton takes a genuine pride and interest in his newsroom staffs. When visiting newspapers, before heading out for dinner with the publisher, he makes of point of visiting the newsroom to see what’s going on. He keeps an eye on editors, reporters and photographers with promise and has promoted some to the Denver Post. He has a mail subscription to every one of his dailies, and when he’s traveling, his sister and personal secretary Pat Robinson sends some of them to his destination in Fedex boxes so he can keep up. Editors are not surprised to get a call from Singleton asking about a local story, or exhorting them to run more local news on the front page. He lets each local paper formulate its own editorial views and endorsements. Before the going got rough, Singleton and Scudder convened annual gatherings of MediaNews publishers to talk strategy; they enjoyed these confabs far better than meetings of publishers.

And as Singleton told the Wall Street Journal in an interview relating to the current bankruptcy process, he continues to press his vision for consolidation of the newspaper industry, telling the Journal he wanted to be the “aggressor” in that effort.  The group’s employees fear that by consolidation, Singleton means more outsourcing or more centralization of operations regionally and nationally. There’s been a lot of that already, and there could be more, but Singleton and Lodovic will now be free to expand their partnerships, to seek mergers with other groups, or to rationalize the market through exchanges of newspaper properties. “Look at the map,” Singleton told the Journal in response to the question of where such consolidations might occur.

Singleton has lived with multiple sclerosis for 24 years; the disease has now robbed him of the use of his legs. In a long and particularly revealing interview last year with the Colorado Statesman, he discussed its effects:

I cheated it for many, many years. The last three years, I haven’t cheated it so well, and it has become more aggressive. I’ve lost the use of my legs and partial use of my arms and fingers. I feel fine most of the time. I’ve never missed work because of it. But clearly the current prognosis isn’t particularly good. The good news about Multiple Sclerosis is, it doesn’t kill you. But it does disable you. Not being able to walk or button your shirts or tie your tie — it’s troubling. But I’d rather be disabled and alive than fully able and headed to the other side. So I count my blessings for all the things it hasn’t taken. But it certainly has taken a lot. I look worse than I feel. I feel pretty good.

I’m still very energetic and do what I want to do. I travel if I want to travel, and get around to the newspapers and go anywhere I want to go. I enjoy life a lot, but I just enjoy it differently without some of the physical things I once had. It’s comical when I go on the road. I can’t button a button because my fingers don’t work. I can’t type anymore. I can’t use a computer because my fingers don’t work. If I go to hotels where I stay regularly, I’ve always got a concierge who’ll come up and button my shirts and help me tie my tie. If I stay in a strange hotel, I ask one of the housekeepers if she’ll button my shirts. She almost wants to call the police or something. You get all kinds of weird looks when you ask a housekeeper, “Would you come here and button my buttons for me?”

And I love it. In some places you get somebody who can’t speak English, so you have to explain how to button a shirt. And some places you get somebody who does, and they first think you’re joking. And then they understand your nod and they start laughing and everything. One of the fun things I have in life when I travel is the look on somebody’s face when I ask them to button my shirt. So you make the best of it.

Clearly, the MS puts some urgency in Singleton’s quest for a legacy. The elimination of most of his debt gives him an opportunity to rebuild newspaper operations that have been hammered for years by revenue declines and the company’s inability to invest adequately in its future (many of the papers are still operating on content management systems installed as Y2K solutions).  Whether he, or Lodovic, will have the vision to turn the company into a truly digital enterprise is an open question. Singleton has an understanding of the web (he helped lead the formation of the Yahoo Newspaper Consortium), but he’s not an active computer user. He has often expressed faith in the future of print, and has strongly espoused charging for content in order to protect the print side of the business: “I think print’s going to be important for a long time…Print is still the meat. Online’s the salt and pepper.”

With that attitude it seems unlikely that Singleton and Lodovic come to share the digital vision of another CEO leading his company out of bankruptcy, Journal Register’s John Paton, who told Jeff Jarvis recently (speaking of his previous company, Spanish-language publisher impreMedia):

The first thing we did was to decide that in our company, a print company, when it came to products we would be digital and brands first and print last. It was our radical way of focusing everyone on the future. By recognizing our competitors and our future were digital everything we built and did had to follow that decision.

Paton is free to pursue that vision at Journal Register, which is also newly unencumbered by debt. The readers and employees of MediaNews could benefit from a similarly unequivocal determination at the top to radically reinvent the business in a truly digital direction.

Disclosure: I worked for MediaNews Group as a publisher for 13 years from 1995 to 2008 at its cluster of four dailies in western New England. In a previous post, I outlined in more detail my suggestions for a more digitally-oriented MediaNews Group.

January 07 2010

19:11

Keeping Martin honest: Checking on Langeveld’s predictions for 2009

[A little over one year ago, our friend Martin Langeveld made a series of predictions about what 2009 would bring for the news business — in particular the newspaper business. I even wrote about them at the time and offered up a few counter-predictions. Here's Martin's rundown of how he fared. Up next, we'll post his predictions for 2010. —Josh]

PREDICTION: No other newspaper companies will file for bankruptcy.

WRONG. By the end of 2008, only Tribune had declared. Since then, the Star-Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, Journal Register Company, and the Philadelphia newspapers made trips to the courthouse, most of them right after the first of the year.

PREDICTION: Several cities, besides Denver, that today still have multiple daily newspapers will become single-newspaper towns.

RIGHT: Hearst closed the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (in print, at least), Gannett closed the Tucson Citizen, making those cities one-paper towns. In February, Clarity Media Group closed the Baltimore Examiner, a free daily, leaving the field to the Sun. And Freedom is closing the East Valley Tribune in Mesa, which cuts out a nearby competitor in the Phoenix metro area.

PREDICTION: Whatever gets announced by the Detroit Newspaper Partnership in terms of frequency reduction will be emulated in several more cities (including both single and multiple newspaper markets) within the first half of the year.

WRONG: Nothing similar to the Detroit arrangement has been tried elsewhere.

PREDICTION: Even if both papers in Detroit somehow maintain a seven-day schedule, we’ll see several other major cities and a dozen or more smaller markets cut back from six or seven days to one to four days per week.

WRONG, mostly: We did see a few other outright closings including the Ann Arbor News (with a replacement paper published twice a week), and some eliminations of one or two publishing days. But only the Register-Pajaronian of Watsonville, Calif. announced it will go from six days to three, back in January.

PREDICTION: As part of that shift, some major dailies will switch their Sunday package fully to Saturday and drop Sunday publication entirely. They will see this step as saving production cost, increasing sales via longer shelf life in stores, improving results for advertisers, and driving more weekend website traffic. The “weekend edition” will be more feature-y, less news-y.

WRONG: This really falls in the department of wishful thinking; it’s a strategy I’ve been advocating for the last year or so to follow the audience to the web, jettison the overhead of printing and delivery, but retain the most profitable portion of the print product.

PREDICTION: There will be at least one, and probably several, mergers between some of the top newspaper chains in the country. Top candidate: Media News merges with Hearst. Dow Jones will finally shed Ottaway in a deal engineered by Boston Herald owner (and recently-appointed Ottaway chief) Pat Purcell.

WRONG AGAIN, but this one is going back into the 2010 hopper. Lack of capital by most of the players, and the perception or hope that values may improve, put a big damper on mergers and acquisitions, but there should be renewed interest ahead.

PREDICTION: Google will not buy the New York Times Co., or any other media property. Google is smart enough to stick with its business, which is organizing information, not generating content. On the other hand, Amazon may decide that they are in the content business…And then there’s the long shot possibility that Michael Bloomberg loses his re-election bid next fall, which might generate a 2010 prediction, if NYT is still independent at that point.

RIGHT about Google, and NOT APPLICABLE about Bloomberg (but Bloomberg did acquire BusinessWeek). The Google-NYT pipe dream still gets mentioned on occasion, but it won’t happen.

PREDICTION: There will be a mini-dotcom bust, featuring closings or fire sales of numerous web enterprises launched on the model of “generate traffic now, monetize later.”

WRONG, at least on the mini-bust scenario. Certainly there were closings of various digital enterprises, but it didn’t look like a tidal wave.

PREDICTION: The fifty newspaper execs who gathered at API’s November Summit for an Industry in Crisis will not bother to reconvene six months later (which would be April) as they agreed to do.

RIGHT. There was a very low-key round two with fewer participants in January, without any announced outcomes, and that was it. [Although there was also the May summit in Chicago, which featured many of the same players. —Ed.]

PREDICTION: Newspaper advertising revenue will decline year-over-year 10 percent in the first quarter and 5 percent in the second. It will stabilize, or nearly so, in the second half, but will have a loss for the year. For the year, newspapers will slip below 12 percent of total advertising revenue (from 15 percent in 2007 and around 13.5 percent in 2008). But online advertising at newspaper sites will resume strong upward growth.

WRONG, and way too optimistic. Full-year results won’t be known for months, but the first three quarters have seen losses in the 30 percent ballpark. Gannett and New York Times have suggested Q4 will come in “better” at “only” about 25 percent down. My 12 percent reference was to newspaper share of the total ad market, a metric that has become harder to track this year due to changes in methodology at McCann, but the actual for 2009 ultimately will sugar out at about 10 percent.

PREDICTION: Newspaper circulation, aggregated, will be steady (up or down no more than 1 percent) in each of the 6-month ABC reporting periods ending March 31 and September 30. Losses in print circulation will be offset by gains in ABC-countable paid digital subscriptions, including facsimile editions and e-reader editions.

WRONG, and also way too optimistic. The March period drop was 7.1 percent, the September drop was 10.6 percent, and digital subscription didn’t have much impact.

PREDICTION: At least 25 daily newspapers will close outright. This includes the Rocky Mountain News, and it will include other papers in multi-newspaper markets. But most closings will be in smaller markets.

WRONG, and too pessimistic. About half a dozen daily papers closed for good during the year.

PREDICTION: One hundred or more independent local startup sites focused on local news will be launched. A number of them will launch weekly newspapers, as well, repurposing the content they’ve already published online. Some of these enterprises are for-profit, some are nonprofit. There will be some steps toward formation of a national association of local online news publishers, perhaps initiated by one of the journalism schools.

Hard to tell, but probably RIGHT. Nobody is really keeping track of how many hyperlocals are active, or their comings and goings. An authoritative central database would be a Good Thing.

PREDICTION: The Dow Industrials will be up 15 percent for the year. The stocks of newspaper firms will beat the market.

RIGHT. The Dow finished the year up 18.8 percent. (This prediction is the one that got the most “you must be dreaming” reactions last year.

And RIGHT about newspapers beating the market (as measured by the Dow Industrials), which got even bigger laughs from the skeptics. There is no index of newspaper stocks, but on the whole, they’ve done well. It helps to have started in the sub-basement at year-end 2008, of course, which was the basis of my prediction. Among those beating the Dow, based on numbers gathered by Poynter’s Rick Edmonds, were New York Times (+69%), AH Belo (+164%), Lee Enterprises (+746%), McClatchy (+343%), Journal Communications (+59%), EW Scripps (+215%), Media General (+348%), and Gannett (+86%). Only Washington Post Co. (+13%) lagged the market. Not listed, of course, are those still in bankruptcy.

PREDICTION: At least one publicly-owned newspaper chain will go private.

NOPE.

PREDICTION: A survey will show that the median age of people reading a printed newspaper at least 5 days per week is is now over 60.

UNKNOWN: I’m not aware of a 2009 survey of this metric, but I’ll wager that the median age figure is correct.

PREDICTION: Reading news on a Kindle or other e-reader will grow by leaps and bounds. E-readers will be the hot gadget of the year. The New York Times, which currently has over 10,000 subscribers on Kindle, will push that number to 75,000. The Times will report that 75 percent of these subscribers were not previously readers of the print edition, and half of them are under 40. The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post will not be far behind in e-reader subscriptions.

UNKNOWN, as far as the subscription counts go: newspapers and Kindle have not announced e-reader subscription levels during the year. The Times now has at least 30,000, as does the Wall Street Journal (according to a post by Staci Kramer in November; see my comment there as well). There have been a number of new e-reader introductions, but none of them look much better than their predecessors as news readers. My guess would be that by year end, the Times will have closer to 40,000 Kindle readers and the Journal 35,000. During 2010, 75,000 should be attainable for the Times, especially counting all e-editions (which include the Times Reader and 53,353 weekdays and 34,435 Sundays for the six months ending Sept. 30.

PREDICTION: The advent of a color Kindle (or other brand color e-reader) will be rumored in November 2009, but won’t be introduced before the end of the year.

RIGHT: plenty of rumors, but no color e-reader, except Fujitsu’s Flepia, which is expensive, experimental, and only for sale in Japan.

PREDICTION: Some newspaper companies will buy or launch news aggregation sites. Others will find ways to collaborate with aggregators.

RIGHT: Hearst launched its topic pages site LMK.com. And various companies are working with EVRI, Daylife and others to bring aggregated feeds to their sites.

PREDICTION: As newsrooms, with or without corporate direction, begin to truly embrace an online-first culture, outbound links embedded in news copy, blog-style, as well as standalone outbound linking, will proliferate on newspaper sites. A reporter without an active blog will start to be seen as a dinosaur.

MORE WISHFUL THINKING, although there’s progress. Many reporters still don’t blog, still don’t tweet, and many papers are still on content management systems that inhibit embedded links.

PREDICTION: The Reuters-Politico deal will inspire other networking arrangements whereby one content generator shares content with others, in return for right to place ads on the participating web sites on a revenue-sharing basis.

YES, we’re seeing more sharing of content, with various financial arrangements.

PREDICTION: The Obama administration will launch a White House wiki to help citizens follow the Changes, and in time will add staff blogs, public commenting, and other public interaction.

NOT SO FAR, although a new Open Government Initiative was recently announced by the White House. This grew out of some wiki-like public input earlier in the year.

PREDICTION: The Washington Post will launch a news wiki with pages on current news topics that will be updated with new developments.

YES — kicked off in January, it’s called WhoRunsGov.com.

PREDICTION: The New York Times will launch a sophisticated new Facebook application built around news content. The basic idea will be that the content of the news (and advertising) package you get by being a Times fan on Facebook will be influenced by the interests and social connections you have established on Facebook. There will be discussion of, if not experimentation with, applying a personal CPM based on social connections, which could result in a rewards system for participating individuals.

NO. Although the Times has continued to come out with innovative online experiments, this was not one of them.

PREDICTION: Craigslist will partner with a newspaper consortium in a project to generate and deliver classified advertising. There will be no new revenue in the model, but the goal will be to get more people to go to newspaper web sites to find classified ads. There will be talk of expanding this collaboration to include eBay.

NO. This still seems like a good idea, but probably it should have happened in 2006 and the opportunity has passed.

PREDICTION: Look for some big deals among the social networks. In particular, Twitter will begin to falter as it proves to be unable to identify a clearly attainable revenue stream. By year-end, it will either be acquired or will be seeking to merge or be acquired. The most likely buyer remains Facebook, but interest will come from others as well and Twitter will work hard to generate an auction that produces a high valuation for the company.

NO DEAL, so far. But RIGHT about Twitter beginning to falter and still having no “clearly attainable” revenue stream in sight. Twitter’s unique visitors and site visits, as measured by Compete.com, peaked last summer and have been declining, slowly, ever since. Quantcast agrees. [But note that neither of those traffic stats count people interacting with Twitter via the API, through Twitter apps, or by texting. —Ed.]

PREDICTION: Some innovative new approaches to journalism will emanate from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

YES, as described in this post and this post. See also the blogs of Steve Buttry and Chuck Peters. The Cedar Rapids Gazette and its affiliated TV station and web site are in the process of reinventing and reconstructing their entire workflow for news gathering and distribution.

PREDICTION: A major motion picture or HBO series featuring a journalism theme (perhaps a blogger involved in saving the world from nefarious schemes) will generate renewed interest in journalism as a career.

RIGHT. Well, I’m not sure if it has generated renewed interest in journalism as a career, but the movie State of Play featured both print reporters and bloggers. And Julie of Julie & Julia was a blogger, as well. [Bit of a reach there, Martin. —Ed.]

[ADDENDUM: I posted about Martin's predictions when he made them and wrote this:

I’d agree with most, although (a) I think there will be at least one other newspaper company bankruptcy, (b) I think Q3/Q4 revenue numbers will be down from 2008, not flat, (c) circ will be down, not stable, (d) newspaper stocks won’t beat the market, (e) the Kindle boom won’t be as big as he thinks for newspapers, and (f) Twitter won’t be in major trouble in [2009] — Facebook is more likely to feel the pinch with its high server-farm costs.

I was right on (a), (b), and (c) and wrong on (d). Gimme half credit for (f), since Twitter is now profitable and Facebook didn’t seem too affected by server expenses. Uncertain on (e), but I’ll eat my hat if “75 percent of [NYT Kindle] subscribers were not previously readers of the print edition, and half of them are under 40.” —Josh]

Photo of fortune-teller postcard by Cheryl Hicks used under a Creative Commons license.

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