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November 01 2010

14:00

Jim Hopkins’ Gannett Blog: a useful watchblog finds its niche; should others emulate its “water cooler”?

Last year in this space, I took a swipe at Gannett Blog, a “watchblog” published by ex-Gannett journalist Jim Hopkins of San Francisco in which he had been keeping an eye on the country’s largest newspaper company. At the time, Hopkins had announced the impending shutdown of the blog, so that he could regain his health, and was engaging in a self-indulgent countdown to oblivion. “Jumped the shark” was my judgment. I’ll stand by it, and I think Hopkins might agree.

But today, Gannett Blog is back in action, without the nonsense. Hopkins is running a tight ship, running a lively blog that’s serving useful niche both for Gannett employees and Gannett watchers. It’s a niche filled for few other U.S. newspaper publishers, and certainly none do it as well as Hopkins.

Hopkins spent 20 years with Gannett, beginning with now-defunct Arkansas Gazette, and ending as business reporter for USA Today, from which he took a buyout in 2008. He had started Gannett Blog anonymously in mid-2006, and only added his name to it after leaving the company. A few months before that, he was writing “for maybe eight readers — on a good day.” But then he posted a breaking news piece on a major investment in Gannett by Brandes Investment Partners; Poynter’s Jim Romenesko linked to that post; and Gannett Blog’s traffic soared.

Hopkins’ July 2009 retirement from blogging was short-lived. After catching his breath, he engaged in an unsuccessful job search, during which, he says, “I kept being reminded of how much I missed traditional journalism.” At some point, he took a look at his blog’s Google Analytics, and was surprised to find that it was still drawing thousands of page views every month, even though nothing new was being posted. He posted a question: “Why did you come to this blog today?” Gannettoid, which Hopkins had endorsed as Gannett Blog’s replacement, mentioned the query; others posted it on Facebook and Twitter. Ultimately it drew 53 responses such as: “Because I never deleted Gannett Blog from my RSS reader, hoping that maybe, some magical day (like today), it would come back to life! Good to hear from you, Jim.”

And so, on Dec. 9, Hopkins resumed publication. Mindful of his yearning for a return to traditional journalism, this time he stuck to straight news, without the contentious tone of its earlier period. By setting a different tone on the news side, he felt that he could “dial down the volume of the anger” in the comments, and he has largely succeeded in this goal.

He has more actively monitored the comments, entering the threads himself to keep it focused, correct misinformation and prevent flame wars. “When people try to pick a fight, I don’t engage them. it’s tempting sometimes, but I think once, twice, and three times.” His personal life stays out of the blog these days. (You can find him on Facebook for that angle.)

Gannett, with its 80 dailies and 23 TV stations, “is like a small city,” Hopkins says, “and I’m a beat reporter. I can find things going on on a daily basis.” It’s a lively, engaging mix: In one recent stretch, there are posts on growth in Sunday home delivery being reported by Gannett (along with a report that the Detroit Free Press lost 9 percent in circulation), tips for employees on accessing a new health benefits site, a few public radio-type pitches for reader contributions, and a reproduction of a USA Today front page filled with content that would most appeal to a younger audience, topped by the question “Is this a front page for older readers?” — shortly after publisher David Hunke said the paper’s printed edition would be aimed for an older demographic.

An innovation on Gannett Blog, inspired by the fact that comments were getting more pageviews than anything else on the blog, is the open-ended “realtime comments” post that’s always at the top of the page. It simply says, “Can’t find the right spot for your comment? Post it here, in this open forum.” Hopkins refreshes that post once a week; it often garners more than 100 comments — far more than his typical posts do.

Hopkins calls this the “water cooler” — a place to “come and see what other people are thinking about.” Sometimes he kicks it off with a question (“How’s your week looking so far?”), sometimes not. Virtually all the comments are anonymous posts — most of them clearly from Gannett employees — that provide a window to at least a part of the company’s zeitgeist, and sometimes give Hopkins good leads. Despite the anonymity, and probably because of the collegiality, the tone is constructive and there are often useful discussions.

I can’t think of other blogs that have created this kind of open-ended forum within the blog, at least not within a simple Blogspot format. Is a “water cooler” spot something that other bloggers should try out?

Blogging not a lucrative proposition for Hopkins — between Google ads (the display format brings in much more than the AdWords did, he says) and reader contributions, he aims to make $4,000 per quarter, but in actuality he “might make” $10,000 this year. So Hopkins is to be commended for carrying on a useful labor of love.

But as I asked last year, where are the rest of the watchblogs (or watchdog blogs)? When he relaunched Gannett Blog, Hopkins also started up similar blogs focused on News Corp. and the New York Times Company. They’re still online, but Hopkins gave up on them when they failed to gain traction. (Both have “water cooler” threads, but nobody stops by, apparently.) Hopkins thinks the explanation lies in the fact that such a large fraction of the New York Times Company employees are based in New York and can trade information in the workplace, while News Corp. is such a diversified operation that its various film, television, publishing and other media enterprises have little in common.

Here’s a rundown on some other newspaper company watchblogs, current and former:

Toasted Posties: Perhaps the original watchblog, launched in 1995 (before the word “weblog” was invented) by the employees left out in the cold when MediaNews Group shut down the Houston Post. The original Toasted Posties was, simultaneously, a sort of Facebook for the Posties to keep in touch with each other and coordinate reunions, and a gatherer of news and gossip about MediaNews and particularly about its CEO Dean Singleton (to whom I had the pleasure of demonstrating the site in 1996). The site (which has not preserved its archival content, except for a nice photo collection worth visiting) now refers readers to a Toasted Posties blog, launched in 2005, which fizzled out in 2007.

The NYTPicker — Operated since 2008 by “a team of journalists who prefer to work in anonymity, the NYTPicker reports on the internal workings of the nation’s top newspaper, and comments on its content.” The “nyts” it picks are mostly concerned with with content — its first post, for example, quibbled with the use of “disgraced” in reference to Elliott Spitzer — and there’s actually not much about the “internal workings” of the paper and rarely anything about the company that owns it.

Hartford Courant Alumni Association and Refugee Camp — Run by 22-year Courant veteran Paul Stern, more as a networking site for Courant alums then as a source of news about the paper.

Gannettoid — Still posting an occasional Gannett news item, but nothing like the reborn Gannett Blog.

MediaNews Monitor — maintained by the Newspaper Guild for its members in several MediaNews clusters; has a mix of industry news, Guild news, and MediaNews updates, but no comments or discussions.

Lee Watch — an anonymously operated, reasonably active blog focused on Lee Enterprises.

McClatchy Watch — formerly CancelTheBee and still using that URL, but defunct as of December 2009.

TheLedgerisBurning — defunct since 2008; focused on Advance’s Star Ledger.

Tribune Watch — another Guild site, focused on the Tribune Company. It contains a link to Tribune Employees Talk, which has been defunct since December 2008. Also inactive in the Tribune space is Maria Padilla’s Sentinel Watch, which reported on Orlando Sentinel doings until May 2009. Ditto, The Amazing Shrinking Orlando Sentinel, and Tell Zell (What You Really Think).

Know of any others?

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.

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