Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A day of upheaval (Updated)

In this post:
  • McClatchy cutbacks
  • Online Journalism Review shuts down
  • Elegy to copy editors

If you are in, related to or just breathe the air around anyone in the newspaper business, it is unlikely you haven't heard today about the large numbers of layoffs coming at McClatchy -- 1,400 jobs or about 10 percent of the company's work force. But there was a bit more to drink another pint about, as you can see from the list above.

Let's start with McClatchy, however:

The numbers are stark, just another drumbeat. But it was this, buried in the Raleigh story (with similar wording in Charlotte) stories, that I found more interesting: The newspaper will begin a closer relationship with The Charlotte Observer, also owned by McClatchy. The two newspapers will combine their political, sports and research departments. The features departments also will produce sections jointly.

Watch that space, because it is the shape of thing to come. Yes, Media News' Dean Singleton has been slashing and consolidating -- especially copy editing jobs (more from John McIntyre) -- at his papers around San Francisco and the San Jose Mercury News. But except for the Merc, there wasn't a lot of meat left on those bones to start with.

McClatchy is a different beast, however, not so easily dismissed. The McClatchy announcement does not talk about centralized copy desks, but believe me the rumors in the Carolinas are there and have been for more than a year. With seven papers (Raleigh, Charlotte, Rock Hill, Myrtle Beach, Columbia, Beaufort and Hilton Head) clustered even more tightly than McClatchy's original California operations, staffers at all the papers are waiting for the other shoe to drop. Beaufort/Hilton Head, though a special case (two smaller papers in the same county with one printing plans) have effectively -- if not in absolute fact -- combined many operations already.

But let's not dwell on copy editing and it challenges, which I've written about extensively. More intriguing to me, and more significant, is the move to combine sports, research and political coverage, and some features. Let's examine each one:
  • Research: Well, with the digital age's shifting of most research to reporters' and editors' desks and the withering of news libraries, you had to see this one coming. In fact, I'm surprised several papers in an area, even from different chains, don't get together and create virtual reference centers and split the cost. It might even be a cost-effective way to extend higher-quality services to smaller papers. But there are questions: If we push more and more to hyperlocal, what is the working model? Can a shared research system reach down and provide news people with the local information they need? Maybe the digital assets are refined enough that it can. But the realist in me says there are gaps, because I seem them all the time. So does the new model become that the researchers, such as they are, handle the "big-picture" stuff, but the local research continues to be pushed farther down to the desks? OK, you librarians who read this blog (and I know there are some), weigh in. Are we missing anything? How could this work?
  • Sports: The best way for this to play out would be for coverage of those big, but largely staged, events (Carolina Panthers, major college football, NBA, NASCAR, PGA, etc.) and more smartly put the remaining local resources into covering local sports. But, boy, could this be a tough sell. I can think of no other area of a newsroom where a caste system/pecking order is more in evidence. Suggest to some sports reporters that they cover high school sports and you will produce spasms of uncontrollable shaking. Sure, they likely did it at one time, but that was part of their due to get to the "bigs." Trust me, there's not much worse than some hacked off, hackneyed sport reporter sent back down from the bigs (or who saw his or her door close) going through the motions of covering local sports. I've seen it here and elsewhere. And it's going to require some interesting reprogramming of those young sports reporters coming out of college -- I'll make a broad-brush statement that will certainly miss the bull's eye but won't be too far off the total target: Most don't have local sports as their goal. How do you sell it. Again, more details would be useful --any McClatchy folks out there who can fill in the blanks, please comment.
  • Political: Things are abuzz on the Association of Capital Reporters and Editors listserv about this one. And I've got to say, this is the one that concerns me the most. The digital age seems to be giving us a barbell shape for news -- the big national stuff on one end, the hyperlocal stuff on the other, and in-between? But in between is where the state capitals lie.
    • A decade ago, American Journalism Review documented the sad state of staffing statehouse press rooms. (Parts 2 and 3). It has continued unabated. And all this has come at a time when administrations -- Democratic and Republican -- have devolved more responsibility onto the states and as state legislatures (and courts and agencies) increasingly have been diving into the social issues pool (think same-sex marriage, creationism/evolution debates, abortion regulations, etc.), not to mention the pivotal role those legislatures play in health and economic well-being (tax policy, insurance issues, etc.)
    • We need more reporters at the Capitol, not fewer. Yet editors seem to cling to the idea that no one cares about the Statehouse (no one, that is, until their ox is gored by some zoning twist that required state OK or an additional huge fee tacked onto a speeding ticket or an incompetent professional who nevertheless was licensed). Not only are there cutbacks, but too many papers see the "news" as just being when the legislature is in session, when the reality is that most of the governing is done outside of those spectacles and in the bowels of the bureaucracy.
    • We need more people covering the states' "shadow government." Yet, for instance, Zane Wilson, Myrtle Beach's longtime and respected S.C. Statehouse reporter is leaving and does not expect to be replaced. It's likely The (Columbia) State's stories will simply be more widely spread. (The State hasn't exactly wowed with depth coverage either, especially in the off-season, though it does occasionally field a good one, such as exposing S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell's efforts on behalf of a health insurer that is likely to buy its generic drugs from his company.) Will it be the same in Raleigh? And then there is this confounding of "politics" with state government coverage. They certainly overlap, but I fear too many editors define it that way, effectively limiting statehouse reporters. Again, more details would be nice, but I think ACRE members have a right to be concerned.
UPDATE: Fiona Morgan at Indy Week out of Durham has some details (and my comments):
  • A single capital bureau for state government reporting will combine five N&O and two Observer reporters, and be edited by current N&O staff and based in Raleigh. (Good news for now in that there do not seem to be any cutbacks. Seven people perhaps can be used more efficiently to extend coverage, though it means a little less competition.)

  • The sports departments will merge and be edited by a Charlotte-based editor. (As noted above, the jury's out on this. This has the same problem as having overseas copy editors handle stories -- how is that editor going to know the nuances of those local schools, the kinds of things that can get people really riled? The ultimate result is usually a blanding of copy so as not to offend people.)

  • The news research departments will merge and be headed by an N&O staffer. (Probably not too bad, though you again question whether local nuances will be missed.)

I was in the middle of reading for all that when an e-mail came pointing out that Robert Niles, editor of Online Journalism Review, had announced that OJR was suspending publication after a decade.

This is deeply disturbing. The all-online OJR, based at the University of Southern California, consistently has been one of the best publications in the field, both for professionals and for academics who have much to add to the professional discussion (as opposed to publishing in a refereed journal). It's to be hoped that USC will keep the archives around for a long time. The tutorials, for instance, are worth a ton.

It's not easy to tell from Niles' post whether he had "editorial" differences or there is a funding problem:

One of OJR's goals over the years has been to help mid-career journalists make a successful transition from other media to online reporting and production. I'm pleased to say that USC Annenberg will continue to provide support in that area, through the Knight Digital Media Center. I encourage OJR readers to click over to the KDMC website and its blogs, if you are not already a regular reader there.

I am hopeful that OJR will continue to live at the KDMC, and that the publication might be revived under the KDMC's blogs.

Meanwhile, Niles has left USC and set up shop at SensibleTalk.com, where you can find lots of good stuff, including links to all his great math tips for journalist. You also can find them and more at the original Robertniles.com.

So much to write about, including the latest blow-up between the AP and bloggers.
But let's finish on a sweet-sour note, todays' elegy to copy editors by Lawrence Downes in the New York Times.

Downes, lamenting the lack of any recognition of copy editors at the Newseum (though my boss says the museum does have exhibits of bad heds and other errors over its urinals), writes:

Copy editors are the last set of eyes before yours. They are more powerful than proofreaders. They untangle twisted prose. They are surgeons, removing growths of error and irrelevance; they are minimalist chefs, straining fat. Their goal is to make sure that the day’s work of a newspaper staff becomes an object of lasting beauty and excellence once it hits the presses.

Yeah. Presses. It has probably already struck you how irrelevant many of these skills may seem in the endlessly shifting, eternal glow of the Web.

The copy editor’s job, to the extent possible under deadline, is to slow down, think things through, do the math and ask the irritating question.
That is inexorably being changed in a digital age that values speed over perfection, he writes. True, and things will have to change. But it's nice to see at least an understanding of why copy editors continue to be important.

David Sullivan has a nice commentary on the issue.

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