Monday, August 18, 2008

Deciding what to run

Only a few McClatchy papers used correspondent Tom Lasseter's first-hand report of contradictions about Russia's rationale for invading Georgia on the front page today. Most used a more generic wire report that focused instead on Russia's pledge to start leaving.

Here's a relevant sample of Lasseter's report:

... a trip to the city on Sunday, without official escorts, revealed a very different picture. While it was clear there had been heavy fighting — missiles knocked holes in walls, and bombs tore away rooftops — almost all of the buildings seen in an afternoon driving around Tskhinvali were still standing.

Russian-backed leaders in South Ossetia have said that 2,100 people died in fighting in Tskhinvali and nearby villages. But a doctor at the city's main hospital, the only one open during the battles that began late on Aug. 7, said the facility recorded just 40 deaths.

The discrepancy between the numbers at Tskhinvali's main hospital and the rhetoric of Russian and South Ossetian leaders raises serious questions about the veracity of the Kremlin's version of events. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and other senior officials in Moscow have said the Georgians were guilty of "genocide," prompting their forces to push Georgia's military out of South Ossetia — in a barrage of bombing runs and tanks blasts — and march southeast toward the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, stopping only 25 miles away.

I don't know why this would be.


Anonymous said...

How is this any different than the consolidation going on everywhere else inside McClatchy? Maybe it's your editors echoing what they're heard for a while now, that is how can we justify sending Tom to far off and dangerous places when there are perfectly good enough journalists already there willing to risk their necks for a far lower daily rate?

Perhaps this is how we consolidate, maybe its our "link ethic" where we "link to the rest."

Now, I know what you're thinking, of course Tom is a skilled reporter and writer and his work undoubtably goes well beyond "good enough" but it's been made very clear that this is no longer a factor in what McClatchy wants, after all we've all seen talented individuals who've been laid-off irrespective of their skill or talent simply because because they were (rightly or wrongly) deemed a duplication.

Well, your editors have sent you a message here Howard, Tom is a duplication that they don't think we need.

Anonymous said...

7:57's got a point, dude.

Anonymous said...

The difference is that Tom works through the National Desk, and they're a sacred cow at McClatchy. While local readers go without city hall coverage, that crew loads up their expense accounts. It's about ego.

Howard said...

1019: Where is it that you offer no city hall coverage, may I ask?

Anonymous said...

Howard, with all the cuts you guys have made in our newsrooms it will soon be everywhere. When in God's name are you going to wake up?

Anonymous said...

Smaller newsrooms are our future, Anon 230. They're not going to wake up, because that's the plan. Fewer bodies, less coverage, lots of online bells and whistles, little depth.

But so what, as long as the bigs get their bonuses. Because most assuredly, the shrinking of the newsroom doesn't mean that senior editors and corporate staff are going to lose their jobs.

Anonymous said...

Amen anom609. That says it all. Thank you.

Bashful but not a sock puppet said...

> "Most used a more generic wire report... I don't know why this would be."

Interesting, and sad. Makes me wonder which papers were the (seemingly) spineless ones.

Coffeehouse friend asked me what I thought about Georgia v. Russia, and my gut response was "hell if I know, I'd better check McClatchyDC to find out" - after the Iraq war debacle I don't trust anyone else.

Anonymous said...

A number of corporate employees have lost their jobs. The tax dept. was outsourced earlier this year, the Peoplesoft programming was outsourced, and I know of one other corp job that was cut. But you're right, no execs or their staff.

Howard said...

Anon 753: One fact to keep in mind re the number of executives is to remember that we saved $60 million when we eliminated the KR executive team and replaced it with ours; in other words, we're $60 million smaller than they were. In that sense, we took our haircut two years ago.

Anonymous said...

You've said this before, Howard. "We took our haircut two years ago." But it's not really true.

The corporate employees of KR did indeed have that haircut forced on them when you eliminated the KR exec team. But McClatchy corporate execs did not get trimmed. You were the barbers, not the barbees. So to speak.

You didn't feel the cut of that knife, and to repeatedly say you did is a bit disingenuous.

Howard said...

Anon 532: You don't know what you're talking about. The $60 million in savings is not just replacing their corporate office with ours; it's savings gained because we are doing the same work they did (basically, manage about 3 papers) with a far smaller staff making less money.

Howard said...

"3 papers" should say "30 papers," of course.

Anonymous said...

The point here has been lost. MNI, in an effort to shore up the hull after it hit the KR iceberg, has been scaling back all around. To think that this will not impact the quality of our products is simply naive.

No one seriously thinks McClatchy editors saw that Lassiter piece and thought, "hey, lets stick it to Howard." It is far more likely they were too damn busy doing "more with less" to even realize that Washbureau had anything in the can.

This is simply a symptom of the new McClatchy, that the VP of News can't see the reason behind his own lament ("I don't know why this would be.") is, well, sad.

Anonymous said...

"It is far more likely they were too damn busy doing "more with less" to even realize that Washbureau had anything in the can."

Yes, that's exactly it. We don't have time to THINK these days. We're just shoveling stuff as fast as we can, patching holes when we can. It is a mental meat grinder.

Howard said...

Yes, people have too much to do. It's difficult and sometimes impossible to accomplish what we want with reduced staff and resources. Would that it were not so.

But the notion that this happened because we bought KR is fanciful -- at best a red herring and at worst a scapegoat. Is Tribune failing because we bought KR? Lee? Gatehouse? Etc?

Things are hard enough when viewed in realistic terms. You do yourself no favors by pretending it is something else.

Anonymous said...

Ok, fine. Pick your own iceberg. The economy iceberg, or the "changing reader habits" iceberg or the Craigslist/Google/Blogger/Internet Iceberg whatever, it doesn't matter.

The fact remains that MNI has been scaling back all around as while its easy to dismiss the cuts as "oh it's just the circulation folks" or "it's the ad designers"... but it's not just them. We're losing good people from our newsrooms and even from our web operations that were supposed to save us.

There will be more Lassiter stories overlooked and then Lassiter type stories not written. Please don't look suprised when it happens.

Nathan L. Walls said...

Anon808: In hindsight, the KR purchase was bad timing. But, you never know where the top of the market is, until you're on the downslope. You don't see the bottom until you're on the way back up.

Running a business involves risk and given another look at the facts in the same situation, MNI would _still_ buy KR. At the time, it made sense. You can't take what happens even the day after the sale is completed and use it as a reason why the board should have known better.

Now, with other properties (Lee, Landmark, etc) on the block, would it make sense for MNI to make offers? My gut says no, it wouldn't. Do I expect us to? No. We're getting our house in order.

It's painful. There's quite a bit that I'd like to see done differently. But it's quite another to lay the blame for where we're at on the KR acquisition. We had debt before the KR purchase and made less money to pay off that debt with fewer properties. Strib was underperforming long before the revenue crisis hit the rest of the chain. Let's undo getting into more diversified markets, have kept Strib and where are we? I suspect we'd be worse off. Strib and the three Bees + Merced. Roughly half the "classic" McClatchy chain by property. Better than half by circulation. Four out of 12 markets with catastrophic housing market failure. Another large metropolitan market with ad trouble. Avista Partners didn't buy Strib for what seemed like a song only to be skipping debt payments to stave off bankruptcy.

If that's what MNI in 2008 looked like, I'm fairly certain we'd be looking at more than a 10 percent layoff and the wage freeze.

Setting aside our challenges of transitioning to an online business model and finding sales staff that knows the product they're selling and the audience they're selling to, many of the most reliable advertisers we've had in the last decade have business models absolutely in the shitter.

Car manufacturers and dealers? Check.
Department stores? Check.
Banks? Check.
Investment houses? Check.
Housing developers? Check.
Real Estate agents? Check.
Airlines? Check.

Much as it's nice to imagine the 2008 we'd like, given the economic facts, what course of action significantly changes our position for the better? The facts would have always demanded careful expense management and very pragmatic decision making. They would have always entailed loss, mourning, bleeding and pain. We can argue percentages and we'll always do well to remember stories and people. But our survival is by no means assured, we do not improve our chances by carrying more that we can afford. We did, however hard it may be to see, help ourselves buying KR.

(As an aside, instead of pasting the complete article, multiple times, how about a url? Those are fairly economical.)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your explanation, Nathan. (And yeah, that guy's a little OCD with the huge multiple posts.)

I have to say, I found Nathan's discussion of MNI/KR kinder and less condescending than Howard's usual "get over it, dumbasses" tone. I saw the Billionaire Boys Club swaggering off to lunch together the other day, and it didn't inpsire much faith.

So who wants to explain to me what happens when the stock drops to $0? We don't have far to go.

Anonymous said...

Sorry folks about those who were irritated with the multiple postings. I didn't have a URL and thought it was a pretty interesting piece which had a lot of relevance to the way things are proceeding with our company. And to be honest it doesn't take a second more of time to copy and paste the whole story than to copy and paste the URL. One click.

Anonymous said...

Ok, again the point was lost. MNI is attempting to cut its way out of the mess its in and that 1) is not the right approach and 2) damage has occurred to the news product and will continue to occur if someone doesn't do something to change MNI's approach.

The reason why MNI is in such trouble is really irrelevant here. The whole KR thing seems obvious to those that don't wallow in the details of newspaper acquisitions but most people recognize that if it's a cause at all, it's certainly not the only one.

What is troubling indeed is that Howard Weaver -- our very own patron saint of News, the only VP who (if I'm not mistaken) comes from a newsroom (but surely the only one who remembers what the inside of one looks like) -- doesn't appear grasp what his corporate trimmings are doing to our papers, and if he's not in our corner, Good Lord who will save us from his peers who have nothing but dollar signs in their eyes and bonuses on their minds.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you, 1028, but I think it's too late. Stock is down to $3.58. It's not a matter of bonuses...but dollar signs? You bet. Because they're going to have to cut the dividend, which has remained remarkably stable despite the plunging stock price. And when the dividend is cut, Gary will be out. And Howard. And the whole crew who've led us into this mess.

And then who'll be in charge of the ship? I'm not especially thrilled with Gary, but God only knows what slash and burn artist will take over MNI when he's gone.

Howard may have gone corporate, but he's still one of the good guys. We're in far better hands with Howard than we will be with who comes next.