You should read Todd Dorman

24hourdormanI complain about The Gazette in this space a lot, partially because it’s a good target as the largest media company in the Corridor Crandic, and partially because I want it to be a great organization. So, today, some kudos.

Todd Dorman is a guy who gets it. Three columns a week about stuff that matters and, more importantly in this day and age, gets how to blog. Interesting, value added links, regularly updated. Witty. Snarky. If I lived in Linn County, this stuff would be even more relavent.

(Full disclosure: I worked with Mr. Dorman’s wife, Katherine Perkins, during a stint at Iowa Public Radio.)

The Gazette lays off 13

Gazette Communications publicly announced its reorganization (which I’ve written about here and in the Corridor Business Journal) and laid off 13 employees. According to the media company, the restructuring will result in 100 fewer jobs.

The restructuring sees Steve Buttry move from editor of The Gazette and GazetteOnline to overseeing the entire news gathering operation and Lyle Muller, formerly the senior editor in charge of the Iowa City newsroom, take over as editor of The Gazette print product.

There are the obligatory pieces from Mr. Buttry, Mr. Muller and the paper’s own business reporter. Chuck Peters, the company’s CEO and driving force behind the reorganization, hasn’t made a public statement but will participate in an online chat from noon to 1 p.m. “today” with Messrs. Buttry and Muller.

(Quick public service announcement for all you Web editors and producers out there: “today” doesn’t work online like it does with the print product. I suspect that Messrs. Peters, Muller and Buttry were planning to chat on Feb. 25 — “tomorrow” when the story was published on the Web site, but “today” when it was published in the paper.)

Mr. Buttry discusses his new title, information content conductor.

The Gazette’s reoganization

In Monday’s Corridor Business Journal is the first of what we plan to be a monthly media column that I will write with John Goodlove. In this installment, we wrote about the recent announcement that The Gazette is restructuring its newsroom, and the following staff uneasiness.

Mr. Goodlove is a grizzled newspaper veteran while I’m younger and more interested in multimedia and online news; co-writing the column forces us to question each other’s assumptions and temper our emotions, particularly important this time around considering John’s status as a former Gazetteer.

But while the column is the two of us, this blog is just me and  I want to expand a little.

First, some basic information: The Gazette is separating its content production — reporters, photographers and a few editors — from its product planning and production — copy editors, designers and, now, some business types to help focus products on audiences. (The jobs and titles will be different than they are right now and, Gazette Managing Editor Steve Buttry says, the roles will be different.) Reporters will be asked to break news and build audiences on their individual blogs and will have yet-to-be-defined incentives to do so, but pay might be based on metrics such as page views, Twitter followers and superusers recruited. The idea, it seems, is to transform the newsroom from one centered around print to one centered around the Web’s immediacy and audience interaction.

In the Journal piece, we suggest that these incentives could lead to sensationalism, link baiting and the ignoring of important-but-not-glamorous news if The Gazette isn’t careful. I still believe that, but I’m also very excited to see this newspaper take necessary steps to redefine itself.

News traditions need to change, and the only people who don’t believe that are in denial. Clearly there are problems with the traditional business model (it feels like I link to this depressing map, now up to 2,308 lost newspaper jobs, in every post). While the recession isn’t helping, the problems aren’t simply a cyclical thing that we need to weather.  The Internet has changed the way much of our audience gets information; news can no longer be a broadcast. News now requires real, meaningful interaction with, to use Jay Rosen’s phrase, the people formerly known as the audience.

Radio and television have the ability to interact with users in real-time. Print doesn’t. And while the death of print has been greatly exaggerated, this is a significant disadvantage for the medium. Newspapers that stick their heads in the sand and refuse to acknowledge their readers will perish.

Is The Gazette taking a risk? Sure. It’s angering its employees, it might produce worse journalism and it could end up killing the entire news organization. But it’s a choice between adopting a model that might not work and sticking with a model we know won’t.

I don’t think the organization is going to lose sight of its duty to serve a watchdog function in eastern Iowa; what I see are thoughtful, forward-thinking people throughout the organization. Others, with inside perspectives, may see if differently. This reorganization will allow the company to find ways to serve its audience and the community — beyond some it already has — by creating new outlets for its reporting while sustaining the newspaper that has been its focus for so long.

Flooded by a historic deluge of “epic surge”

For the last six months, The Gazette has done an admirable job covering the 500-year flood that covered downtown Cedar Rapids in June and the city’s recovery since. Local stories by local writers about local people and local challenges. This week, the organization looked back at the changes the flood wrought, and put all of its flood stories in one place.

But one of the challenges of covering the same story for six months is not feeling redundant about using the word “flood” over and over.

In the first three grafs of today’s A1 centerpiece under the hed and deck “Will it happen again? Experts: State, global conditions point to more flooding in future” (the online-friendly hed is Likelihood of another flood rising, experts say“) the flood is called:

  • the great flood of 2008
  • the 31.12-foot-tall, 1.6-mile-wide tsunami that swamped Cedar Rapids
  • an already record-shattering flood
  • the epic surge that engulfed 10 square miles of the city

But, to paraphrase Freud, sometime a flood is just a flood. Or just a 500-year flood. Any way, you don’t need to write with a thesaurus by your side; we know what flood you’re covering.

This isn’t about this story’s writer, Orlan Love, who worked on a nice multimedia piece about the Cedar River a few weeks back. Its about the difference between calling a banana a banana and calling it an elongated yellow fruit. Nothing wrong with the occasional “deluge” or “epic surge,” but the words will have more impact if they are used sparingly.

(To answer the question asked in the story’s hed: With just two and a half weeks remaining in 2008, chances are the floods of this year will not happen again. But I’m no expert.)

Predictable shopping shouldn’t be headline news

The day after Thanksgiving is usually a slow news day but never fear, dear journalist, there is a HUGE cultural event that demands coverage! Time to throw everything you got at it!

Luckily you had the forethought to build a database. Now make sure you’ve got a Twitter hashtag set. Then, on Friday, get some video! Do a live chat! Saturday, make sure you run a front page story on the phenomenon that, by at least one news organization’s admission, is no longer a surprise to anybody.

I understand the argument that we should cover what people are interested in, but if we must cover — and give such prominent play to — Black Friday shopping, at least we could do a good job. See guys, as Fev at Headsup put it, “Shopping doesn’t really need context.”

Perhaps it’s because Black Friday is the metro news equivalent to a new Brangelina baby, but the coverage is generally so useless. There might be interesting cultural angles, but “HOLY SHIT, PEOPLE ARE IN LINE AT MIDNIGHT TO BUY A $200 HDTV AT WAL-MART” isn’t it.

So let’s get away from speculating whether more or less is being spent this year and find stores willing to tell us if sales are keeping pace with last year’s. (Stores do have the ability to watch their sales in real time and probably know to the penny how close they are to last year.) Let’s talk to sales psychologists who could tell us why humans are driven to spend in herds and, maybe, how to resist. Could we look at how good of a deal some of these bargains really are? Maybe a “36 Hours“-style piece that plans out the 1 a.m. shopping spree.

Because unless you’ve got a story about locals being trampled to death, I’m really not that interested in stories about people shopping. And if you absolutely must push Black Friday off A1, there is that whole Mumbai thing you could put there instead.

Oh no, they didn’t!

The Gazette’s A1 hed on Wednesday, Nov. 5:

The Gazette’s sports section hed on Sunday, Nov. 9:

I already complained about Wednesday’s Obama hed. Reusing the hed — down to the exclamation point! — a second time this week doesn’t make it better.  As the ancient Chinese proverb goes: Cliché me once, shame on you; cliché me twice, shame on me.

Why The Gazette is right to leave the AP collective

So The Gazette is planning to live with the Associated Press. A difficult decision, I’m sure, but one I fully support.

My suspicions were aroused when Steve Buttry tweeted about a meeting with the AP bureau chief and the regional vice-president. And this evening, Mr. Buttry moved this on the Twitter wire:

My letter notifying AP that The Gazette is planning to leave: Column explaining it to our readers should post shortly.

In that letter, dated Sept. 18, Mr. Buttry wrote:

Perhaps the moves you have made to sell AP content widely across the Internet were necessary decisions as you seek to adapt and prosper in the digital age. But those moves certainly have contributed to devaluing your content to members.

Yes, yes, yes. By selling its content to Google and Yahoo and others who take but don’t contribute stories, the AP has made the stories it provides to the wire service’s owners (it is a newspaper collective owned by its newspaper subscribers, after all) more or less useless. Every AP story run in the dead-tree edition has already been available for hours when it arrives on the reader’s front step (or drive way, or bushes, or roof). And it isn’t cheap, either, costing hundreds of thousands or millions, depending on a paper’s circulation.

The Gazette is just one of the papers that have threatened to leave (the AP requires two years’ notice to stop service, a requirement one paper has challenged). But local news is what will keep newspapers afloat, not wire content and certainly not stories readily available from Google or Yahoo.

I’m not saying everyone should be or is getting her news online, but newspapers can’t compete in the long run if they pay more for less valuable content. By raising its rates, AP is pricing itself out of a lot of paper’s future plans. Local reporting is what the AP cannot do to any large degree and it’s what newspapers need more of to save themselves.

Update: In Mr. Buttry’s Sunday column, he gives three main reasons for the decision, similar to what other papers have said:

  • The availability of the AP’s national and international news online lessens the value of the that news to the paper.
  • The selection of state and sports news has declined.
  • The AP has increased rates (6 percent to 10 percent for The Gazette) and decreased the service options.