Monday, June 27, 2011

Round Two

American Statesman Buy-Outs

The deal was on the table. They took it. Decades of collective history, goodwill, contacts, at talent walked out of the room.

That room is the Austin American-Statesman’s newsroom. Now, after the previous buy-outs a couple of years ago that included Ben Sargent and Diane Holloway, the cavernous room is even more empty.

Despite ever expanding new revenue streams and possible news delivery platforms, the Statesman again offered buy-out packages and early retirement to scores of employees. You know many of their names: Michael Corcoran, John Kelso, Kathy Warbelow, Denise Gamino, Larry Kolvoord, Larry Hobbs, and many others.

I could fill volumes with the awards Denise Gamino won for her reporting in her 30-plus year career. Talk about tenacious attention to detail, and you’re talking about Denise Gamino. She’s gone.

The same could be said about Michael Corcoran’s depth of knowledge of the music industry in Austin and elsewhere. I hope cub reporters got Corcoran’s number for contacts before he left.

What about those fabulous photos from Kolvoord and Hobbs. Somebody else will take them—possibly the reporter covering the story.

Like Sargent, Kelso will continue contributing a column for Sunday papers.
Editor Fred Zipp named names on the Sunday, June 26th Opinion Page. He explained why the buy-outs were necessary:

“As a business, the Statesman continues to negotiate the difficult transition from a print-only newspaper with negligible direct competition into a news organization that operates on several platforms, including an increasing crowded digital space.

“Declining advertising revenue has forced use to become smaller; continuing success demands we become smarter.”

“Even as we shrink our staff size, we’re determined to measure up to our readers’ expectations. In recent months, we have doubled the number of people assigned to our investigative team, where public interest journalism is the only priority.

“It’s impossible, however, to endure the loss of 12 such accomplished colleagues without ill effect.”

Meanwhile, the Statesman is trying new things such as “print only” stories. They are putting a preview of stories inside the paper on the left side of page one. They are including so-called “proof of performance” promotional pieces inside the paper, usually in the upper left corner, reminding readers of the value of their coverage.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the newspaper started making more use of freelancers and stringers—journalists who will be paid on a per-story basis but they won’t receive costly health benefits, etc. When you see “Special to the American-Statesman”, think “freelancer”. It’s the way the world is now. It’s OK. The readers aren’t cheated. The writers are pros.
The transition is and will continue to be difficult. Yes, the Statesman has a huge printing business, but fewer and fewer readers are relying on the printed word. Will those massive presses running monster rolls of paper be needed much longer, or will they become relics? continues to be the #1 site for news in the Austin area. Yet, as Zipp pointed out there is “increasingly crowded digital space”. Next month “Culture Map Austin”, a daily digital magazine goes live, joining, the Austinist, Austin Bulldog, the Austin Chronicle, and several other online news sources with their own special tilt to the news.

The continuing question concerns how does an online medium monetize its product? Will go the route of paid content? And will readers pay? We’re so used to getting what we want with the click of a mouse.

I still get the printed paper delivered. The page with Fred Zipp’s column is beside the typewriter behind me now.

That typewriter hasn’t been used in years.

© Jim McNabb, 2011

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Currently ...

All Olbermann, All the Time

“If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Heard that before? I heard it often growing up. I think that maxim might be useful nowadays in an era if incivility.

That being said, I have to weigh-in on the new incarnation of “Countdown” with Keith Olbermann on Current TV.

I admit to having been a regular viewer when Olbermann was the “face” of MSNBC’s prime time. His concepts of competing with the likes of CNN and Fox were intriguing. Further, he could draw on the vast resources of NBC as well as his own visions then.

I realized last night watching the debut of his new show, those resources and the technical toys and expertise at his new gig may be the difference between then (five months or so ago when he was on MSNBC) and now.

His former colleagues at MSNBC have a long list of credible contributors—Pulizer Prize winners—who can expatiate on the vagaries of politics inside the “Beltway”. Olbermann is just now creating his contributors. His first pundit was film-maker Michael Moore. Now, Moore can certainly hold his own on many subjects, but I don’t think he is credible on all.

Olbermann took pains to point out that Moore and his other guests were “Countdown contributors”. I don’t know if that means these guests are exclusive to Olbermann’s show, but he made a big deal out of saying it time and again. Time and again, his guests also gushed about how great it was to have Olbermann back. The program ran long because the gratuitous comments kept coming. Olbermann should have said, “Thank you” and ended it, but he let it continue, because he can.

Olbermann was Olbermann. Olbermann picked up right where he left off when he and MSNBC abruptly parted ways five months ago,” writes Hank Steuver for the Washington Post. The problem seemed to be that Current TV and its production crew couldn’t keep up with him. There were production glitches throughout the broadcast.

Wrong video ran—video that didn’t match the words spoken. Graphics looked like there were created in the 1990s. I watched the replay at 10 p.m. (Central). I don’t know if it was Current TV or if it was Time Warner, but the volume levels kept going up and down. It was maddening. Yes, it’s a new show, and production problems happen, but one would think at the “big leagues” level, they would have sorted out these issues before the premier telecast.

The replay is another issue. It seems that the “Countdown” of the day is going to repeat every two hours until the next day, just in case you missed it or want to see it again. Geez. That’s a lot of Keith Olbermann. Between the “Countdown” casts are documentaries. I don’t think Current TV has much else going on. Moreover, I don’t think “Countdown” can carry the day for Current all by himself.

Clearly, Current TV and its owner, Al Gore, believe that Keith Olbermann’s “Countdown” will draw a crowd. It’s going to take more content than just Keith to make that happen.

© Jim McNabb, 2011

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Future of Media

It took 475 pages for the Federal Communications Commission’s Future of the Media Working group to lay out its rather stale findings. The FCC could have/should have been listening to what critics, academicians, and working media have been saying for years. It would have cost less, I feel sure.

The authors where tasked with surveying the media and information landscape in our country with particular emphasis on local news.

“The authors hold true to the premise that “the First Amendment circumscribes the role government can play in improving local news … most of the solutions to today’s media problems will be found by entrepreneurs, reporters, and creative citizens, not legislators or agencies. Government cannot save journalism,” the report says. Hasn’t it always been that way?

Here’s the scary part: “Today’s media landscape is more vibrant than ever,” the report asserts, there are problems. “[A] shortage of local, professional, accountability reporting” is cited as an example, resulting in a decline in local reporting. What’s the result? It has “shifted power away from citizens to government and other powerful institutions, which can more often set the news agenda.”

I think that I sarcastically called it “news release” journalism.

Admittedly cherry-picking, what follows are some of the points made. You may have read them somewhere, perhaps here.

· Newspaper subscribership has been declining consistently for decades.

· Cost-cutting at major newspapers has been largely successful in preserving their commercial viability. (Employee contracts at the Austin American-Statesman happening again right now.)

· Local accountability journalism has been hard hit, and the erosion of the beat reporting system has resulted in declines in expertise. (See the above, plus the turnover of staff at some local TV stations.

· Shrinking newsroom staffs and the multiplication of media platforms have increased the workload of individual reporters. (Think “doing more with less”.)

· The Telecommunications Act of 1996 – which loosened radio ownership restrictions – was followed by rapid industry consolidation. (Some call it hegemony) This consolidation resulted in both higher profits for radio broadcasters and a decline in the quality and quantity of local news. (Duh? That started with the deregulation during the Reagan administration.) Staffing was slashed. Reporters equal content.

· Locally-owned stations may produce more local news. (We no longer have locally-owned major commercial radio stations in the immediate Austin area.)

· Public radio is emerging as a go-to source for local news. (Think KUT-FM)

· While most local TV stations have increased the volume of news production, the authors note, they (TV newsrooms) have at the same time reduced staff and lessened the depth of their coverage. (That may not be a fair criticism of some Austin TV news, but all are doing more with less.)

· Despite the increase in news production, television news staffs and budgets are shrinking. (See the above. Again, that isn’t fully applicable to all Austin TV stations doing news.)

· So-called “if it bleeds it leads” stories about crime continue to dominate newscasts to the detriment of coverage of other important local issues. (That’s true of one local station in particular. Why? Because covering so-called “spot news” is generally easy and generally inexpensive. It’s right there in front of you.)

· Local TV stations are assigning increased responsibilities to their reporters, including conducting interviews, shooting video and editing their own stories. (Think “one-man-bands”.)

· Nearly one-third of local TV stations are airing news produced by another station. (Think of KXAN TV-produced news on KNVA TV a 9 p.m. each night.)

These direct quotes are most salient when talking about local news coverage by newspapers, TV, and radio.

Broadband expansion with access for all is the most promising part of the report prepared by Wiley Rein, LLP. Mobile connections also hold promise.

Certainly, one can’t distill 475 pages in a short post. It is fair to say that the report does express optimism. It mostly focuses on the possibilities of the Internet, but it’s rather Pollyanna about the future of newspapers and broadcast news. Find the synopsis of the report and the response of the FCC at the Radio Television Digital News Association’s site:

© Jim McNabb, 2011

Friday, June 10, 2011

A New Trap

Mouse Elbow

Did you know that you can get so-called “Tennis Elbow” from excessive use of a mouse? You can.

“As the name suggests, playing tennis — especially repeated use of the backhand stroke with poor technique — is one possible cause of tennis elbow,” According to the Mayo Clinic. “However, many other common arm motions can cause tennis elbow, including: Using plumbing tools, painting, driving screws, cutting up cooking ingredients, particularly meat, and excessive computer mouse use.

From all I’ve read, the condition usually comes on gradually as a person performs repeated motions. You may have seen the comical commercial showing someone suffering serious injury by constantly clicking the mouse with his index finger.

It’s not funny. It’s really true.
Not only does your digit hurt, but the wrist, forearm, elbow and even bicep burns and aches.
But, you say, I need to write a story; I need to write a post. The doctor says, give it a rest.
Rest, along with a steroid injection, is about the only thing one can do about “mouse elbow”. You can take ibuprofen for inflammation and pain. A cold pack can also help.

I tried using the mouse with my left hand for a couple of days. I thought my brain was going to explode. So, I got a new ergonomic mouse. It seems to have helped some, but I’m not supposed to be using the keyboard or the mouse. I can’t play guitar. I can’t shake hands with friends. I have projects, but they may have to wait. Yaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhh!!!

So, I’m supposed to sit around all day with my arm in a sling thinking about all of the things that I love—all of the things that I want to do, but I’m not supposed to do? Of course, I’m a bad patient.

The Mayo Clinic has a stern warning for me however. “Left untreated, tennis elbow can result in chronic pain — especially when lifting or gripping objects. Using your arm too strenuously before your elbow has healed can make the problem worse,” the site says.

I got some new books this week. Looks like I’m going to be doing some reading instead of writing.

© Jim McNabb, 2011