Saturday, January 31, 2009

Thoughts about the news industry

Yesterday, I spent the better part of the day judging newspaper entries for an annual state contest [the state will go nameless, since I don't want to get targeted for losses, heh, heh ...]. The categories were in different divisions, based on the size of the circulation of the newspaper. I judged two sets of politics/elections entries, and then tackled the in-dept/investigation category with a co-worker.
While a lot of the entries were not super impressive, there were some shining moments. In addition, what was really spectacular was the level of work produced by so many weeklies, even if the news coverage was relatively pedestrian. Meetings and features and tons of news, often by a single reporter or two reporters.
For the first round of judging, I literally read through each entry, from a bunch of small newspapers. Most of the stories were good but not really "award-winning." However, I was struck by the consistency of many of the newspapers. While there were small staffs, they were clearly working hard to get the news out. In addition, most of the entries seemed to be smaller or independent newspaper companies, not a lot of big companies [later in the day, we found out that no newspapers from our parent company had entered anything into the contest, a complete shock considering the fact that those newspapers win awards every year].
After looking at all the entries, I picked three which were pretty good.
In the next round, I received a higher circulation category and thought, before reading all of these entries, let me scan through them and look for some things that were outside of the box. I started opening them up and realized, wow, this was going to be hard. There were some great collections of election stories, election guides, and political issues in this category. It was clear the difference between the divisions - while the smaller newspapers were trying their best, the higher circs clearly had the resources to do a stellar job.
I ended up skimming through most of the entries that were pretty standard - lots of election results stories and election guides. Ho hum. I ended up picking three unusual stories - one, about a reporter being detained and questioned by the Secret Service at a debate; a large city weekly's extensive election coverage; and a story about the results of a write-in campaign.
After looking at the politics and election entries, I took a break and checked email before tackling the next set of entries. This sentence came across from the WSJ: "Gannett posted lower earnings and disclosed it will write down the value of assets by as much as $5.9 billion amid 'unprecedented turmoil' in the newspaper business."
I gasped and read the sentence out to a few folks who were also shocked.
"Are they basically saying they are worth a fraction of what they should be? Wow," I said.
No one really knew, but it looks like it.
Bryan and I started looking at the in-depth/investigative entries and there were some extensive pieces. Most were not really that impressive - again, a lot of pretty standard coverage - but we picked three really good entries that showed originality and creativity.
But as I got through all the entries of the in-depth category, I kept coming back to the Gannett announcement. When thinking about this, and looking at all the quality work by the smaller newspapers, it is pretty shocking. But there it is. These big companies, destroying newspapers, and leaving not much in their wake, while the smaller companies do what newspapers are supposed to be doing.
It also makes me come back to the economy in general, and the need to "get credit flowing ..." We're hearing that a lot. But, in many, many ways, credit and debt got us into the mess we're in right now. Companies got too, too big, and needed to be bailed out ... and maybe even bailed out again ... Getting into more debt with no clear way out other than hope for the future, well, that's not really hope at all. That's just a bigger mess coming.

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