Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Irene: much ado about a lot in the Adirondacks

There were a lot of snarky comments on Facebook and Twitter by people who expressed disappointment in Irene, even boredom. They seemed to think that more should’ve happened given all the media coverage. ‘Witty’ comments like ‘hurri-lame’ were prolific. Even the normally reliable Howard Kurtz expressed his “great relief that the prophets of doom were wrong about Hurricane Irene.”

This may be true of those cocooned in comfortable offices in Manhattan or DC but I don’t think anyone living in upstate New York’s Adirondack region, an area more used to heavy precipitation of the colder variety, would agree with these clueless assessments

Those ignorant enough to still think Irene was much ado about nothing ought to visit North Country Public Radio’s website. Their news page and news blog both have extensive coverage and photos of the massive devastation caused by this ‘non-event.’ Adirondack Almanack also has a good report and a compelling first-hand account.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Bummer no one ever scores in soccer

Due to the pretty strong ‘remnants’ of Hurricane Irene, I did little much yesterday except watch soccer. The scores of the matches I watched were 5-1, 8-2, 4-3 and 2-2. I only saw highlights for the one on Saturday that finished 6-2. Too bad all soccer games end 0-0.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Failing Circulation Forces Newspaper Awards to Break the Rules

Tenth in a series by regular contributor Mark Wilson

(©2011 Mark Wilson)

Cascading newspaper circulation numbers are causing problems in more than advertising revenues, newspaper staffs, and corporate media stock prices. They now appear to have compromised the integrity of newspaper awards.

The New York State Associated Press Association (NYSAPA) announced its annual awards earlier this month for writers, editors, photographers and graphic artists working at daily publications across the state. A total of 240 awards (82 first, 80 second and 78 third prizes) in 27 categories went to numerous employees of 34 newspapers.

According to the official rules, entrants for the writing categories are divided into four separate circulation classes: Under 25,000; 25,000 to 50,000; 50,000 to 125,000; and over 125,000. At present, the Audit Bureau of Circulations lists only six newspapers in New York State with circulation between 25,000 and 50,000. While there is no indication of how many newspapers submitted entries to the competition, of these six papers, only three -- The Poughkeepsie Journal, The Observer-Dispatch of Utica, and The Post-Star of Glens Falls -- won any writing awards. Inexplicably, a fourth newspaper, The Watertown Daily Times, also won awards (three) in this class. The Audit Bureau of Circulations lists the daily circulation of the Watertown paper as 20,475—4,525 readers shy of the minimum standard for the judging class.

When asked to explain the discrepancy, contest organizer and AP New York Bureau Chief Howard Goldberg initially explained that because of shifts in newspaper audiences from print to online editions, the NYSAPA decided to use 2009 circulation figures for this year’s competition. Asked then why the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle won ten writing awards this year in the 50,000—125,000 class when its 2009 daily circulation was 130,506, Mr. Goldberg retreated. He clarified that for this year’s contest classes NYSAPA “mostly stuck with the print circulation numbers we had used for last year’s contest.”

This explanation raised a few questions:

*Did NYSAPA modify the circulation numbers for all participating papers?
If so, did they use the same formula for each paper?

*Why did the official rules fail to mention the change?

*How were the participating newspapers notified of the change in rules?

*And who authorized the change?

Mr. Goldberg declined the opportunity to answer these questions. Mr. Goldberg also did not share the number of submissions for each category within each class of the writing competition. Along with the four newspapers that divided 45 prizes for writing in the 25,000 to 50,000 circulation class, the over-125,000 circulation class distributed 39 writing prizes among four newspapers, and six papers with circulation between 50,000 and 125,000 shared 45 prizes. In the most competitive class, 18 newspapers with circulation under 25,000 shared 44 writing prizes in 15 categories.

The Associated Press determined its New York State awards prestigious enough to send out a wire story nationwide. Likewise, eight of the 14 newspapers whose employees were honored for writing in the three least competitive classes devoted newsprint to coverage of their own successes. None bothered to report the narrowness of the classes in which they competed.

At The Post-Star in Glens Falls, Editor Ken Tingley, who sits on NYSAPA’s Board of Directors, announced his paper’s new honors in a blog post that cited 33 awards. A story soon followed (attributed to “staff”) in his paper’s business pages under the headline, “Post-Star wins total of 33 state Associated Press awards.” As a matter of fact, the newspaper actually won 34 awards—none for fact-checking. In a sign of these hard economic times for the news publishing sector, four of the nine Post-Star staffers awarded first prize in the NYSAPA contest have left the paper since their honored work appeared in print.

As for NYSAPA’s apparent breaking of its own rules in an effort to beef up award classes and lend the contest some semblance of legitimacy, Howard Goldberg claims that contest reform will be on the agenda at the organization’s September board meeting. Perhaps his board might consider scrapping the self-indulgent exercise altogether. It has passed the point of resembling Prize Day at Low-Self-Esteem Summer Camp far more than a valid gauge of professional merit in a benighted industry.

Friday, August 26, 2011

From the wisdom of Twitter

There was just a 5.8 earthquake in Washington. Obama wanted it to be 3.4, but Republicans wanted 5.8. So he compromised. -@TheTweetofGod

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Local bookstore shutters: we've met the enemy and it is us

Like most other local bibliophiles, I was incredibly saddened to learn of the closing of Red Fox Books in Glens Falls. They did a great job in reaching out to the community with a wide variety of programs, in bringing in a wide variety of authors both local and national and providing great, engaging customer service. It managed to survive for five years in an area which has struggled economically for the last 30 years and is a tough market for independent retailers. Red Fox’s demise was particularly disappointing since its opening was the culmination of a several year campaign to bring a full service bookstore to Glens Falls.

Like many other local bookstores in the country, Red Fox was badly affected not only by online retailers (which were in existence when RF opened) but particularly by the sharp rise in popularity of Amazon.com’s Kindle e-reader. Once you factored in shipping, the amount you’d save shopping at Amazon was usually quite minimal unless you bought a lot of books at a time. You could order just about any book via Red Fox’s website and pick it up at the store at no extra charge. You could buy e-books via Red Fox’s website and their pricing was pretty comparable to the Barnes and Noble, iTunes and the like. But many locals insisted on shopping at BN.com or Amazon to save 25 cents. The result: a failed local business, local people unemployed, the loss of choice for local bibliophiles and the loss of a good amount of local sales tax revenue. Enjoy that quarter!

One thing people who prefer this digital method of reading need to understand is that not all e-readers are created equal. If you buy the B&N Nook, the Apple iPad, Sony e-reader or some other kind, you can buy e-books at the site of the company who produced the e-reader but you can also buy them at your local independent bookstore (if you have one) and you can also get them via the library. But if you buy a Kindle, you have no choice; you are shackled to Amazon.com as your sole vendor. E-book readers have a choice that we physical book readers just lost... but make sure your decisions don’t eliminate that choice.

Of course, a great big thank you goes to Red Fox's owners Susan and Naftali for their great contribution to our community. It will be sorely missed.

A somewhat related piece of news that caught my eye was the closure of the Lowe’s big box home improvement store in Ticonderoga. Chains and big corporations do have some advantages over independent businesses, but one big disadvantage that can be summed up quite simply: easy come, easy go. Lowe’s lasted on two years in Ti before pulling the plug. Of course, one wonders what sort of damage it did to locally-owned businesses in that brief time period.

On North Country Public Radio’s In Box blog, commenter and Adirondack Almanack founder John Warren asked: How many people lost their jobs in Jay, Ticonderoga, and Port Henry because this store sapped their local business over the past several years? Those who opposed this store as strip development blight out of character with the rest of the community and a drain on local economies were right. Who will move into this 440-car parking lot and empty 150,000 square foot big box?... NCPR should now be holding those elected officials accountable by asking why they pushed for such risky development without concern for the locally owned businesses and historic character of Ticonderoga...

Local officials should definitely focus on helping small and medium locally-owned businesses, as the Lowe’s debacle illustrates. But the community has a responsibility too. Those locally-owned businesses can survive if local people are spending their money instead supporting chains half a country away.

Locals like to scapegoat boogeymen like 'big government' and 'onerous regulations' for the region’s sluggish private sector economy. And yet how many of us CHOOSE to send their own money to private sector businesses halfway across the country rather than comparable ones on Main Street in our own towns?

Friday, August 19, 2011

From the wisdom(s) of Twitter

Debt increase by presidents: Reagan 186%, Bush 54% Clinton 41% Bush II 72% Obama 23%. Source CBO. -@paulfreid

Unemployment is 8.2% in TX, 5.5% in Socialist Republic of VT. -@dankennedy_nu

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Post-Star: Help Wanted (guest essay)

9th in a series on the troubles at The Post-Star and its parent Lee Enterprises

by Mark Wilson

Astronomy informs us that at the end of a star’s useful life, when it has burned through all its fuel, it expands into a loose assemblage of cosmic dust centered on a collapsing carbon and oxygen core. The outer shell eventually dissipates, leaving the ultra dense, sparkless core to mark a once-bright spot in the heavens. This post-star phase of stellar evolution is known as a “white dwarf” or “degenerate dwarf.”

In Glens Falls, the Post-Star is in transition. Dire financial crises at Lee Enterprise Inc—the Iowa corporation that owns the newspaper, along with about fifty other dailies across the country—have forced another round of staff cutbacks in all departments. Since Memorial Day, the Post-Star has lost nine of the 68 staffers (13.2%) listed on the “Contact Info” page at poststar.com. The loss of editorial staff includes Drew Kerr from the Saratoga Bureau, feature writer Jordan Reardon, veteran photographer and photo-illustrator TJ Hooker, and sportswriter Alex Matthews. In the past week the paper has also lost its online editor Jonathan Davenport (particularly painful as the news organization attempts the difficult transition to an internet-based model) and Washington County correspondent Lydia Wheeler, whose name has yet to be removed from the web page.

Characteristically, Post-Star Editor Ken Tingley wrote a vague blog post attempting to spin this bad news into something positive: a portent of a strengthening business climate in the newspaper publishing industry. His implication that the missing writers left for better jobs in the industry seems not to be true in all cases. When asked, Tingley declined to identify the recently-departed editorial staff; the transparency-crusading editor who publishes the names (and salaries) of public-sector employees as a service to the taxpayers who underwrite them proves himself unwilling to even confirm the employment status of his own byline journalists as a service to the subscribers, readers and advertisers who support them.

This summer’s staff cutbacks at the Post-Star mark the second major round of shrinkage for the newspaper (and the parent corporation) since the recession took hold in 2008. In December of that year an article in the Post-Star announced the firing of four of its full-time employees. The story stated that the cuts amounted to two per cent of the paper’s workforce, reducing the staff from 161 full- and part-time employees to 157. The following March, an article announcing the layoffs of eleven more employees cited a decrease in the paper’s payroll from 147 to 136 full- and part-time staff. Using their own numbers, in the three and a half months between those two news items ten more staffers disappeared, unreported. In total, the attrition in Post-Star staff between December 2008 and March 2009 amounted to 25 employees, or 15.5% of the original 161. By comparison, the Post-Star’s parent company reported a 12.2% decrease in total employees in the fiscal year ending September 2009.

Perhaps a better measure of the net loss of Post-Star talent (that accounts for staff increases as well as decreases) is a comparison of the staff “Contact Info” pages from poststar.com at various dates. The page from September 14, 2008 lists 84 employees. (Notably vacant on this list is the position of Publisher, which would not be filled by Rick Emanuel until October 20, about a month prior to the layoffs.) The same web page today lists 60 employees. Accounting for the previously mentioned departure of Lydia Wheeler, in less than three years the newspaper has suffered a net loss of nearly 30% of the staff it distinguishes with a listing on its own website.

While Editor Tingley, may try to put some positive spin on this grim statistic, the fact remains that the Post-Star continues to shine ever and evermore dimly.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Peace Corps history

A few weeks ago, I finished reading When the World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and its First Fifty Years by journalist Stanley Meisler, an excellent history of the widely respected agency. Meisler's book is very well-written and easy to follow. It provides a lot of inside details, particularly in the early days, but it is no hagiography. It does not shy away from some of the more controversial incidents and aspects of the Peace Corps first half century.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Dear Verizon

Dear Verizon,

When you are making record profits with your existing labor contract and you do nothing but raise rates on consumers, it doesn't exactly make me sympathetic when you claim to "need" to wring more concessions out of the workers who made you those record profits.

Regretfully yours,
The (Fairly) Young Contrarian

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Lee Enterprises, Inc’s 3rd Quarter Report: Black & White & Red All Over (guest essay)

8th in a series on troubles at The Post-Star and its parent Lee Enterprises

by Mark Wilson

The Iowa corporation that owns the Glens Falls Post-Star, Lee Enterprises, Inc., released its third quarter financial statement late Friday afternoon. As any reporter will tell you, the vacant lot between the close of stock markets Friday and Monday’s opening bell is where you go to bury bad news.

While many of the headlines from Lee’s SEC filing were made public soon after the fiscal quarter ended on June 26th, the aggregate bad news and the details of the measures the company is undertaking to stay afloat make for compelling and distressing reading.

The Big Picture
Lee Enterprises lost $155.5 million over the last three months. That compares to last year when they gained $10 million for the same quarter, and 2009—at the bottom of the recession—when they lost only $24.5 million. Even if Lee repeats last year’s fourth quarter gains (unlikely in what looks like a secondary recession) it will outpace its 2008-09 recession year losses by nearly $10 million or 7.85%.

Revenue Loss
While representatives for Lee Enterprise (including management at the Post-Star) continue to accentuate the increase in online ad revenue (up 22% over last year), those sales amount to only 12% of total advertising income. Combined print and digital advertising lost 5.6% over last year with real estate ads leading the decline (down 20%). Revenue from circulation was off .4%, a figure that reflects the unfortunate tug-of-war between the increased newsstand and subscription prices at some of Lee’s papers and the drop-off in readership.

Layoffs and Benefit Cuts
With revenues plunging and material costs on the rise, Lee has resorted to the one revenue stream under its control: laying off staff and cutting back on employee and retiree benefits. Lee saved $4 million over the last three months through layoff, buyout or “coerced attrition.” Full time equivalent employment at Lee (a term that balances out full and part time labor) decreased 4.8% from last year. (these savings were offset by increased $1.6 million “workforce adjustment costs” (outsourcing, contract labor, etc.).

Lee also saved $4 million by eliminating post-retirement medical coverage for its employees and freezing some pension benefits. Ominously, the report looks ahead to decreasing these operating costs another 4-5% in the coming quarter.

Corporate Debt
Lee Enterprises continues to struggle beneath a $1 billion debt burden which comes due in eight months. This picture may soon brighten,however, if only for the short term.

Reporters Mike Spector and Matt Wirz for the Wall Street Journal broke the story last Wednesdaybthat Lee has approached its principal lenders with a new plan for reorganizing its debt. The new plan divides the current debt obligation into three parts: $675 million in first lien senior debt; $175 million in second lien debt; and $175 new bond debt. The senior debt holds an interest rate of 7.5% over a term of four years (compared to the 4.25% they are paying now). The second lien debt holds an interest rate of 15% over five years (compared to 10% now paid on the debt remaining from the purchase of Pulitzer newspapers) and offers lenders a 13% stake in the company. Lee’s lenders Goldman Sachs and Monarch Alternative Capital have tentatively agreed to hold the publisher’s second tier debt in exchange for the over 1/8th ownership stake.

If the new arrangement holds to the previous terms (apart from interest rate and maturity dates) a very rough calculation of Lee’s new debt looks something like this:

•$675,000,000 over 4 years at 7.5% interest (in quarterly installments) comes to $197 million/year
•$175,000,000 over 5 years at 15% interest (in quarterly installments) comes to $50 million/year

When combined, Lee will have to come up with about $147 million/year to satisfy its creditors (before even considering the new bond debt service). This payout would be 2.25 times larger than the $109 million debt service it managed to come up with this past year. For an advertiser/subscriber/investor–dependent company going into the second wave of a national recession, this will be a very tall order to fill.

In the increasingly likely event that Lee ultimately fails to meet the new debt obligations and declares bankruptcy, the new arrangement with its banks sets up a dynamic similar to the Journal Register Company, which emerged from its 2009 bankruptcy last month as the privately-held property of the hedge fund Alden Global, the newspaper’s principal lender.

Anyone who was disappointed three years ago in their newspaper’s failure to hold financial institutions accountable for the nation’s real estate and stock market collapses will not see this infiltration into the publishing sector by many of the same banks as a move in the right direction.

Late in the week, following news of the debt refinancing plan and in anticipation of the quarterly report, Lee’s stock dropped to a 2-year low of 68¢ per share.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Monday, August 01, 2011

Lee Enterprise newspapers moving (fast) to subscription-based web content (guest essay)

7th in a series on troubles at The Post-Star and its parent Lee Enterprises

by Mark Wilson


The on-again-off-again romance between the Post-Star and the internet subscription paywall looks like it might soon heat up again.

Lee Enterprises, the Davenport, Iowa-based parent company of the Post-Star announced suddenly yesterday that it will begin requiring visitors to the websites of its Montana and Wyoming newspapers pay a subscription if they wish to read more than a few stories per month. Access to the papers’ home pages, classified sections, and a few other features will remain free, regardless of the number of visits. According to the editor of the Montana Standard, the subscription plan begins today for the Billings Gazette, the Helena Independent Record, The Missoulian, and Ravalli Republic in Montana, and the Casper Star Tribune in Wyoming.

The head office’s new policy seems to have blind-sided some of the publications. The Billings Gazette and the Ravalli Republic in notices to their readers claim the new “reader meter” allows visitors twenty free stories in any given thirty day period, while the Montana Standard and Helena IR claim the system will allow fifteen free pages for any of the affected websites. Neither The Missoulian nor the Casper Star Tribune websites made any announcement of the new policy on Sunday.

No telling if this policy in the northern rockies will spread to any of Lee’s 43 other newspaper properties (including the Post-Star). The company is in financial disarray, and is looking for any way to generate new income and attract investors to boost its dangerously deflated stock. This might be the company’s next hail Mary pass.

The Post-Star flirted with subscription-based web content a decade ago—a move which led to the online division between PostStar.net (for paying customers) and PostStar.com (for everyone else). Visitors preferred the free site in numbers large enough to convince the publisher to drop the firewall altogether and offer all content for free. In February last year, after deciding to pull Letters to the Editor and other items from the website, Editorial Page Editor Mark Mahoney sent out an e-mail plea to editors around the country for information on how to make the paper’s website profitable. The plea made its way online, where it was unfortunately ridiculed for its loose grammar and desperate tone.

Perhaps enough time has passed since the Post-Star’s last traumatic break-up with subscriber-only content. After all, the paper and its readers are older, more mature. Maybe the paper is ready for a fuller commitment to the relationship this time. After all, the Schenectady Gazette is making a go of it with its readers. So is The New York Times. Maybe, by golly, its time to take the big plunge. No regrets. ‘Til death do us part.

Then again, maybe the Post-Star won’t have a choice in the matter. A shotgun marriage is being arranged at this very moment in Iowa. Expect an invitation from the Lee family at any moment.