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Posts Tagged ‘media general’

There is no Santa Claus. Many people in the news business know that as a literal fact, but they still believe there may be a kind of Santa Claus who will step into their lives. If they did not, we would not have stories such as this, from Nieman Lab this time, wondering what in the world Warren Buffett (or replace his name with your favorite media-owning billionaire) has in mind for his newspaper(s). The article by Joshua Benton wonders what might be read into the absence of tea leaves about newspapers in Buffett’s most recent letter to shareholders.

I’ll tell you what: Nothing.

In 2013, shortly after getting a new job after being laid off from Media General in the wake of Buffett’s purchase of that company’s newspaper assets, I was called by a reporter (perhaps it was Reuters, but I don’t recall for sure) who was working on a story about what Buffett was really after. I told her that from what I saw from the time of the purchase announcement in May 2012 through the transition period until the final cuts that November, you had to take Buffett at his public word — that he thought that prudent, conservative management would keep the papers viable and profitable for some time, but that he had no plans to experiment or try anything that would surprise people.

So far, Buffett’s company has been completely consistent on its management of the company’s newspapers, which is to say conventional. The managers are budget-minded. Papers have to make their “numbers,” above all. Everything has been consistent with what I saw in my brief exposure to that management structure.

So why the never-ending stream of stories wondering what lies over the rainbow, or whether there is a rainbow?

Because people thought Buffett was Santa Claus.

People in news don’t often think of news as a business. It’s a calling. It’s not a way to make money. People take pride that it doesn’t pay well, as people do when they get great satisfaction from a job that doesn’t pay well. It’s a mission. That makes it personal, to a great extent. But Warren Buffett, like most business owners, approaches his business as a business. This is business, but the news people are taking it very, very personal.

Please stop it, all of you. To the extent that Jeff Bezos or other billionaire-come-latelys to the business are trying new things or talking about new models, please, by all means, spread the word. New ideas need consideration. But please stop waiting for secret plans on how to get out of the quagmire from anyone who steps in and does not enunciate any plans that differ from what you already know or, as in the case of Orange County, require a reality other than the one you know.

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I haven’t met Dylan Howlett, but I hope I will because his recent blog post, Advice for Felix Salmon: Stop giving advice, is very well written. In case you don’t have time right now to go read it (find the time eventually, please) or the piece it refers to, here’s a summary:

Salmon wrote an article, To all the young journalists asking for advice …, not only discouraging anyone from trying to pursue a career in journalism but insulting them for thinking of it. Howlett responded smartly and hilariously, calling out Salmon’s bitterness and the massive gaps in his argument.

Howlett aptly sums up why I stay in this business. It’s true that after I was laid off in 2012, I looked for an exit ramp to something else. My thoughts at the time were not as dark as Salmon expresses, but they were in that general path.

But my previous job in journalism wasn’t very rewarding, emotionally. The one I have now is. No surprise, I now work directly with reporters and their writing and do a fair amount of writing of my own. And you know what? It’s nice to be in love. It’s true of people and it’s true of whatever you do.

Also, this, from Salmon: “And while a couple of years ago I harbored hopes that things might improve, those hopes have now pretty much evaporated. Things are not only bad; they’re going to get worse.”

That reminds me of this: For more than 20 years, I worked for Media General. When I started, the company’s stock was trading somewhere in the $20- to $30-a-share range. At one point in the early 2000s it got to over $70 a share. But then much of the media world started getting “disrupted,” and the stock dropped. A few years ago it got down to around $1 a share. Along the way, a lot of people decided it was never going to get any better — prodded by some stock analysts who predicted the company was doomed — and they dumped all their stock. Today it’s trading for over $15. Obviously, $70 a share was ridiculous, but so was $1. Yes, Media General is now a TV company with no newspapers, but that’s the point: Who saw that coming? A point that Salmon, oddly enough, makes unintentionally by pointing out developments in journalism that came out of nowhere.

There’s a saying related to stock trading: Past performance is not a guarantee of future results.

Salmon, despite his financial-reporting background, seems to believe otherwise — which is all the more puzzling, given that he admits “I’ve also never really had a career, in the sense of a planned-out sequence of jobs, each one slightly better than the last, working my way up towards some grand ideal position. I arrived where I am randomly, and I could not have replicated it if I tried.”

That pretty much sums up the career of almost everyone I have ever met.

Here’s my advice: If you fall in love, follow your heart.

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From the day that Robyn Tomlin described to me what Digital First Media’s Thunderdome was going to be, I thought it sounded like a much bigger, broader, better-planned and better-financed version of what Media General (the pre-2012 version of the company, which still owned newspapers) had tried to do through Newsbank (the company’s intranet for sharing all of the company’s newspaper stories and photos) and its Interactive Media Division. We didn’t try to be a national news desk for the company’s newspapers, but we produced specialty pages, had a Washington bureau that tried to tailor stories to our markets, encouraged sharing of stories and reporting resources, and offered video, interactives and help with live chats and other online projects.

In Jim Brady’s Lessons learned from Project Thunderdome, the successes and problems he cites were, naturally, of a much larger scale, but they were parallel to Media General’s experiences. One paragraph in particular resonates with me:

One inadvertent lesson learned from Thunderdome was its service as a bellwether in surfacing who inside DFM was truly interested in culture change. Many DFM journalists worked collaboratively with Thunderdome to support DFM’s strategy and secure its future; others focused only on preserving their own futures. Centralization, in that regard, is an effective mousetrap in identifying who doesn’t want his cheese moved.

Every newsroom I worked with varied this way. At some, the top editor bought into what we were trying to do and encouraged the staff to work with us. At others, the top editor was at best indifferent, and there might be individuals in the newsroom who were enthusiastic while others would rather MG just go away and leave them alone. (The top editor at one newspaper literally never returned a single phone call from me. Not one.)

One of the lessons I learned early on in my time at Media General is no one seeks to become an editor at any level because they think someone else is better at what they do than they are. Making an argument about the time they will save that could be better devoted to better local coverage won’t fly with everyone because in the eyes of some editors, whatever is being done centrally is making the paper worse and they just can’t stand it — there were times that I sent out to MG’s papers a specialty features page using a design lifted straight from an award-winning designer in Tampa, and the features editors at some papers that used the package changed the design, often radically. Some editors even will argue in favor of duplicating reporting effort in order for their readers to see that the local paper “owns” the topic.

Brady also writes, “Never underestimate the technical challenges of centralization.” He means it in Thunderdome’s case in terms of producing online packages that will need to run across multiple content management systems, but in a broader sense it applies to anything you try to do across multiple newsrooms. The most-cited reason editors gave me for why they used an AP version of a story instead of the much better version produced by another MG paper was that AP stories flowed into their computer system at the press of a button, but the stories on MG’s own network had to be copied and pasted in (a system that itself was the lowest-common-denominator solution to creating the network in the late ’90s after MG had bought dozens of papers that all had different computer systems — some PCs, some Macs, some new, some old). And I see something similar in my current company, where the editors in North Carolina have talked about ways to work together more or at least share more, but there is no easy way to share plans or see what everyone else is doing. If your technology and workflow are developed for a silo, everyone then is stuck working in a silo.

You don’t have to be working at a national organization to gain useful insights from Brady’s piece. Anywhere you are trying to change the work culture, you’ll find parallels.

7/29/14 UPDATE: Steve Buttry offers tips for changing company culture in a post for INMA, and I think they relate directly to the kinds of situations described above. As the subhead for the post sums up, “To make true changes in the workplace culture, actual adjustments in work activities are required.” Brady didn’t elaborate on the newsrooms where he found resistance to what DFM was trying to do, but I’d be willing to bet the difference between those newsrooms and the ones where he found collaboration was the latter changed what they were doing to mesh with what DFM was doing from Thunderdome. I saw something like it in MG where, if a newsroom’s responsibilities for sharing news and photos were assigned to a single assistant editor, whose other duties didn’t change, there wasn’t a lot of sharing done, because it was an add-on to the editor’s “real” work, not a change in what that person was doing.

I have seen the principal at work in even a much more small-scale way when a newsroom gained a graphic artist (this was all the way back in the day when adding staff was possible). The newsroom hadn’t had one before, and the managers didn’t rework what editors and reporters were doing, so the result was the graphic artist was getting thrown assignments as an afterthought late in the workflow.

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The past year has been a whirlwind.

I’m three weeks away from the anniversary of my arrival in Lenoir. By Jan. 21 I will have been working here four months longer than I did when this place gave me my first reporting job in 1987-88.

The change in my working life from 2012 to 2013 is reflected in part by what you don’t see. Before, I blogged an average of several times a week about news issues, new media and social media. In large part, that reflected my job at Media General – part of my role to was to track trends on things like that and point our newsrooms to what other news organizations were doing.

During 2013, WordPress tells me, my posting dropped to an average of two or three times a month.

Mostly that’s the result of the time-consuming role of running a small, resource-starved newsroom. At a place this small, the editor is not just the editor; he (or she) is also a reporter, tech support, obit clerk, calendar editor, photo editor, editorial page editor and sometimes handyman. If you want your reporters to be reporters, you have little choice but to sweep up those other roles.

Among my frustrations from my job hunt was that editors and publishers often seemed to think my time in the corporate news division of Media General actually was a detour out of news, that the 11-plus years there could only have dulled my instincts for supervising reporters or my willingness to pull long hours. My publisher here would say otherwise.

But one thing I can credit to my time in Media General is learning, by observing nearly two dozen newsrooms, from weeklies up to metro dailies, that when the resources are cut, you have to let something go. I had seen many examples of editors trying to keep doing the same with less. As busy as I am, I could be busier if I weren’t willing to embrace what’s “good enough” and move on to the next battle.

Which brings me to another change in my blog posts. In general, my posts now most often address what confronts me as the editor of a small-town newspaper, or they are personal observances. I haven’t taken time to rethink the “About” portion of the blog, so I blog less.

My main challenge during 2013 was setting expectations for the staff: The main point isn’t to fulfill a byline count but to make sure what you do is interesting to the reader. That has meant shooting down stories that the paper might have done before and sending others back for more work. It has meant learning to use social media to draw attention to stories since fewer people subscribe. We’ve begun getting a little video in as extras, but the emphasis has stayed on the writing.

The staff is smaller than it was in mid-2012, but this paper is better written now, I think it’s more interesting, and the number of local news items in print is about the same.

I could be wrong about our performance. We didn’t do well in the state press awards, and home subscriptions continue their years-long slide (though the most common reason given for canceling is free news online). But single-copy sales are stronger.

My biggest frustrations are things that are out of my control: the budget, and the ability of a paper this size, in this kind of market, to appeal to young talent.

In those, I am sure, I have plenty of company.

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I was exasperated the other day at the latest entry in the “No, come on, what is Warren Buffet really up to?” genre of columns. There are two things these things seem to have in common: One, the writers all believe Buffett is a genius who can’t make a bad call; two, they think that he can’t possibly be telling the whole truth about why he is buying newspapers. I am not remotely qualified to judge the first, but I’m willing to bet he’s telling the truth about his newspaper plans, which is merely that he wants them run prudently and well, and he thinks that under the right conditions, considering the markets they are in, they will be profitable quite a while. That seems to meet with a lot of skepticism. I certainly was among the skeptics, but since going to work in January in the kind of market Buffett seems to favor, my perspective is changing, at least some.

There’s a saying in medicine, “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.” It’s the Occam’s Razor principle: When multiple explanations are available, the simplest version is preferred. In other words, I think too many people are overthinking this situation and skipping the simple answer. When people look at the papers Buffett has bought and notice that most of them are in North Carolina and Virginia, and deduce from that some kind of grand plan, I have to shake my head. When he bought Virginia-based Media General’s newspapers in 2012, that accounted for all but two of his current NC/Va papers, and those other two (Greensboro and Roanoke) came from one Virginia-based company, Landmark, this year. Essentially that’s two points (MG and Landmark) on a graph. But before buying MG he bought Omaha in 2011, and after buying the MG papers he bought two in Texas (Waco and College Station). And before he bought Omaha, he owned only Buffalo. Plot all those points on a graph and it’s not as tidy.

One argument that has been made is that with all of those papers in a relatively tight geographic area, there’s potential for pooling resources and eliminating duplicate costs. Indeed. Or, indeed there used to be. MG and Landmark each did quite a bit of that; putting the two groups together will allow a bit more, but I would bet not a huge amount. And on the news side, I can say as one of the two people who had been at MG in charge of encouraging the sharing of news resources and responsibilities, those who bet for moves on that front again are ignoring what Buffett has said. Editors are reluctant to give up control of their own resources, or to turn over traditional areas of coverage to other publications, even within the same company, or even just to stop doing things that duplicate what sister newspapers are doing if they view the topic being duplicated as important to them. It can be done — see what Digital First Media is doing — but to make that part of the company strategy would go against Buffett’s stated intention of letting editors run their newsrooms independently, without central direction of what their coverage should be.

With all of the above rolling around in my head, this morning Steve Buttry pointed to a column about a parallel situation of basic psychology. In the column Are you mad at me? Adam Bryant talks about how people are constantly reading their bosses, often reading too much into little things and misinterpreting the situation. I think that’s exactly the kind of thing going on in the news business with Buffett. He’s not the boss of most of us, but in a way — he has the money and he’s calling the shots, at a time when no one else seems willing to — he really is.

But I’m going to treat Buffett the way I wish my employees would treat me: I’m taking him at his word.

So, are you willing to say Warren Buffett is a big, fat liar?

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A minor misfortune of my job since 2001 has been the title because no one outside the company would have any idea what it means: Newsbank editor. Or, worse, if someone has heard of NewsBank Inc., he or she might think my job was related. It wasn’t. There has never been any part of it related to NewsBank Inc. When Media General created a news-sharing intranet website in 1998, for whatever reason company officials chose to name it Newsbank (or, in public news releases, News Bank, though on the business cards presented to me when I first reported for work, it was Newsbank). So whenever I met someone and they asked what I did, I often thought of a line from an episode of the 1978-79 “Battlestar Galactica” (“The Long Patrol”) in which Starbuck lands on a prison planet where inmates’ names are derived from their crimes: “What exactly is Starbuckin’?” Before 2001, I could answer the “What do you do?” question with my actual title: “I’m a reporter.” “I’m the city editor.” “I’m the state editor.” Some further explanation might be tacked on, but the title conveyed basics. Starting in 2001, I skipped the title and launched into the explanation, and I quietly wished that back in 1998 someone had a different idea for the job title.

Today I realized what that title could have been. Within Steve Buttry’s post about the new curation team at Digital First Media is a fairly good description, from Karen Workman (the third person in the post, if you go looking for it), of much of what I do (go down to the bold subhead “So how can we do this?”). Of course, Newsbank is old technology (the original 1998 coding was rewritten, but that still was almost 10 years ago) and not up to everything she describes as desireable, and I do other things during the day — increasingly and sometimes depressingly so. But basically, yeah, the essentials are parallel. Maybe I should unilaterally adopt the title and update my resume accordingly.

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If I had been blogging angry, my post last week about Warren Buffett’s letter to his company’s new editors and publishers might have sounded like Clay Shirky’s take on it:

“Buffett is famously the greatest investor alive, and almost as famous for plain-spoken observations about the market, so you’d assume his first public memo about Media General would offer insight into the current state of the newspaper business. The actual text, however, merely makes it clear that Buffett doesn’t understand that business.”

A lot of the rest is similar to what I said, though. I take no credit for influencing Shirky, I just wrote faster. But he has a line I wish I had thought of:

“Small-town residents of the sort Media General serves tend to adopt technology late, but the future eventually arrives, even in Opelika, Alabama.”

The CEO of Media General, in an interview with a Richmond-area business website, says something pointing in that very direction:

Publishing revenues are down about 50 percent over the past five years, Morton said, but much of the costs— printing presses, delivery drivers, etc. — have held steady.

“There was nowhere to hide from these revenue declines,” Morton said.

“Over the past five years, our first thought was that this was heavily due to the recession and, like many other recessions in the past, that this was a cycle. You tighten your belt, freeze hiring and even drop the number of people.

“So we went through a couple years thinking that was the way to handle it. But it kept going.”

It wasn’t until the second quarter of 2011, Morton says, “that we realized the world had changed.”

UPDATE: And from John Robinson, a briefer but better explanation than I gave of what these newspapers, unshackled from MG’s debt, ought to be doing:

“The real question is, what is the newspaper spending its profits on? And the follow ups: Is it investing in the future? Is it investing in its staff? Is it reducing the profit-taking so that more can be funneled back into the operation? Is it reducing its investment in the newsprint product so that it can increase an investment into digital news creation and distribution?”

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