Monday, April 17, 2017

The shrinking newspaper in Shreveport (and other places)

     What in the heck are the people in charge of The Shreveport Times thinking? What are they doing?
     Who knows, and really it is getting to the point, who cares?
      Don't mean to be a newspaper basher; anyone who knows me knows how much I loved (past tense) newspapers, and they helped me make somewhat of a living for 40-plus years.
      But, good gosh, newspapers these days are hardly worth the paper they are printed on. If they are printed at all. And it's getting worse.
      They are going digital; it might be only a matter of (short) time before printed papers are relics. They want you to read their content online; that is the emphasis, and has been for several years. The printed papers be damned.
     Not entirely true, however, if the market is big enough. You might have heard -- or seen someone tweet -- that The (mighty) New York Times and The (powerful) Washington Post are failing. That's fake news on those tweets. Those papers probably are hitting closer to the truth than this tweeter wants them to be. 
      I digress. I'm not here to judge the entire newspaper business. I'll stick to more familiar territory -- papers I worked for in my well-traveled career -- and what's happened to their sports departments.   
     Where I have The Shreveport Times listed above, I can sub Fort Worth Star-Telegram or Florida Times-Union or Knoxville News Sentinel. And I know that their sports desks -- as we once knew them -- are practically dissolved.
      Most readers are familiar with the bylines they see in newspapers -- the columnists and reporters' names they see day after day. When we say "sports desk," we mean the people who worked "inside" -- the copy editors, page designers (layout) and decision makers who put the actual product together.
       I was one of those for much of 45 years, mixed with writing duties. So when I see so many of those jobs disappearing, it's personal.
       Read on, and I will give you a summary of what's happened at some of my career stops.
       It has been a couple of years since I wrote about newspapers. Here, if you care, are the links to two previous blog pieces about newspapers, my view of them and my career background:
        http://nvanthyn.blogspot.com/2015/07/the-word-buyout-means-good-bye.html
        http://nvanthyn.blogspot.com/2012/06/newspapers-love-em-leave-em.html.
---
       Back to Shreveport, and the shrinking Times. If you have seen that paper lately, you know how small it is -- just a bit bigger than tabloid size, and most days as light as a feather.
       Here are some significant (to me) Times developments of the past few weeks:
        -- Dropped the very popular Teddy Allen slice-of-life columns after some 27 years. When I posted about this on Facebook -- actually a re-post of a post by Monroe/Ruston area friend Tom "Temo" Morris -- the response was a slew of unhappy replies. The Monroe News Star, like The Times owned by Gannett, also dropped Teddy. (More on this in a moment.)
        -- Dropped the sports agate page entirely (after some 30 years). No standings, no box scores, no linescores, no transactions, etc. 
        The message: You want it, go to your I-Pad, computer or phone and get it online on The Times web page. 
        -- Space for sports, already great diminished, was cut by 25 percent.
        -- And then, astoundingly, a 7 p.m. deadline (it had been 11:30 p.m.), every night, for copy. Wait, 7 p.m.? Really?
        Last I looked, news still breaks after 7 p.m. Games still are played at night. But if you want to read the news the next day, go online.
        Good grief. It's supposed to be a newspaper.
        These decisions, we are told, were made by the Gannett leaders in McLean, Va., not by people at The Times. The Gannett leaders who made three-days-a-week print papers recently in Alexandria and Opelousas, La., and Hattiesburg, Miss. (Same thing happened, not necessarily by Gannett, a few years ago in Mobile, Huntsville and Birmingham, Ala., and -- most significantly -- at the New Orleans Times-Picayune.)
        I am told that the rollout of the early deadlines was hush-hush by Gannett until it happened -- no planning -- and that even the press room/production people (the "design" for Shreveport now is done in Des Moines, Iowa -- go figure) were uninformed.
        The explanation is that The Times (1) wants to stress its online presence and (2) "enhance its storytelling."
        Where we had six fulltime sportswriters/desk people at The Times when I started my career there five decades ago, and about 10 when I left there -- after a few stops -- two decades later, they now have two sportswriters and two desk people (one also a sometimes writer) who work for Shreveport and Monroe.
        My opinion: They are good people, conscientious. The material they write -- I see it online -- is good reading. There is just not enough they can cover.
        For example, Times sports last Saturday -- four pages including 1 1/2 pages of ads -- included a  story on the Mudbugs' minor-league hockey playoff game, two high school softball stories, a Pirates-Cubs baseball story, an AP preview story on the NBA playoffs, day-old baseball standings and no Friday scores. 
        I have a friend in Shreveport who knows sports and knows newspapers -- grew up in both -- who calls that the enhanced storytelling line "BS" and says, "They have given up" on decent sports coverage.
        He also contends that the digital content The Times touts is not appealing, "no good" and "weak," and that the paper doesn't "have any interest in quality. [They] completely have lost their voice as a local entity."
        He wraps up with a two-word salutation -- unprintable here -- and one of Coach/Dr. James C. Farrar's favorite expressions, something about "the horse they rode out on."
        Another friend said: "As a kid who turned to agate and the baseball page immediately, it sucks, no doubt. But I certainly wasn't getting my national agate from the paper anymore.
       And he added: "Depressing, to say the least."
 

       About interest in quality, dropping Teddy Allen's column is an example. Yes, I am not impartial. We are friends and have been since before he left The Times sports the first time to join our sports staff at the Shreveport Journal in 1986. We remain on great terms.
        Teddy's columns for The Times and Monroe paper were not sports, per se, the last couple of decades. But many of his topics were sports-related and, as he proved again two weeks in covering The Masters for the Ruston Daily Leader and his Facebook friends, he is as good at writing sports (and everything else) as anyone out there.
        So if Gannett is cutting Teddy's column to save a little money, quality obviously doesn't matter.
---
        Working on a sports desk was, mostly, a joy. I worked with many talented people, most of them very conscientious, and I worked with some mediocre people, and only a couple of duds who messed around or weren't that interested and were out of place.
        It was intense work at times, but also enough down time, and there was lots of cutting up and ribbing and arguing, and even a few fits (with some thrown objects -- guilty, as charged. Paid the price for that at times).
        Two of my favorite newspapers to work for -- great days  -- are gone, the Shreveport Journal (for 26 years now) and seven years ago The Honolulu Advertiser (folded by Gannett into the afternoon newspaper, the Star-Bulletin, into the newly formed Star-Advertiser).
         Four of the friends I worked with in sports in Honolulu survived that development and moved to the new paper, but one who didn't was a very talented assistant sports editor and friend.         
         Here is a summary of what's happened at the sports desks/departments of some of my other papers:
         -- Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville): In the early 1990s, we had a fulltime staff of about 25 people, plus several parttimers who got plenty of work. They are down to nine fulltime sports people (three from my time there). Their "desk" is in Augusta, Ga., where the paper owner, Morris Communications, is based.
        The Augusta desk does layout for all the Morris papers (several in Georgia). Some 15 desk people in Jacksonville -- from all sections -- were offered jobs if they moved to Augusta, and the money offered was substantial. No one took it, receiving buyouts instead (one week's pay for every year of service, capped at 26 weeks). Two sports desk people (one of my old friends) remained in Jacksonville and, with the sports editor, submit budgets, supervise breaking news and approve the pages before they go to press.
       -- Knoxville News Sentinel: Purchased by Gannett less than two years ago, layoffs began soon afterward and so did a universal desk, meaning "design" was done in part elsewhere and somewhat breaking up the sports department (where I worked in 1995 to 2001).
       Another layoff a couple of weeks ago cost 11 newsroom people their jobs -- including some of my friends, one of whom had been in sports since a year after I started there --  and the writing staff has been combined into a USA Today network of coverage in Tennessee (Gannett owns USA Today and the papers in Memphis and Nashville).
        One of the N-S sports columnists -- one of the two best on-deadline writers I worked with in 45 years -- is now mostly  a general-assignments sports writer. The assigning sports editor, who arrived there just after I did, now adds on breaking-news writing duties.  
      The emphasis is on shooting videos, and traditional game stories are being shortened or eliminated because the staff has been told "nobody reads the bottom half of your story anyway." What's popular -- with the Gannett "brains" -- are such listings as "five things to know" and "three things that happened."
      That's the "new" journalism, thank you.

      -- Fort Worth Star-Telegram: When I arrived in December 2001, we had as many as 25 fulltime people on the sports desk, and many nights, we were producing -- including "zoned" sections -- 20-25 pages per shift.
      Now, with the McClatchy Corp. (which bought the paper from the Knight Ridder chain in 2006) continuing the series of layoffs that began in 2008, they have maybe eight people working on sports copy and design -- and some of that is for the McClatchy-owned papers in Kansas.
       The writing staff, including parttimers, is about a dozen people. 
       The paper is thin several days a week; in the previous decade, the sports section some days was as big as the entire paper is now.
       This year the Star-Telegram dropped baseball box scores, except -- of course -- for the Rangers. For the last decade, because of space limitations, we were cutting out many elements of the traditional baseball boxes. For a true baseball fan -- I consider myself one -- that was untraditional.
       The good news is that several of my ex-co-workers, who are my friends, are still employed there. I'm for that.          
---

       I have empathy, of course, for the people still working for The Shreveport Times and especially the people in sports. I have not lived in Shreveport-Bossier for almost 30 years, but it is -- as I have said many times -- "home" and that paper gave me my start and many good experiences.
       It does not feel good to see the paper sink to the level it has. It was never, I have to say, what I consider a "great" paper; I thought the afternoon Shreveport Journal was, in the late 1970s and through the 1980s, especially for its size. But The Times was important to our city and our area.
        As for Gannett, the year I spent under its management was not fun. There were reasons, and one of them was me. I did not fit or like the job. But I tried hard. 
        I will say this: I worked for four newspaper editors in Shreveport. One really did not know much about sports and never showed he cared. One was a tremendous and knowledgeable sports fan, and very much a booster of the sports department, providing resources and space. Another knew sports and was helpful, but rigid in his management. Another also knew sports, but did not show much interest -- and showed less interest in me and my work. Again, maybe my fault and my mindset then.
        I have a friend who says he does not "blame Gannett for what happening. Their folks have been welcoming and cooperative as much as they can be. It's just the condition of the industry."
        I am guessing that Gannett is still making money from The Times, thanks to classified ads and the many advertising insert for the paper, mostly on Wednesdays and Sundays. That's likely the case with most newspapers in cities of any size. If I am wrong about that, let me know.
          But "the condition of the industry" in Shreveport might be reflected in an old acquaintance and more recent Facebook friend. Let's call him Bubba and say he's been involved in media for four decades. This week he canceled his Times subscription and was happy to do so, plus talk about it on Facebook.
         He was fed up with the lack of coverage, with the "liberal" slant -- take that any way you want -- and he was not interested when the paper called and offered him a $13 discount to renew his subscription.
         The comments on his Facebook posts indicate that the subscription price was $34 a month. And I saw multiple comments of people who had dropped their subscriptions or were about to do so.
         One of my close friends, who like me began reading the paper -- especially sports -- regularly when we were kids in Sunset Acres 60 years ago, is thoroughly disgusted. I'm hearing and seeing the complaints from him.
         When you lose Sunset Acres, you lose.
         I'm not rooting against The Shreveport Times, but, hey, bring back Teddy Allen's column and go back to those 11:30 p.m. deadlines. Get the darned news in the next day's newspaper.
            

   

23 comments:

  1. From Alice Coleman Richardson: I agree with you. It is so sad to witness the demise of a once fine newspaper. I have been reading The Times for the sixty years I have lived in Shreveport, and I sincerely believe most people my age and probably younger really like to have a paper to hold in their hands and read as they have a cup of coffee or tea in the morning. Online simply doesn't work for me.
    I was dismayed when I read that one of the "editors" was listed as a "Storytelling Coach." What in the world is that?

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  2. From Margetta Stoddard: Thanks for writing this blog post. I have been so disappointed with the decline of the papers in Shreveport. There has been a paper or two in my home for over seventy years. Enough became enough when they quit publishing local news, sports and events. The circulation became a real problem if we had to be out of town--forget vacation packages, stop delivery for a certain number of days--it did not happen. Money seemed to have become the main focus. It is interesting as I drive around in my subdivision that very, very few papers are delivered in our subdivision. In past years all of the subdivision had morning and evening papers.

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  3. From Pat Booras: Now this is a great opinion piece.
    Most/many industries in America aore struggling (have struggled) over the last 10-plus years.
    I am paying $21 a month for the physical printed paper that I read at least 80 percent of the time online. Frustrating, in that I want both options and not just the current "Mayberry" limited scope printed edition. Things hopefully will get better.

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  4. From Andy Sharp: Alas, we're living in a dumbed-down world where newspapers don't compute to inadequate brains. Very good column, sir.

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  5. From Jason Brown: Working at a newspaper was all I ever wanted to do. I was fascinated with newspapers since I was a little kid, and I bet I read the local paper out in New Mexico, the Hobbs News-Sun, as regularly as most adults back then. Whenever we traveled, I loved going through the local paper wherever we were. First time I saw a Sunday edition of The Dallas Morning News, I was in awe at its size and scope. Sports, obviously, and the opinion pages were my favorites. So I got to live the dream, and don't regret any of it. The Star-Telegram sports desk in my first stint was by far the most fun place I've ever worked, and I truly loved being there. It's heartbreaking what has become of the industry, and I haven't regretted leaving for one second. But the thought has often crossed my mind that had I been born a few decades earlier, I would happily have been a lifer. Then again, had I been born a few decades earlier I'd probably be dead by now, decomposing instead of screwing around on Facebook late at night.

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  6. From Charlie Booras: I think we know it's not a local decision that makes The Times such a piece of crap it is now, but it's still not an excuse. The local paper should report on local (city, parish and state) news and sports. You want national information, turn on the TV.

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  7. From Larry Garrett: The Times and News Star are sad cases. I look forward to trips to Baton Rouge and reading the Advocate.

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  8. From Jesse Grubbs: I believe strongly that millennials will not have daily newspapers as they age and will get all their news online. The Times in Shreveport that I, as an old man, am addicted to reading a newspaper every morning, is pathetic, sometimes with less than few pages and no longer is the Sunday paper better; it is very think but has stacks of advertisements. ... They are so liberal it is funny and surely they don't believe you and I are so dumb. The opinions are more fun to read than the funny paper section. But like a dope user, I still have to have my fix. But our next generation will not have as bad of a newspaper habit.

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  9. From Ross Montelbano: Great article, one of your best. Sometimes you have to wonder about the motive of actions. When the new owners of the Shreveport Captains renamed the team the Swamp Dragons, put them in those ugly green uniforms, you had to wonder. As it turned out, they were trying to fail. By failing, they got to move the team to Frisco. Maybe they [Gannett editors] want the paper to fail. You know the business. What do you think?

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    Replies
    1. I can't imagine Gannett bosses, or the editors of the Shreveport paper, trying to fail. That would be like asking a team to lose a game intentionally, say to enhance its draft position. I wrote a blog on that. The idea is repulsive to me. Newspaper people -- the ones counting the money -- are doing what they can. Fact is, young people simply don't read a newspaper any more, not when they can get the news on their phones or on TV.

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  10. From Dale Brown: Very revealing and sad. I have a Kindle but never use it anymore because I like to have a book in my hands. I look forward to reading the newspaper every morning and will not sit by my computer to read the news. Guess I am a dinosaur!

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  11. From Tommy Canterbury: Really interesting insight to the industry as well daily procedures and local info. Always like to hear somebody in the know give inside looks and opinions.

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  12. From Stephen Katz: AGREE!! Newspaper in Alexandria is gone. Computers allow the processing of information for those who can read. And for those of us who are "Old Dreamers," they blunt imagination.

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  13. From Pesky Hill: I think you stirred up a hornets' nest. I bet you get a lot of replies from this column. I know all of my friends have commented to me and none of the comments have been positive. They know I work there occasionally as a “parttimer” covering sports. Unfortunately, I think we are beating a dead horse in Shreveport. I think the printed newspaper and sports pages will continue to shrink and then go away.

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  15. From Doug Bland: Hit a home run. The paper is so thin our delivery man can no longer throw it. He has to drop it at the end of our driveway. Trying to talk my wife out of our subscription. All she uses it for are the crosswords and obits. ... Do you know if Teddy is thinking about doing something online? I've read his book and always looked forward to his column.

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  16. From Teddy Allen: That was kind what you wrote in the blog. I believe you are 100 percent on the money about The Journal. We really were good together. That was such a blessing to get to be a part of that.

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  17. From Chuck Baker: I guess I'm a dinosaur. I love newspapers. Read 5-6 every day -- in print and online (sorry). One of the reasons I enjoy traveling is the selection of newspapers in airports. I usually buy one of each.
    Fort Smith paper is terrible. [Arkansas] Dem-Gaz seems to offer more than other papers of its size. Wish we could go back to days of two papers in most cities.
    Seems like in a few more years newspapers will go the route of pay telephones.

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  18. From John English: Well said. Unfortunately, the effect of all of this is not limited to sports. The level of reporting the facts is almost nil across the board. Can you imagine what the recent presidential elections would have been like if we still had the level of news reporting from the traditional media that we had in the 1960s and '70s? Especially when facts had to be confirmed to the satisfaction of experienced editors.
    As for Teddy Allen, I carried subscriptions to The Times to Ruston, Baton Rouge, and Houston and always read his columns faithfully until I dropped my subscription in the '90s. After that, my mother would clip his columns and mail them to me. Does he have a blog similar to yours?

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  19. From David Henington: Great post on the shrinking newspaper. Sunday Times editorial was about the tax renewal in Lafayette! Had no connection to Shreveport-Bossier at all. I think they ran the wrong editorial? And my favorite Sunday column that has run for 44 years has been canceled. Dr. Joe White, the retired county agent, has written a column for 44 years! For free. Never charged for it. But the Times cited costs as the reason. Pitiful.

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  20. From Nancy Evans: My Wednesday paper is soooo small it looks like the local Advertiser! I am not computer savvy and not attached to a cell phone so for people like me or ones that liked a paper, it is so disheartening ... damn sad! The older I am becoming I realize that being "old school" is considered antique.
    Hope to see more from you soon.

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  21. From Tom Dark: I hardly know where to begin to describe how unhappy I am with the current version of The Times. It's like losing an old friend, even if they are still here and on life support (sorta). I do know this ... it's got to be heaven being in local government, knowing that there are no reporters covering you, unless they get fixated on some story. Bad for us citizens, though. But as one of the guys who read the sports section first every day for years, especially during baseball season, it's just awful. Wonder if their 7 p.m. deadline will be "modified" for LSU football games?

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  22. From Larry Powell: This is, of course, a spectacular assessment of a dismal situation. The entire industry is undermining the democracy. Management failure to move out of the 20th century in a safe, sane fashion. Has to be some way to save things. A thoughtful way.
    I've offered The Dallas Morning News $500 cash for the property and the paper, and, every now and then I think the joke might be a little too close to real. I may wind up with a heckuva tax bill.

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