Tag Archives: print journalism

Time of My Life, Part 43: Walking a libel tightrope

Most newspaper editorial pages have sections set aside to allow readers of the newspaper to vent, to complain, to speak their minds either positively or negatively about issues of the day and the individuals who make that news.

They also present editors of those pages at times with vexing problems. They involve that mysterious line that separates harsh commentary from libel.

I experienced many of those episodes during my 37 years in print journalism.

Here’s how it went … most of the time.

Someone would submit a letter for publication on our page. It might be full of anger at, say, a mayor or a city council member; perhaps the target is a county commissioner or a school board member; or, maybe it’s aimed at public figure not necessarily holding a public office, someone like a prominent businessman or woman.

The letter levels accusations that I cannot substantiate. The rhetoric is harsh, man. I call the author of the letter to confirm its source. I question the assertions made in the letter.

The writer of the letter stands by his or her assertion. He or she says it’s true and he can prove it. I ask the letter writer to provide documented proof. The writer can’t deliver the goods. I tell the writer that I am afraid the letter is libelous, which means it makes statements that could bring harm to the individual being criticized.

The letter writer then says something like this: “It’s my letter. Let ’em sue me!” To which I then say, “Actually, once you turn it in to me, it becomes my letter, too. Moreover, I don’t care if they sue you. I do care that they sue me and my employer. Therefore, I cannot publish this letter. I will not publish it. Thanks and have a great day.”

I had that conversation countless times over the years. It presents a stunning example of the responsibility that newspapers editors have when they go through each day dealing with issues that present themselves, sometimes in unexpected fashion.

There were times when I was less than patient with letter writers. I regret those instances. Then again, my patience occasionally was rubbed away when letter writers presumed to know more about the nuts and bolts of my job than I did.

They were wrong. I never did apologize for telling them so.

What took so long to build has collapsed in virtually no time at all

It took print journalism, chiefly newspapers, nearly two centuries to attain what used to be a virtually exalted status among their consumers.

And yet, the craft has all but collapsed in virtually no time.

What took years to erect has all but vanished in the blink of an eye.

That observation came from a dear friend of mine with whom I used to have a professional relationship when I worked in Amarillo as editorial page editor of the Globe-News. My friend was a freelance columnist; he had a regular day job, but wrote for us because he was good at it. Our professional relationship ended when I left the newspaper in August 2012. Happily, our personal friendship remains intact.

We were visiting the other evening when he made that stunning observation. His point is that newspapers climbed for a long time up a proverbial mountain to attain an important status in people’s homes. Readers of newspapers depended on them for news of their community, of their state, nation and the world around them. If you wanted to know what was happening in the world, you collected your newspaper off the porch, opened it up and spent a good deal of time reading what it reported to you.

We believed what we read. I mean, if it’s in the daily newspaper then it had to be true. As my friend noted, it took a long time for newspapers to achieve that status.

Then it all changed. Rapidly! Dramatically! Newspapers fell with a loud thud!

The Internet arrived. I can’t remember when it happened, but suffice to say it was the equivalent to the “day before yesterday.” Cable TV exploded. Social media burst forth, too.

All of that media took huge bites out of newspapers’ influence in people’s lives. Has print journalism become less reliable, less believable, less credible than before? I do not believe that is the case. Americans are still reading some first-class reporting from major newspapers that remain important purveyors of vital information.

And yet, we hear the president of the United States refer to the media as “the enemy of the people.” Right-wingers blast what they call the “mainstream media.” They accuse newspapers and other legitimate media organizations of peddling “fake news.” The attacks have exacted a terrible toll on newspapers.

The smaller papers, those that tell us about our communities? They are struggling. Many of them — if not most of them — are losing the struggle. The Amarillo Globe-News, my final stop in a career that I loved pursuing, has been decimated by competing media forces and — in my view — by incompetence at the top of its management chain of command.

My friend’s analysis, though, rings so true. It saddens me beyond measure to realize that it has taken so little time for it all come crashing down.

Happy Trails, Part 174: So-o-o glad to be retired, especially these days

My retirement journey has settled us into a very good place. We are living much nearer to our granddaughter; we have lots of time on our hands; we get to sleep in if we choose to do so; we are free to travel for as long as we wish.

Moreover, I am free of the tension, turmoil, tumult and tempest of working in a changing media environment.

I have been following lately the big media merger involving GateHouse Media and Gannett Corp. GateHouse took over control of Gannett to form the largest print media country in the known universe.

What’s next for the new media titan? Layoffs, man! Apparently lots of ’em to boot.

I left my last job in print journalism in August 2012 at the Amarillo-Globe-News in Texas under unhappy circumstances. As I look back on that sudden departure, I am filled with gratitude that it happened when it did, even though I still sting a bit over the manner in which it occurred.

However, my place now is so good that I am nearly compelled to reach out to my former employer and thank him for saving me from the misery he and other newspaper executives inflicted on those who have toiled in the trenches to produce a newspaper worth reading.

The GateHouse-Gannett merger is bound to produce a lot more misery. It likely will affect people I know who are still in the business. I acquired many great friends during my 37 or so years in the business. They are fine men and women who work hard at their craft. They love what they do even if they think much less of the execs for whom they do it.

Is that a dichotomy? No. They invoke what I consider to be a universal axiom made famous by Rotary International, an organization to which I have belonged for more than 25 years and which adopted a simple slogan as its worldwide mission: Service Above Self. They sign on to serve their communities, even when their own careers might be placed in jeopardy.

This latest pending wave of layoffs — and I believe the reports that they are coming — only affirm my comfort in the place where I have landed as a retired print journalist. I just hope and pray that those who get pink-slipped will land softly and take their myriad talents to their next great adventure.

Perilous times get even more so for newspapers

You’ve known for a time about the state of print journalism around the United States and the world. It’s in peril, man.

The news this week about a mega-merger between two gigantic newspaper chains (they prefer to refer to themselves as “groups,” by the way) tells a grim tale about the state of print journalism.

Gatehouse Media has purchased Gannett Corp. They are merging into a the largest print media company in the country, owning roughly 250 daily newspapers from coast to coast. That’s about one-fifth of all the daily newspapers still functioning in the United States of America.

Gatehouse already has purchased the newspaper where I worked at my last stop, the Amarillo Globe-News way up yonder in the Texas Panhandle. Gatehouse also purchased the rest of Morris Communications’ newspapers as well, including the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. The result of that purchase seems to bode poorly for West Texas readers of both papers, as they appear to be morphing into a sort of regional publication.

If I understand this correctly, the combined media conglomerate will retain the Gannett name, even though the Gatehouse hierarchy will run it. That means the Globe-News and other Gatehouse properties will be known as Gannett papers … I suppose.

Just as in a democratic society, more voters at election time usually bodes well for the state of representative government. With more people casting ballots means elected officials can govern with a stronger mandate. The more the merrier in journalism, too.

There once was a time in this country when the landscape was populated by mom/pop newspaper shops, independent voices that were tied directly to the communities they served. The family-owned organizations were the heart and soul of journalism.

Sure, we had the titans of print journalism industry. The Hearst Corporation (for whom I also worked) was one of them; the New York Times had a group of newspapers, as did the Washington Post, Tribune Media, McClatchy, Cox, Knight-Ridder and Newhouse.

I always put my strongest faith in the community-based newspapers. They told the truth, even when the newspapers’ owners had to attend church, PTA meetings and athletic events with the same folks they might anger with their newspaper coverage. They stood their ground, for the most part, and reported the news truthfully, fairly and without outward bias.

Those organizations are vanishing before our eyes. They are being replaced by even bigger newspaper chains, such as Gannett and Gatehouse. Sure, the big chains purport to be dedicated to their communities … but are they really?

Gatehouse has decimated the staffs at both the Globe-News and the Avalanche-Journal. I understand the same thing has happened in other communities. They are centralizing many of their newsroom functions, such as copy editing and page design.

Does all of that serve each community well? Are they getting the TLC they believe they deserve? Nope!

The new day keeps dawning all over again in print media. The Gatehouse-Gannett merger is likely to take a once-proud industry down yet another road toward an uncertain destination.

I wish my former colleagues well.

Turning the corner away from an unhappy ending

I am happy to announce that I have turned the corner, put aside the wellspring of anger related to the end of my career in daily journalism.

Many of you know by now that my career came to a sudden halt in August 2012 when I got reorganized out of my job as editorial page editor of the Amarillo (Texas) Globe-News. I thought I was doing a pretty good job there, spending nearly 18 years crafting an editorial policy at a newspaper committed to commenting on events of the city and the region that surrounds it.

Silly me. That’s what I get for thinking, I suppose.

I was hurt when it occurred. I was able to carry on, though, thanks to loads of support and love from my wife, my sons, my sisters and my friends.

Quite suddenly, though, I find myself no longer filled with anger or hurt feelings. It took a long while to get past it all. It has occurred.

I feel quite relieved that I am not packing that emotional baggage around any longer.

The company that owned the Globe-News, Morris Communications, sold its entire newspaper group to Gatehouse Media, which then brought in a new management team. The publisher who pushed me out the door “stepped down” from his job and is now pursuing “other interests.” He’s been replaced by someone I do not know.

The fellow who assumed my post at the G-N has left to work elsewhere. His successor and I have actually forged a bit of a relationship.

And you know what? I have actually wished the new “director of commentary,” Doug Hensley, well as he seeks to keep the Globe-News afloat in the roiling and changing media water. He pledges he will do his best. I hope he succeeds.

In the interest of full disclosure, Hensley was kind enough to publish an essay I had posted originally on High Plains Blogger, so that helped thaw the deep freeze I felt toward the newspaper.

However, it is true that I no longer harbor the anger that at times got the better of me over the nearly seven years since I departed the newspaper business.

I am enjoying retirement. I am enjoying writing this blog. I have relocated to a new community and my wife and I are enjoying our new home.

I don’t have time to be angry.

How cool is that?

Happy to be relieved of this media stress

Those of us who studied journalism in college and prepared to take up that noble craft never saw it coming. None of us knew in the Olden Days what might lie ahead for media in all forms.

Thus, it is with great relief that I heard this week about another possible mega-media merger involving two significant newspaper groups: Gannett and Gatehouse Media.

I got a message from a good friend, a seasoned reporter in Corpus Christi, who told me about talks involving Gannett and Gatehouse. The Caller-Times’s parent company, Gannett, well might “merge” with Gatehouse, creating — to say the least — a highly uncertain climate among the professionals who work for both media companies.

It’s been an unsteady voyage over many years for media outlets all across the nation, indeed the world!

Merger on its way?

My friend believes he’ll survive the turmoil. He has plenty of skills that he thinks will transfer to whichever company takes the reins at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. But he says the uncertainty among staffers is causing plenty of heartburn, sleeplessness and worry.

I got out of the business in August 2012. The Amarillo Globe-News, the final stop on my 37-year journey in print journalism, was suffering from the consequences of competing in the new media age. The G-N corporate ownership at the time, Morris Communications, sought to make the transition from largely print to mostly digital presentation of news and commentary. It didn’t work out for Morris, which sold all 13 of its newspapers to Gatehouse, which has managed to decimate the G-N reporting and advertising staffs. That all happened, of course, after I bid farewell; I got chewed up in a company “reorganization” launched by Morris.

That was then. The here and now has put me — along with my wife — into a whole new environment. We are retired, enjoying life and watching with a fair amount of trepidation as the media waters continue to roil.

I pray for my former colleagues. I wish them well and hope they and their corporate gurus can look farther into the future than any of us ever did back when we were starting out.

Customer service must be Priority No. 1

It’s no secret that American newspapers are in trouble. They are struggling to remain competitive in the ever-changing mass media market.

They need advertisers to spend money to keep the newspapers afloat. Ad representatives work hard — or at least they should be doing so — to keep their clients happy.

Newspapers also need subscribers to buy their publications. How do they gain subscribers to read their content and then keep them well into the future? Customer service, man. They need to put customer service at the very top of their standard operating procedure.

The Internet is inflicting serious damage on newspapers. Cable TV is now full of commentators, pundits, news anchors, “contributors” and experts on every field imaginable telling viewers about the news as well as what all those individuals believe about the news that is occurring.

Newspaper circulation is dropping. So is advertising revenue.

Thus, newspapers are in trouble.

OK, now that I’ve laid all that out, I want to share how one major American newspaper is squandering its standing in one American household . . . mine!

My wife and I recently moved from one Dallas suburb to another one — from Fairview to Princeton.

Before we made the move, we took out a subscription to the Dallas Morning News; our subscription was for the Wednesday and Sunday editions only. It arrived at our Fairview residence just fine.

Then we moved. I called the Morning News circulation line and provided a change of address. The DMN delivers to Princeton, so we didn’t figure that would be a problem.

Wrong! I guess it is a problem. We have lived in our new home for two weeks and we haven’t seen a newspaper yet. It’s not in our front porch, or on the front lawn, or the driveway or even in the street next to the curb. Nothing!

We have called every day since we missed our first DMN. Nothing has happened. I get excuses about the paper’s inability to hire competent delivery personnel as well as promises that it would come in the next day . . . or two. Again, nothing.

I offer this as an example of how one major publication is pis**** away a chance to lure and keep a subscriber. That would be me.

Hey, I am a newspaper reader of long standing. If only the newspaper I want to read could make good on its pledge to deliver it to my home.

There’s a lesson here. Newspapers are floundering. Many of them are failing. I want the Dallas Morning News to heed the warning sirens that are blaring all across the nation.

Worry about journalism future is intensifying

I hereby admit to being in a state of denial for many years about the fate of print journalism as I have known it and practiced it.

We all have watched daily newspapers downsize to the point of virtual disappearance. They have gone from daily distribution to twice- or thrice-weekly distribution. We’ve witnessed layoffs; indeed, I watched colleagues and friends get their pink slips and leave a craft that gave them untold satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment.

All of this involved organizations that paid me to do what I did for so very long. In Beaumont and Amarillo, to cite two examples. I didn’t accept what was happening before my eyes, that the fates of two proud journalistic organizations might be in serious jeopardy.

I now have to throw off that denial and acknowledge what others have said for far longer than I have been willing to acknowledge: those community institutions might not be around past the foreseeable future.

The pending death of the Hereford Brand in Deaf Smith County, Texas, is just another example of what is occurring. A Texas Panhandle community no longer is going to have a way to read about its story. The Brand is folding up, going away. Gone forever!

So what happens to other such newspapers that used to serve that community as well? I have the Amarillo Globe-News in mind. The Globe-News, where I worked for nearly 18 years as opinion page editor, used to cover Deaf Smith County like a blanket. That is no longer the case. The Globe-News has been retrenching, pulling back for years.

Its former corporate owners, Augusta, Ga.-based Morris Communications, oversaw much of that retrenchment. Then the company sold the G-N to GateHouse Media, which also purchased the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal from Morris. GateHouse now appears to be finishing what Morris started. It is melding two news and opinion organizations into one.

What does that mean for Amarillo? Or for Lubbock? Or for the West Texas region that both papers serve? If I knew the answer I would still be a working stiff. I’m not. I am on the sidelines now watching from some distance with an increasing sense of dread of what the future holds for journalism as I once knew it.

I have plenty of friends, acquaintances and former professional “sources” who tell me they fear for the worst for Amarillo and the Panhandle. They tell me they believe the Globe-News’s days are “numbered.” I would dismiss those fears as overheated fearmongering.

Today, I am not nearly as serene about it. I am officially frightened for the future of journalism. The Internet Age has inflicted serious wounds on a proud craft. I fear they are mortal wounds.

I hope I am wrong, although my hope is unable to match my fear.

Community media presence still morphing

My concerns about the future of print journalism in the community I used to call “home” are mounting.

The Amarillo Globe-News just announced the hiring of a new “regional” distribution director. His name is David Morel. The Globe-News published a nice story today extolling his experience and all that kind of thing.

Then it quotes him expressing how he is “extremely grateful to be pat of the (Lubbock) Avalanche-Journal team. He spoke about his commitment to informing “the Lubbock community.”

I thought, “Hmm. No mention of Amarillo. What’s up with that?”

Upon reflection, I think I know. GateHouse media, the owners of the Globe-News and the Avalanche-Journal, seem to be moving toward some sort of media merger. The future of West Texas print journalism is going to be headquartered in Lubbock, it appears to me. The Globe-News, if it is going to exist in any form, is going to play second-fiddle to the A-J.

The recent hire of a regional director of commentary, who also is based in Lubbock, was enough of a signal of the future. Doug Hensley seems like a nice enough fellow, but I have yet to see an editorial posted in the G-N that even looks with a remotely critical eye at local issues, expressing local concerns, appealing directly to the local community.

The newspaper shrouds its editorial commentary in a more global context, talking about the joint concerns shared by folks on the High Plains and the South Plains. That’s when the paper decides to publish an editorial that speaks to anything that could be construed as being of local interest.

The papers have a regional publisher and a regional executive editor. Now they have a regional circulation director to go along with their regional director of commentary. Of the four regional execs, one of them — the executive editor — lives in Amarillo; the other three reside in Lubbock.

What does that tell you? It tells me where GateHouse is investing its resources in Lubbock. I now officially fear for the future of daily print journalism in the Texas Panhandle.

For those of us who invested time, energy and committed ourselves to the life of the community we loved, I believe this is a sad time.

Time of My Life, Part 9: Shedding emotional baggage

I’ve blogged already about my membership in the National Conference of Editorial Writers, a professional group whose title is self-explanatory. NCEW sponsored overseas journeys for those of us who wrote or edited opinion commentary for a living.

A landmark journey occurred for me in the fall of 1989. It was my first extended overseas adventure that didn’t involve service in the U.S. military. That’s part of this brief chronicle of a chapter in a career that brought me great joy and excitement.

In 1989, NCEW put together a trip to Southeast Asia. I got permission from my bosses at the Beaumont (Texas) Enterprise to go along. The trip would begin in Bangkok, Thailand; it would proceed to Hanoi, Vietnam; then to Phnom Penh, Cambodia; then back to Ho Chi Minh City (which the locals still refer to as “Saigon”). It was a fabulous sojourn to a part of the world some of us had seen up close two decades or so earlier while we served in the military.

We toured the Hanoi Hilton prison where U.S. prisoners of war were kept; we toured the killing fields of Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge committed horrific acts of genocide against their own people; we saw the lake in Hanoi where the late John McCain was captured in 1967; we met with dignitaries in all three countries; we saw the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, that was just beginning to recover from decades of war, misery and torture.

The official portion of the trip ended in Saigon. Some members of our party went on to Indonesia; others of us ended the official tour at that point. I sought to return to Da Nang, where I served for a time as a U.S. Army aircraft mechanic. I was stationed at a place called Marble Mountain, assigned to the 245th Surveillance Aircraft Company; we maintained a fleet of OV-1 Mohawks.

I wanted to return there. The travel agent who managed all this arranged it for me and two of my colleagues to fly from Saigon to Da Nang.

We arrived in Da Nang, checked into our hotel, caught our breath and then began touring the region.

We drove out to Marble Mountain, about 8 or so miles south of the city. We got out of our vehicle and began walking along the sandy stretch just north of Marble Mountain. I noticed a few remnants of aircraft hangars. I saw pierced-steel planking we used to taxi our aircraft that had been repurposed as fences for residents; they hung flower pots from the PSP.

Our guide, a young woman named Mai — a dedicated communist who also was delightfully efficient at her job — began explaining to me how the Vietnamese had swallowed our entire military presence there after we left the fight in 1973.

That’s when it hit me! Right in the gut! The war was over!

The shooting was occurring when I arrived 20 years earlier; it was still occurring when I left. The war had ended. At that point, I broke down. I sobbed like a baby. My friends who came to Da Nang with me backed away, as did Mai. They left me alone.

Then just as suddenly as it came, it stopped. I wiped the tears off my face. Took a huge breath — and realized I had just shed emotional baggage I had no idea I was carrying around.

So it went. A career in print journalism enabled me to experience a kind of catharsis I never saw coming.

How cool is that?