By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

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Alabama chain whacks local papers — again

The Alabama state employees’ pension fund is taking the axe to its newspapers on the North Shore and in the Merrimack Valley — again.

CNHI, the Birmingham, Ala.-based chain that owns four daily newspapers and four weeklies north of Boston, has eliminated 36 full- and part-time jobs. The dailies affected by the layoffs are the Eagle-Tribune of North Andover, the Daily News of Newburyport, the Salem News and the Gloucester Daily Times. The chain whacked 52 jobs in 2008.

“We have done our best to weather economic difficulties, but like many companies we must take further steps to sustain the long-term success of the company by reducing staffing levels again,” a CNHI publisher, Al Getler, said in a statement posted online.

But it’s not all bad news for CNHI — if you’re fortunate enough to be near the seat of power. The company recently announced that it would move to Alabama’s state capital, Montgomery, and take up residence in a 12-story building being constructed by its chief investor, Retirement Systems of Alabama. The move is expected to take place in 2012.

We subscribe to the Salem News, and we continue to be impressed with the good job done by the reporters, photographers and editors every day. (Disclosure: Mrs. Media Nation was a Salem News photographer until eight years ago.)

But working conditions have been pretty difficult. For the past several years, most employees have had to take roughly a week of unpaid furlough every quarter. And now things have gotten considerably worse.

No doubt management is having a difficult time of it. The Salem News is pretty light on ads most days. But hollowing out the product year by year is a recipe for eventual closure, not revival. If there is a vision beyond continued cutting, it’s certainly not apparent to readers — or to the journalists who still work there.

Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery.

Surfs pounds Gloucester coast

Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.
I headed up to Gloucester this afternoon with my trusty Canon PowerShot SD890 IS to see what the nor’easter was doing along the coast. My first stop was a protected beach. There was so little wind that people were walking in the sand, including a woman and her dog.

Then I turned the corner, and entered a different world. On the rocky coast facing the ocean there were gale-force winds, high waves and surf pounding the shore. Above is my test of flickrSLiDR (hey, I don’t come up with the names), and below, a short video.

I’m glad it wasn’t snow.

More: I should have mentioned that I used the stabilization feature in iMovie ’09 for the first time and was really impressed. I was getting blown all over the place, but in the video it just seems like I’m drifting a bit. I’d also be curious to know whether you like the embedded slideshow or find it distracting — would you rather click and jump to Flickr?


At newspapers, the slashing continues

Budget-slashing at newspapers continues, both locally and nationally.

At the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, 36 positions are being cut and zoned local editions are being eliminated, according to the Daily Worcesteria, which adds: “This is the journalistic equivalent of bunkering in at the last, strongest point and abandoning the outposts.”

Ironically, the Daily Worcesteria is part of Worcester Magazine, which is shedding positions following an ownership change, reports the, uh, Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

The T&G, as you probably know, is owned by the New York Times Co., whose New England Newspaper Group (the T&G, the Boston Globe and suffered a 24.5 percent loss in advertising revenue in July as compared to the same month in 2007.

Things are at least as grim on the North Shore and in the Merrimack Valley, as CNHI, the corporate owner of the Eagle-Tribune papers, announced this week that it is eliminating 52 jobs, writes Boston Herald media reporter Jessica Heslam. The chain comprises the Eagle-Tribune of Lawrence, the Daily News of Newburyport, the Salem News and the Gloucester Daily Times.

And it’s no better elsewhere. Alan Mutter, who writes the Newsosaur blog, tells us today that newspaper revenues are down $3 billion over the first six months of 2008, bringing revenues to their lowest level in a dozen years.

Even online revenues are slipping, Mutter says, which shows that what’s happening now has as much to do with the economic recession as it does with the stampede from print to the Web.

Gloucester story remains incomplete

I find it interesting that Time magazine’s Web site today carries only an Associated Press story on the resignation of Gloucester High School principal Joseph Sullivan, who blasted Mayor Carolyn Kirk for having “slandered” him. Time hasn’t run an update since June 26, when one of the magazine’s reporters, Kathleen Kingsbury, wrote an item that carried the possibly misleading headline “Gloucester Principal Stands by Story.”

Sullivan, you may recall, was the primary source for Kingsbury’s startling claim that a group of female students at Gloucester High School had made a “pact” to get pregnant and raise their babies together — a story that included such lurid details as girls’ high-fiving each other when they learned they were expecting, and one student being impregnated by a 24-year-old homeless man. Sullivan said in Kingsbury’s June 26 piece that he didn’t recall having used the word “pact,” but that he stood by what he’d told Time.

But as I wrote in June, Sullivan declined to take the additional step of endorsing Kingsbury’s reporting. To this day, we have not heard from a single Gloucester High School student who says she was part of any such agreement with other students, regardless of whether you call it a “pact.” Essentially we know nothing more than we did way back on March 7, when the Gloucester Times reported that officials were worried that some girls were getting pregnant deliberately. That is sufficiently serious to warrant community-wide concern; but it was the notion of a “pact” that made this a national story, and that remains unverified.

From the beginning, Kingsbury has strongly suggested in her reporting and in interviews that she knows who at least some of the pact members are, and that they have declined to go public. I hope she’s working on a follow-up.

Still, it has struck me as exceedingly odd that here, in Oprah Nation, not one of these young women would step forward. Let’s not forget, too, that one pregnant 17-year-old Gloucester High student appeared on national television and denied there was any such pact. Rather, she said some of the students became close after they got pregnant, a claim that comports with some inside knowledge I had picked up around the same time.

Time magazine shouldn’t just be given a pass on this.

Old ethics and new media (VI)

Howard Owens, GateHouse Media’s director of digital publishing, has responded to YouTube’s decision to remove the Beverly Citizen’s controversial video of the “Horribles” parade.

According to Owens, YouTube acted after receiving a complaint from someone whose face was visible in the video. Apparently YouTube has a privacy policy under which it will take down a video at literally anyone’s request. Owens sums it up as follows:

We simply cannot allow YouTube, or any other business partner, to subvert our editorial independence. If YouTube wants to get in the game of hosting video for established news organizations — which it is doing — then it needs to respect the editorial judgment and independence of the news professionals in those organizations. If YouTube is unwilling be a true media partner, then, at least for GateHouse, we will need to seek alternative means of distribution of our videos.

Now, it’s easy enough to say that YouTube should act as a common carrier, similar to the phone company, and carry any traffic that comes its way, regardless of content. As a free-speech advocate, I would much prefer a policy like that.

But it’s not that simple. YouTube is successful in part because it does a good job of keeping out pornography and graphic violence. It’s the PG-13 nature of YouTube that makes it an attractive venue for media companies like GateHouse in the first place.

On the other hand, Owens is absolutely right that if the folks at YouTube are going to remove news videos arbitrarily, then there’s no way a news organization can do business with them.

I haven’t changed my mind about the video — I still would have edited it to remove the eight-foot-long penis and some of the more offensive signs. But that has to be the news organization’s call, not that of the service hosting the video.

I realize this post is entirely one-sided, and I hope YouTube has something to say. Soon.

Wednesday morning update: An unnamed YouTube spokeswoman tells the Boston Herald that the video was “inappropriate,” but leaves it at that.

Old ethics and new media (V)

Looks like GateHouse Media has taken matters into its own hands.

If you go to the Beverly Citizen’s “Horribles” parade story now, you’ll see that the video featuring the eight-foot-long water-spouting penis and the crude signs is back online.

The difference: The video is now hosted by Veoh Networks rather than YouTube.

Old ethics and new media (IV)

Anyone at GateHouse want to send along the reason that YouTube gave for removing the “Horribles” parade video? YouTube might be in the running for a 2009 Phoenix Muzzle Award if it took down the video because of its allegedly offensive content.

Old ethics and new media (III)

In a weird coda to the controversy over the Beverly Farms “Horribles” parade, a source has informed Media Nation that YouTube has removed the video. Have a look at the Beverly Citizen’s story. When you click on the video, you’ll receive a message that says, “We’re sorry, this video is no longer available.”

The GateHouse Media papers, like many smaller enterprises, uses YouTube as a free, easy-to-use publishing platform. Editors upload their videos to YouTube, then embed the code on their own sites. But it looks like publishers who wish to control their content are going to have to figure out a way to do it themselves.

Old ethics and new media (II)

The comments to my earlier post have transformed this into a substantive, productive conversation about journalism and standards in the new-media age. You’ll find intelligent posts on all sides of the issue, from outraged readers to GateHouse Media editors and executives.

I’m humbled by how much better the quality of the discussion is compared to my original post. As Dan Gillmor likes to say, “My readers know more than I do.”

Old ethics and new media

Let’s say some local yahoos decide to rent a truck, bolt a giant model of a penis to the front (complete with squirting water!) and festoon the sides of the truck with messages so crude and offensive that I’m not going to quote them.

Let’s say they decide to enter the truck as a float in a parade that is attended by hundreds of families and children.

Let’s say, further, that the people on the float decide it would be a fun idea to throw condoms at the crowd.

Of course, you already know this is not a hypothetical.

There are many ways of looking at the fallout from the “Horribles” parade in Beverly Farms, which featured three floats — including the one I just described — that made fun of the Gloucester High School pregnancy story.

Here’s another angle: the responsibility of community journalists, who are no longer armed just with a notebook and a pen but with video cameras as well.

The Beverly Citizen, a GateHouse Media paper, is in the spotlight because of a video that it posted showing all the highlights and lowlights, including some close-ups of the aforementioned penis and the signs.

Does the video go too far? I’ll take a cue from the Citizen itself. The news story, by Bobby Gates, is almost prissy in its description of the controversy. Not a single offensive sign is quoted from. As for the float, the story rather clinically refers to a “large, realistically shaped phallic symbol spraying water from the front of a truck.”

Even more out of sync with the video is a post on the Citizen’s blog that asserts the floats “went over the line” by mocking teenage girls. The signs? “And I won’t even go into the signs on the floats, which were lewd at best.” Well, OK. But the blog post was written by “dmacalpine.” And the video was shot by Dan Mac Alpine, whose camera hovered so seductively over the very signs that he (or maybe it was his doppelgänger?) didn’t think he could quote in his newspaper’s blog.

I’m not sure what the lesson is here. I do know that quick-and-cheap video is posing a challenge to community journalists, who are finding themselves embroiled in controversy for shooting footage of subjects that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow if they merely described them in writing. That was the case at another GateHouse paper, the Somerville Journal, a few months ago, when its video of the Naked Quad Run at Tufts University sparked discussion and even outrage.

The current, situation, though, is different, as the Citizen is traveling much further in its video than it dares go in its written description. I’m not sure what to make of that.

Let me go back to my original question: Does the video go too far? I think it does. I haven’t checked, but I am confident that neither the squirting penis nor the worst of the signs made it on to any of the local television newscasts. I know that both were left on the cutting-room floor in a news video I watched at the Fox 25 Web site, and it’s probably safe to say that no one is going to go beyond our friends at Fox.

Except, it seems, the Beverly Citizen.

Look, it happened. Hundreds of people saw it. Hundreds more heard about it. There’s no sense in pretending otherwise. But if they didn’t think they should quote from the signs, then they shouldn’t have showed them in the video. As for the penis — well, let just say I think the written description was sufficient.

The folks at GateHouse are not bad people. They’re hard-working journalists trying to find their way in a news landscape that’s changing by the day. I’d rather see them taking too many chances than too few. I’m neither horrified nor offended by what they did. But I do think they made the wrong call in this case.

Update: The Salem News runs a front-page photo of the penis-bearing truck in its print edition. But unless you’ve seen the video, it’s impossible to figure out what you’re looking at. Here’s the News’ story.

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