Monthly Archives: December 2008

National media underplaying coal-ash spill?

A posting on the Poynter Institute’s Web site questions whether the Roane County coal-ash spill is being ignored by the national media. It refers to a Center for Environmental Journalism story headlined: “Nightmare before Christmas: Coal sludge spill 50X worse than Exxon Valdez.”
“In the era of the continuous, 24/7 news cycle,” says the CEJ Web site, “news organizations like the Times and CNN couldn’t even manage to keep to the pre-Internet daily cycle, when news broke one day and wound up in the paper the next. With this story, they’ve gone back to the era when it took several days to deliver the news — because it was delivered on horseback.”
Wendy Redal, a former staffer for the CEJ, is the one making the Exxon Valdez comparison. She figured the TVA spill at 500 million gallons of sludge and the tanker spill at 10.9 million gallons of oil. That was based on old info, however. At 3 p.m. on Christmas Day, TVA revealed on its Web site that the ash spill was actually twice as large as the figure Redal was using, some 5.4 million cubic yards instead of 2.6 million cubic yards.
I don’t know what the national media plan to do. But while TVA is shoveling sludge, the News Sentinel will do its best to keep digging, too.

Knoxville’s biggest stories of the year

Our readers poll on the biggest stories of the year didn’t produce too many surprises.
Tops on the list was the shooting at the TVUUC church. The only real competitor for No. 1 was the firing of Phil Fulmer and hiring of Lane Kiffin as UT football coach.
Third place went to the conviction of Eric McLean in the teacher-student love-triangle killing. But right behind that was the first chimp born at the Knoxville Zoo in 20 years.
Rounding out the top five were the elections that resulted in dramatic changes in the Knox County Commission.
Crime, sports, politics and human interest — apparently still the basic formula for news.

The legacy of Deep Throat

Mark Felt, Bob Woodward’s “Deep Throat” of Watergate fame, died today. The long-unidentified informant became the iconic anonymous source.
I was in college during Watergate and so have spent my entire journalism career in the post-Deep Throat era. Many times I’ve wished I could find a similar guiding light lurking in a parking garage ready to help me break the big one. But, alas, that has never happened.
Now, in the post-Jayson Blair era, anonymous sourcing is somewhat maligned. At the News Sentinel, as at most other papers, strict guidelines govern its use.
Oddly, the issue comes up most frequently in sports stories, nowadays, where ADs, coaches, and even players, seem never to want to provide a fact on the record.
Here are the News Sentinel’s anonymous source guidelines:
The use of anonymous sources should be avoided in the News Sentinel. Reporters should make every effort to obtain information on the record. However, sometimes information can be obtained and disseminated only by granting sources anonymity. The following guidelines should be followed to assure that a high standard of credibility is maintained when using anonymous sources:
* Anonymous sources should be used only for substantive, factual information, not for opinion, criticism or incidental information. Sources should have direct knowledge of the subject involved.
* Reporters are required to tell their supervising editor and, if asked, at least one senior editor the identity of any anonymous source. Those editors will be bound to the same standards of confidentiality as the reporter.
* The use of an anonymous source in a locally produced story must be approved by the editor, managing editor or deputy managing editor.
* An unnamed source should be identified as completely as possible with as much information as possible about why the source’s identity is being withheld.
* Pseudonyms will not be used in any story.
* No inaccurate information may be published to try to obscure the identity of a source. For example, do not say a source refused to comment when, in fact, he or she has commented off the record. Also, do not say “sources” if only one source is involved.
* To the extent possible, wire stories should be held to the same standard as local stories, except that wire editors may make judgments on the use of anonymous sources without consulting senior management.
* Commitments of secrecy to sources should be honored.

News Sentinel is NOT going out of business

Here’s my column for Sunday’s paper:
The headlines about the headliners have been grim. Tribune goes bankrupt. Detroit papers curtail home delivery. Rocky Mountain News for sale.
Knoxville readers see the News Sentinel trim content and reduce staff.
The question is inevitable: Are you guys going out of business?
The answer is unequivocal: No!
Challenges are buffeting the newspaper business. But circumstances vary widely. It’s worth taking a minute to spell out what’s going on.
First, there’s the economy. It’s bad. Almost every business is suffering, and newspapers are no exception. When jobs go away and the automobile, real estate and retail sectors slump, we hurt. So do other local media businesses. The TV and radio stations in Knoxville have reduced staff and cut expenses, too.
Next, there are changes in the newspaper industry. Classified ads have been a large part of the business in recent decades, but those are particularly adaptable to the Internet. So online advertising has sliced into print revenue. Big markets have felt it the most.
The trend isn’t new, though, and the folks who managed the E.W. Scripps Co., which owns the News Sentinel, were farsighted. Several years ago, they decided to invest the profit of their papers in a new business. Here in Knoxville, HGTV grew into Scripps Networks, and soon the networks were the dominant Scripps division.
This year, they split off into a separate company, Scripps Networks Interactive. The E.W. Scripps Co. held onto about 25 local TV stations and newspapers spread around the country.
Is this a good thing? Yes. Scripps was left with a very healthy balance sheet. That is in marked contrast to other newspaper companies. Many had continued to invest heavily in newspapers, and they now find themselves saddled with giant IOUs and shrunken cash flow.
For comparison, Scripps’ corporate debt is less than $60 million. The Tribune’s is more than $11 billion. The Chicago Tribune still produces a lot of cash, but that nut is too big to crack.
Within Scripps, there has been a sick sister, my old paper in Colorado. The Denver situation is unique. Some have called the 100-year battle between the Rocky and The Denver Post the last great newspaper war. Although the papers have now merged business operations, Denver still may not be able to support two large morning newspapers.
Because of the relative health of the Knoxville market, and the strength of the News Sentinel in that market, we remain one of Scripps’ strongest papers, and Scripps is one of the most solid local media companies.
True, we’ve had to make cuts. Newsprint, health insurance and pension costs have soared, and revenue has slipped.
But the News Sentinel — now evolved into the KNS Media Group — continues to grow, as well. We have created new publications: the Greater Knoxville Business Journal, Blount Today, Home Market Magazine, skirt! — and more. We have brought other publications under our wing — Metro Pulse, the Shopper News and Knoxville magazine — and are expanding them. We have built distribution, direct mail and printing operations. Our family of Web sites has grown, and their readership and revenues are taking off.
Yes, these are challenging times for the News Sentinel, as for other businesses. But, in meeting these challenges we are laying the foundation for a solid, successful future.
We plan to be part of Knoxville for a long, long time to come.

Speech should be free, even on T-shirts

I deeply sympathize with the Greenville couple that lost a son in Iraq and don’t want to see his name included on a protest T-shirt listing all of the war dead.
But I can’t agree with the family’s $40 billion lawsuit against the shirt maker. And I really dislike the laws some legislatures have passed making it a crime to include the name of a dead soldier on a commercial product without permission from relatives.
It’s a short step from T-shirts to newspapers, which, after all, are also commercial products.
Should I face criminal prosecution or a burdensome lawsuit if I include the name of a slain soldier in this post? Should you if you attach a comment and include a name?
In the United States, political speech is, and should be, protected, even on T-shirts.

Did News Sentinel underplay its PILOT story?

County Commissioner Sam McKenzie called me to complain that we underplayed the story about the audit of the News Sentinel’s Payment in Lieu of Taxes agreement. It ran on the front of our Business section in Tuesday’s paper.
“I think it was disingenuous,” McKenzie said. “When you are talking about tax dollars, that’s news.”
McKenzie remembers the story about back taxes he owed when he was a candidate. It ran on A1 as a sidebar to a story about him and other candidates receiving the endorsement of the Public Trust PAC.
“We’ve got to all take our lumps,” he said. But he wasn’t pushing for the story about the newspaper going on A1.
“It should have been played on the Local front,” he said. That’s where the story about the County Commission meeting ran, with a line referring readers to the related story on the Business cover.

Taking the paper out of newspapers

The American Society of Newspaper Editors is proposing taking the word “paper” out of its name and expanding its membership to include online-only news organizations.
The decision will come at the organization’s convention in April. But I’ll vote now. I’m for it. It’s a no-brainer.
As Charlotte Hall, president of ASNE, said:
“It is time for ASNE to recognize in its name and its membership that we are way beyond print-only newspapers,” Hall said. “All journalists are now digital news producers, and while print remains an important delivery mode, more and more news is being produced only for the Web.”

Detroit gambles on less home delivery

Got this note from an anonymous e-mailer this morning on the Detroit papers’ move to stop home delivery several days a week:
“For what it’s worth, in my opinion, such a change will be fatal to local papers. The local paper (yours included) is right at the edge of being worthwhile. I continue to subscribe, but it’s mostly because I resist changing a longstanding habit; I can get all of the relevant news elsewhere — and, usually, with more depth, better breadth, and more thoughtful analysis of a more factually complete and accurate story. Your recent switch to more local coverage may deliver adequate value, but that’s very much an open question- most of it is irrelevant, though of minor passing interest.”
The comment sparks a variety of thoughts. Here’s one:
Local papers recognize that readers can now get deeper, broader, more thoughtful and more complete national and international news elsewhere. That’s a given since, in the Internet age, interested readers have access to, basically, all the information in the world. The question is, what do we do about it, especially in the face of rising costs and declining print advertising revenue.
The answer many newspapers have reached is to narrow their information niche while broadening their channels of delivery. Typically, they focus on local news.
If I had unlimited resources, I’d subscribe to all the national news services available, hire a team of wire editors, add several pages to each day’s paper and provide readers with an extensive national/international report. But I don’t have unlimited resources, so to accomplish that level of wire report, I’d have to sharply reduce our local report. That, among other things, would strangle the development of our web sites. And it wouldn’t solve the underlying problem. Readers still would be able to get more national/global news elsewhere.
In limiting home delivery, the Detroit papers are taking a leap toward redefining themselves as local news utilities, as opposed to newsPAPERs. It’s a gamble. But my guess is that, without change, the financial trend lines in Detroit were on a fatal trajectory.

Comments, love ’em and hate ’em

The News Sentinel’s web sites drew just over 60,000 comments in November. If my math is right, that’s about 2,000 a day, or roughly one every 45 seconds.
For someone who loves free speech — and despite what critics may think, I do — that’s totally cool. It would take us a quarter of a century to publish that number of letters to the editor.
Most comments are posted anonymously. That’s fine. The practice encourages a level of spontaneity and forthrightness that might not otherwise be possible.
But some people get obnoxious when they know they won’t be held accountable for what they say. We don’t like to delete comments, but we’ve found that we have to take a heavy hand, at times, or keep our sites from descending to the lowest common denominator.
We love vigorous comments. We try to be fair and evenhanded in our management of the sites. But the bottom line is, it’s our job to make judgment calls on what we delete and who we ban, and some people are going to disagree.

Readership is not the problem with newspapers

One of the persistent misunderstandings about the newspaper business is that its current struggles are the result of declining readership. Frequently that decline is attributed to the public’s frustration with the medium’s “liberal bias.”
However, newspaper readership is actually up in most markets when print and online readership are combined. At the News Sentinel, our readership is hitting record highs every month, thanks to soaring traffic on, and our other web sites. Last month they attracted more than 1.5 million unique visitors.
It defies logic to contend that liberal bias is driving readers away from a print product but toward an online product produced by the same supposedly biased journalists.
Print circulation is declining, slowly but steadily, as people’s lifestyle patterns change. Also, many newspapers are deliberately pulling back on their circulation areas to conserve newsprint and reduce delivery costs. And bias is something we have to be concerned about in journalism. There’s no denying that.
But the problems the newspaper business is facing are due primarily to changes in advertising, especially classified ads, which lend themselves to online searching. Ads pay the bills at newspapers, and when there are fewer ads or they are selling for lower prices, it’s harder to pay the bills. Bias has little to do with it.