Wednesday, December 3, 2014


It's that time of year when many newspapers across the nation have kicked off their annual Christmas charity drives meant to provide food, toys, clothing and other creature comforts for the needy in their communities.

There are many good reasons why newspapers should engage in these holiday charitable efforts, which take on many different forms, the main one being that returning something to the community, especially at Christmas, is the right thing for any media outlet to do. Many of these efforts provide significant assistance to those in need and they pay off nicely in public relations benefits for the newspapers that operate them.

And, once upon a time, they were also a strong morale builder for virtually all of a newspaper's employees in every department, who felt good about doing something for the people in need in their communities.

But that is increasingly less the case, particularly among news staffers who, over the past several years, have seen many colleagues laid off, have had their pay cut and have not gotten raises in five or more years.

It's not that news staffers are turning into Scrooges, but they are growing increasingly more disgruntled over their personal financial situations and job uncertainty and are asking why it is that the top management can't seem to grasp the concept that "charity begins at home."

As one reporter -- who used to work for me at one of the newspapers where I was editor and now works at a major metro daily for one of the nation's largest media companies -- put it when we talked last week:

"They've kicked off our Christmas charity drive and loaded us up with stories to do about poor people to generate donations. But, there's a lot of resentment, particularly among some of the younger reporters who are still saddled with college loans and other debts and can hardly make ends meet from month to month. A lot of us are feeling that the only charity WE can expect from (the newspaper company) is that they'll suspend new layoffs until after the first of the year."

"Sure, participating in (the charity effort) still makes us all feel good and warm and fuzzy despite the additional workload, but's it a temporary high that won't do anything for our overall newsroom morale. As far a morale goes, I think it would have to undergo a lot of improvement just to say it's in the toilet. Right now, if it wasn't for lousy morale, we'd have no morale at all. A lot of people are saying -- and I think this runs through all departments -- that maybe what we raise for charity this year ought to go to newspaper employees who've been laid off and still haven't found jobs."

A long-time editor friend who has been trying for years to shake loose some raises for news staffers at his mid-sized daily, told me he thinks that if anything the Christmas charity efforts at his paper have, in recent years, actually been "detrimental to general newsroom morale."

"The grumbling just seems to be growing year by year. It seems like every person I assign a charity story to brings up the fact that they haven't had a raise in years, with some pointing out, and I don't know whether it's true or not, that they made more money, what with tips and all, waiting tables part-time while they were in college. I mean, we're a mid-sized paper and don't pay all that much as a starting salary and I have people who started working here at the minimum starting salary three years ago who haven't gotten a dime more since, but the cost of their rent and food has sure gone up. So, I guess it could be true," he said. "I just know that the grumbling is getting worse all the time and I really think that if my people could find jobs they're suited for outside the business that paid more, they'd be gone in a flash and I don't think that would be at all good for the paper because most of people on my staff are very good at what they do and I think it's their impression that they care a lot more about the paper than the paper cares about them."


Tuesday, December 2, 2014


UPDATE (1-8-2015): Queenie Pemelton, my friend and my Community Editor for the nearly 13 years I was editor of The Monitor, succumbed to her long battle with breast cancer this evening after more than a month in hospice care. Rest in Peace, Queenie. They simply don't make them like you anymore. 

UPDATE: Sometimes, there really is nothing I like better than good news. My friend, Monitor Community Editor Queenie Pemelton, after having her ventilator removed last night and breathing on her own, has taken a turn for the better. Perhaps prayers and well wishes do work. Either way, there now appears to be some reason for at least cautious optimism.


This morning I am reminded of an actually pretty poignant line from the last Indiana Jones movie, "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull:"

"We've reached the age where life stops giving us things and starts taking them away."

For the second time in less than a week, a newspaper friend could to be headed toward the final edition.

Last Wednesday, we lost longtime friend Larry Nighswander, who was my assistant managing editor for photo and design when I was managing editor of The Cincinnati Post, who died of a sudden heart attack. Larry was one of the media's best photo editors and visual educators of the past 30+ years.

Today, Queenie Pemelton, my community editor for the nearly 13 years I was editor of The Monitor, in McAllen, Texas, before my retirement last year, is hanging on by a thread at Rio Grande Regional Hospital. Like Larry, Queenie, 61, is a very special person.

She is a veteran of more than 30 years at The Monitor. And, although Queenie is not a "trained" (i.e., college graduate with a degree in journalism) journalist, she is nonetheless not only the news staffer best known to the public, she is probably the person whose name most often comes to mind when anyone in the public thinks of The Monitor.

For tens of thousands of full-time area residents and part-time "Winter Texans," Queenie -- who came to the newsroom from the back shop and got her journalism training on the job -- personifies The Monitor.

As community editor, a title I crafted for her years ago, her job for more than two decades has been to do the intake, editing and placement of the scores of press releases the newspaper receives every day from a wide variety of community people, groups and organizations from across The Monitor's circulation area, many of them hand delivered by the procession of mostly ordinary people who show up at her desk daily. Although most of these people could just as easily mail or email their press releases about a garden club meeting or a son or daughter receiving special honors at college or graduating from military boot camp, etc., they come in person because they love talking with Queenie, who always gives each of them a few minutes to chat despite her inordinately heavy workload created by the many press releases in need of editing.

To me, Queenie represents one of the things that I've always liked best about The Monitor -- it makes room daily to run many seemingly mundane community press releases dealing with the accomplishments and highly localized interests of thousands and thousands of readers and subscribers and does so not in some segregated "special" publication, but as part of the daily newspaper without in any way "harming" the paper's well-recognized professionalism.

I firmly believe that through her work, her character, her caring and her boundless love for the ordinary folks of the Rio Grande Valley, Queenie, for years, was highly instrumental in helping The Monitor stave off some of the precipitous circulation drops experienced by many other daily newspapers.

But for years now, Queenie has been waging war against breast cancer. For a while there, after several operation and much chemotherapy, many of us thought -- and hoped -- that she had won her battle. However, last week she suffered a seizure that again sent her to the hospital where she ended up being put on a ventilator. A CAT scan, according to information passed along to me, revealed that she had developed five brain tumors that have been ruled in operable.

Yesterday evening, the decision was made to remove the ventilator and although she was breathing on her own afterward, the prognosis is not good.

A mutual friend, who is keeping my updated via text messages, sent one last night that said: "Queenie is no longer the Queenie we know."

But, I beg to differ. Regardless of what happens next, in my mind, Queenie will ALWAYS be the Queenie I have known -- a very special person and a very special brand of journalist.


Wednesday, October 22, 2014


Thanks to the Rea Hederman, executive editor and son of the publisher of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., and his friendship with University of Virginia MBA program classmate Donnie Graham -- who succeeded his mother, Kathryn, as publisher of the Washington Post -- I got to meet American journalism legend Ben Bradlee in 1979.

At the time I was the Clarion-Ledger's metro editor and as a training exercise Rea arranged for me to spend a week observing city desk operations at the Post where -- along with then City Editor Herb Denton and then Metro Editor Bob Woodward -- I also got to meet Bradlee and sit in on the Post's daily budget meetings conducted by Bradlee.

He was tough, gruff and unrelentingly demanding and left me in total awe. It impressed me that he ran those meetings like a grill master, grilling each desk editor over the value of every Page 1 offering.

During one of the meetings when a local story was being offered for Page 1 consideration by Denton, Bradlee turned a steely eye to me and demanded, "What do you think?"

After carefully avoiding wetting myself and stammering a bit as I collected my thoughts, I told him what I thought about the story and why I felt it should go on Page 1. When I was finished, Bradlee turned his gaze to Denton, who was sitting next to me and said: "That's either a great coaching job, Herb, or you're one hell of a ventriloquist."

The story, the topic of which for the life of me I can't remember, went up front.

I ran into Bradlee again five years later at a media bash sponsored in part by Kathryn Graham at the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas. At the time I was assistant managing editor for news and projects at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and was overseeing the paper's coverage of the convention.

I had just finished thanking Mrs. Graham for the invitation and turned around and found myself face to face with Bradlee and was astonished to find that he remembered me.

He gave me a stern stare and gruffly said, "Well, Mr. Fagan, I see you're now assistant managing editor in Fort Worth. Guess you think that makes you pretty hot stuff, don't you?"

Then he broke into a warm smile, extended his hand and said, "Congratulations." He chatted with me for a few more minutes about my career since my visit to the Post and then moved on to greet Ralph Langer, editor of the Dallas Morning News.

In my 45 years in newspapering, I don't know that I ever felt more honored.

I think that beyond any doubt Ben Bradlee was the greatest newspaper editor of the last third of the 20th Century. American journalism has lost a true treasure.


Wednesday, September 10, 2014


It's almost impossible to spend even a few years in the news business as a reporter or editor without accruing some interesting, if not thoroughly bizarre, personal stories or, at the very least, being entertained by the personal tales shared by colleagues.

Of course, as we all know, such stories are often altered from being PRECISE truth by the fog of memory or by the need for some creative alterations to make them, shall we say, a slight bit more interesting. I know that most of these sorts of personal tales usually are not TOTALLY true, nor are they downright fiction. There are those, however, who will tell you that the only difference between a journalist's personal stories and fairy tales is that fairy tales start off "once upon a time" while a journalist's personal stories typically start off "no shit, this is the truth."

With a newspaper career that spanned nearly 45 year as a reporter and editor, I have amassed plenty of tales of my own. However, one of my all-time favorite journalist's personal stories was told to me by my old friend and colleague Bob Gordon in about 1980, while I was managing editor of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., and he was managing editor of our now-defunct sister paper The Jackson Daily News.

Bob Gordon, sitting on desk, and me, in the overly large glasses,
horsing around in The Clarion-Ledger newsroom, circa 1980.
For me, Gordon's tale took on special significance with the opening of The National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta in June because it is tied to one of the watershed events of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement -- James Meredith's enrollment on Oct. 1, 1962, as the first African-American student at the University of Mississippi, where Bob himself had gone to school.

Gordon, who passed away in 2007 at age 69, was an outstanding journalist who -- as a reporter for United Press International and later in various UPI management roles -- covered or directed coverage of many of the Civil Rights Era's key stories in the South during the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s. Bob was a model newsman, a great friend and funny guy. But, more than that, to me he was something of personal hero because of his staunch belief -- despite his upbringing as a white, native Mississippian -- in the rightness of the Civil Rights Movement. Perhaps you will better understand why I've always held Bob in such high esteem if you take a look at his obituary, published July 2, 2007, in The Clarion-Ledger. Here is the link:

Bob, working as a reporter out of UPI's Jackson office, covered the entire Meredith-Ole Miss saga, up to and including the morning the veteran of nearly 10 years service in the U.S. Air Force was finally allowed to enroll at the university after a day and night of campus rioting. The violence had to be put down by U.S. marshals and other federal agents, Army paratroopers and the Mississippi National Guard, leaving two men -- an Oxford area jukebox repairman and a French reporter -- dead and scores of pro-segregation student and non-student protesters injured.

Meredith -- with the support of the NAACP and eventually President John F. Kennedy and his brother, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy -- in 1961 began his protracted battle to gain admittance to Ole Miss after his honorable discharge from the Air Force and after attending Jackson State University for two years. He had the appropriate academic credentials and background and believed that he had a right as a veteran, as native Mississippian and as an American to enroll at the university. However, die-hard Mississippi segregationists, including -- and in most instances led by -- Gov. Ross Barnett and members of the state legislature felt otherwise. The struggle for and against Meredith's enrollment eventually became known in some circles as the "last battle of the Civil War."

James Meredith is escorted to the Lyceum
Building at Ole Miss by federal agents to enroll
as the university's first African-American student.
Under extreme pressure from the Kennedys and in the face of a federal court order, Barnett seemingly gave in and agreed to allow Meredith to enroll at Ole Miss, with the enrollment to take place at the Capitol building in Jackson on Sept. 20, 1962. There was, however, a catch. After Barnett had initially consented to enroll Meredith on that date, he tried unsuccessfully to get Bobby Kennedy to agree to staging a ludicrous tableau in which federal marshals would appear to be forcing him into submission at gunpoint.

Kennedy, of course, did not agree. So, when the morning of Sept. 20 came, despite the enrollment agreement, Barnett remained defiant and things did not go the way the Kennedys wanted.

Gordon, representing UPI, was among the reporters waiting at the Capitol that morning to witness and report on the historic moment.

The way Gordon told it, when the appointed time came, Meredith,  flanked by an escort of four huge federal marshals, approached the Capitol's east side steps with the morning sun behind and casting long shadows in advance of them.

Gordon said Barnett was waiting at the top of the long steps leading up to the entrance, seated on a chair at a table. As Meredith and the four agents walked up the stairs, preceded by their long shadows,  Barnett, seemingly oblivious, sat writing -- perhaps just doodling -- on a sheet of paper. At the top of the stairs, the entourage, their shadows now shading Barnett and the table, stopped and waited to be acknowledged by the governor.

Finally, Gordon said, Barnett looked up and surveyed the four large, looming, white federal agents and the short, thin black man they were flanking.

Gordon said that after a very pregnant pause, Barnett, finally spoke, asking:

"Now, which of you gentlemen is Mr. Meredith?"

To the surprise of Meredith, the federal agents, the assembled media and the Kennedy brothers, Barnett again refused to grant the Air Force veteran admission to Ole Miss and blocked his entry into the building, Gordon said.


Although that concluded Gordon's tale, it did not end the Kennedys' pressure on Barnett to allow Meredith to enroll. Under threat of being found in contempt of a federal court order, a substantial fine and possible imprisonment, Barnett finally gave in.

After the night of violence on the Ole Miss campus, and with Barnett nowhere to be found, Meredith was escorted by U.S. marshals across the riot-torn campus -- still reeking from the lingering odors of tear gas and burned out cars -- from a dorm room where he had been secretly ensconced to the Lyceum Building where he was finally allowed to enroll on Oct. 1, 1962.

So ended the final battle of the Civil War.


Saturday, August 9, 2014


   To my way of thinking, a really well crafted newspaper headline is every bit as much a work of art as a fine painting or a melodic symphony. It's no easy feat to truly and accurately capture the essence of a story in a handful of words and many a copy editor who has tried has failed miserably.
   However, even though the well-craft-headline batting average for most copy editors would never land a baseball player in the hall of fame, I saw many rare gems over my nearly 45-year newspaper career. As an editor, I also saw many a headline that made me want to hide somewhere and not answer my telephone for the rest of the day.
   For an editor, headlines can be a source of great joy or agonizing consternation.
   To be honest, what got me thinking about this this morning was the "headline" someone put on a Twitter post regarding a Kansas City Star story about a Baptist official in Missouri who was arrested for soliciting -- via Craig's List -- sex with a dog or some other animal. It's not a joke, here's the link to the story:
   The Twitter wag posted the link and wrote this, which essential is a headline: "BAPTIST BUSTED FOR PROFFERING PAY TO PORK POOCH." It's exactly the sort of joke headline a newspaper copy editor might write and then pass around to newsroom buddies for a chuckle and delete before it accidentally makes it into print.
   However, it jogged my memories of one particular incident when a similarly inappropriate and, shall we say, bawdy headline did make it into print while I was editor of The Morning News in Florence, S.C., in 1998.
   The story involved an incident in which a man in a trench coat was standing outside the fence around the field where the West Florence High School girls' softball team was practicing. The trench coat, of course, is a dead give away. The man opened it, flashing the girls while he masturbated. When the coach charged the fence with a softball bat, the man fled and police were called to give chase, but the culprit got away.
   The story, which played on the back page of the Local section, was processed by one of our best copy editors, who, as it happens, also had a wicked, off-color sense of humor.
   When I picked up the paper from my front porch the next morning, I found that she had written, and our copy desk slot person had for some reason allowed to run, this headline: "MAN PULLS FOR HOME TEAM."
   Almost before I could stop choking on my sip of breakfast coffee, I got a less than pleasant telephone call from Publisher Tom Marschel inviting me to come to his office the moment I arrived at work. I got -- and then passed along -- a well-deserved butt chewing and had a devil of time trying to write the mea culpa we ran on the front page the next morning.
   Fortunately, a few weeks earlier a joke headline on another pretty racy story got passed around but didn't make it into the paper. The story was about an area hog farmer who was arrested on murder charge and incest charges after he killed his son when the lad walked in on him raping his daughter. That "suggested" headline was "PIG FARMER PORKS DAUGHTER, KILLS SON." I'm sure glad that I personally put the wooden stake through the heart of that one.
   For me, some of the hallmarks of great headlines are thought, creativity, humor and poignancy. However, sometimes any one, or even all, of those hallmarks can be carried to disturbing extremes.
   Such was the case involving one of the two headlines I remember best from my days as a reporter for The Louisville Times in Louisville, Ky. The story was an Associated Press report on the Aug. 24, 1970, bombing of science lab in Sterling Hall at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where research was being done for the U.S. military. Four anti-Vietnam War protesters were charged in the incident which resulted in the death of of one physics researcher and injuries to several others. As part of its report, AP noted that Aug. 24 also happened to be the birthday of the young son of the researcher who was killed. The Times copy editor who processed the story seized upon that fact and, in an effort at poignancy, came up with this headline: "HAPPY BIRTHDAY, CHRISTOPHER, YOUR DADDY'S BEEN KILLED BY A BOMB."
   Needless to say, irate callers by the hundreds telephoned Managing Editor Bob Clark to rage over the "insensitivity" of that one.
   But attempts at creativity and/or poignancy often do work and there was one Louisville Time copy editor whose ability to come up with great headlines on a regular basis always impressed me. He was an older fellow named Adrian A. Daugherty -- better known just as "Double A." In those days, most people didn't train specifically to be copy editors as they do today. Instead, most copy editors were long-time, former reporters whose legs had given out out them, but had street savvy they often used to both taunt and help educate young reporters.
   One of Double A's specialties was writing what was referred to in Times parlance as "flash lines," headlines that appeared above the cutlines on stand-alone photos.
   The Daugherty flash line the stands out most in my memory appeared with a photo of two soldiers in Vietnam, under fire, carrying a wounded buddy to safety. Daugherty's flash line: "TAKE TWO, CARRY ONE." It was creative. It was intelligent. It was respectful. It drew you into the photo.
   Of course, trying to inject some humor into a headline, particularly a headline on an otherwise serious story, can get you into real trouble. But sometimes it works. A headline by Pete Oliva, one of my former copy editors at The Monitor in McAllen, Texas, used humor that worked. In fact, it worked so well that it won him a headline writing award in the Texas Associate Press Managing Editors competition. The story involved the Campbell's Soup Co. which for years has used the line "Mmm...good" in its advertising. The story was about a dead rodent being found in can of one of Campbell's soups. Pete's headline: "MMM...MOUSE."
   Sometimes, just playing it totally straight with a headline can leave readers scratching their heads.
   While I was metro editor at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., in the late 1970s we and our afternoon sister paper, The Jackson Daily News, covered a store involving two late-night intruders who broke into a restaurant owned by a local policeman and his family. Two were killed by a hail of warning shots as they exited the eatery via the back window they'd broken in through. The police investigation that followed revealed that the two dead "burglars" were actually investigators for a Congressional committee who apparently broke into restaurant to gather evidence on the police officer/owner who was later arrested on federal charges. The Jackson Daily News' headline on their story about the post -shooting investigation: "POLICE PROBE ACTIVITY OF DEAD SUSPECTS."


Blog Readers: If you enjoy reading my postings here on The Ancient Newspaper Editor, I sure would appreciate if you'd consider subscribing to or following the blog. It's easy to do and there are several options for doing so. If you look on the right side rail, you'll see the "Subscribe to" buttons and a "Subscribe by email" button. Just click any of those and follow the instructions. If you are a Google+ user you can click on the "Follow" button right under my profile picture and follow the instructions. Or, you can click on the "Google+ Add to Circles" button next to my photo and add me to your circles and get notifications of new blog entries when I post them. Also, please share the blog with your friends and colleagues.  Thanks for giving this consideration.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014


Renowned media blogger Jim Romenesko ( reported recently that Ken Hart, a 25-year veteran reporter for the Ashland (Ky.) Daily Independent was fired over a Facebook post criticizing a local auto dealer's TV commercial featuring his kids "baby talking" about the dealership -- Fannin Automotive.

Hart, who, according to the media blogger, has frequently been critical of such advertisers as Hobby Lobby, with regard to its U.S. Supreme Court birth control coverage case, and Chick-Fil-A, told Romenesko: “It appeared to me [that they] were being coached to talk like babies because it was ‘cute, I [wrote on Facebook] that making them do this was likely to get them teased unmercifully in school.”

The next day, according to Romenesko, Hart was called into Publisher Eddie Blakely's office and fired. Here is the link to Romenesko's full report on the firing:

Considering how kids are -- despite national efforts to combat schoolyard bullying and teasing -- Hart is probably right, the dealer's kids likely will be teased unmercifully and possibly even traumatically over the commercial when school starts this fall. And that, in my book, makes his Facebook comment fair criticism. It should be noted that he apparently merely criticized the commercial and not the dealership per se.

Speaking in retrospect, Hart told Romenesko:  “Should I have posted what I did? Probably not. Did I deserve to lose my job over it? I personally don’t think so."

From a personal perspective, I think Hart's firing is outrageous. However, I believe that it is, unfortunately, symptomatic of a frightening change in the way the nation's financially troubled newspapers are reacting to bullying by advertisers who see things they object to in the newspaper or on social media posts by news staffer and go off on hell-raising tangents.

I speak from personal experience having, over my nearly 45-year career as a newspaper reporter and editor, frequently (and often unknowingly) gotten crosswise with an advertiser.

The most recent -- and thankfully final -- such incident occurred about 18 months before my retirement as editor of The Monitor in McAllen, Texas, on April 30, 2013. Fortunately, I was working for a great publisher, who on several occasions during the 10 years I worked under him went through hell with advertisers on my and the newsroom's behalf. Had I had a different, weak-kneed, publisher, I might have faced the same fate as Ken Hart.

As it happens, this incident also involved automobile dealerships.

We ran a front-page story on the opening of an upscale auto dealership for a luxury brand new to the Rio Grande Valley in one of McAllen's smaller neighboring cities. Probably because it was a competitor, the story thoroughly pissed off the owner of the metro area's largest group of dealerships that together comprised our single largest local advertiser. He contacted our advertising director and the Publisher Olaf Frandsen threatening to cancel his advertising, contending he never got that sort of play when he opened a new dealership.

In an effort to placate him, Olaf arranged a meeting at the paper among himself, me, our advertising director and the irate dealer and his marketing director. I was forced to sit in silence as the outraged mega-dealer, who I had previously regarded as a friend, browbeat me and called me and my staff "irresponsible and incompetent." He even accused me and the reporter who wrote the story of taking a payoff to run it. In retrospect, we might have (and I repeat "might have," but I doubt it) avoided the problem had the story run on the business front instead of Page 1. However, I believe it deserved the play it was given because the dealership was lured to the neighboring city with incentives that stirred up a controversy in that community. Some of the stories regarding the controversial incentives had run on the front page.

In the end, Frandsen -- who was wonderfully skilled at calming waters without surrendering news integrity -- managed to smooth over the situation. However, as penance, a couple of weeks later, I wrote a story that validly was news that went with a full Business Page presentation announcing that the irate mega-dealer was building a new store to house yet another luxury brand new to the Valley.

I should point out that this was not the first time I had gotten crosswise with this particular auto dealer. For instance, years earlier, he took great offense and caused an uproar when we ran -- on an inside page -- a national wire story that accurately described one of the brands he then carried as Detroit's worst gas guzzler.

Although attempted bullying of newspapers by their advertisers -- and particularly by auto dealers -- is hardly a new phenomenon, it does seem to me that over my last few years before retirement that advertisers became more brazen in their intimidation attempts as papers sank deeper into their economic woes and advertising lineage and revenue shrank.

I believe and fear that newspapers today are far more susceptible than ever to caving in to this sort of pressure designed, in some instances, to force things that are not news into print and keep things that are news out of print.

However, it has not always been thus.

While I was managing editor of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., in the late 1970s and early '80s -- before it was bought by Gannett -- we published a series on unnecessary auto repairs done by both independent auto shops and dealership service departments in the area. We well documented numerous instances where unnecessary and costly repairs were made even by well-respected auto dealership shops.

Although it enraged local auto dealers, Publisher Robert Hederman Sr. and Editor Tom Hederman stood by the series, refusing to stop or retract it. Consequently, the local auto dealers' association encouraged an advertising boycott that most -- but not all -- dealers went along with, resulting in tens of thousands of dollars in lost revenue for the paper.

The boycott, however, only lasted a little over 30 days before the participating dealers realized they were losing more in sales than the newspaper was losing in ad revenue. A group of dealers met with Robert and Tom -- who were not only respectively publisher and editor, but also the owners -- and informed them that they felt that the "lesson" they were teaching the paper had gone on long enough and they were "ready to start advertising again."

As was their southern gentlemanly habit, Robert and Tom politely thanked the dealers for wishing to return to the advertising fold. Then they informed the dealers that since they had not advertised for over a month, their advertising contracts had been nullified and that if they wanted to advertise again they were welcome to do so under new contracts at a 10 percent increase. All sheepishly signed the new, more costly contracts and the newspaper quickly made up for and significantly exceeded the lost revenues.

Simply because they can't afford to, I seriously doubt that many of today's newspaper top executives would display the sort of intestinal fortitude with which Robert and Tom Hederman countered the bullying by those auto dealers. And THAT, in my opinion, is a pretty sad state of affairs.


Blog Readers: If you enjoy reading my postings here on The Ancient Newspaper Editor, I sure would appreciate if you'd consider subscribing to or following the blog. It's easy to do and there are several options for doing so. If you look on the right side rail, you'll see the "Subscribe to" buttons and a "Subscribe by email" button. Just click any of those and follow the instructions. If you are a Google+ user you can click on the "Follow" button right under my profile picture and follow the instructions. Or, you can click on the "Google+ Add to Circles" button next to my photo and add me to your circles and get notifications of new blog entries when I post them. Also, please share the blog with your friends and colleagues.  Thanks for giving this consideration.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2014


As we learn more about the apparently extreme right-wing, anti-government political leanings of the husband and wife shooters who brutally murdered two Las Vegas policeman as they sat eating pizza for lunch on Sunday, I can't help but again think back to an interview I conducted in 1971 as a young reporter at the The Louisville (Ky.) Times over breakfast with William C. "Wild Bill" Sullivan, who was then the head of the Domestic Intelligence Division of the FBI and the No.3 man inside the bureau.

The last time this disturbing interview came to mind was immediately after the Boston Marathon bombing more than a year ago, when, frankly, I feared that it had possibly been the work of right-wing domestic terrorists like those who planted the truck bomb that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City in 1995. As we all know now, that was not the case and the bombing has been blamed on brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev,  two Muslim transplants who came to the United States from Kyrgyzstan in the old Soviet Union.

But now, in the wake of the Las Vegas murders, I find that the memories of that interview are haunting me again, particularly when I think about how much more vocal and visible the anti-government, right-wing fringe has become through demonstrations like those at the Bundy Ranch in Nevada in April. Among those who came armed to help "protect" scofflaw rancher Cliven Bundy from the federal government was Jerad Miller, who with his wife Amanda, murdered Las Vegas police officers Alyn Beck, 41, and Igor Soldo, 31, at a CiCi's pizza parlor and then killed a civilian at the Walmart across the street before taking their own lives.

The evening prior to the 1971 interview, Sullivan delivered a speech that I covered. Before the speech, I had made a request for the interview which Sullivan granted for the following morning in the restaurant at his hotel in downtown Louisville. When I arrived, Sullivan was sitting at a table with two other agents, both from the Louisville FBI office. I introduced myself and when Sullivan invited me to sit, the other agents got up and moved to another table, where I sensed they were keeping a careful eye on me.

A Massachusetts native, Sullivan resembled and sounded very much like James Cagney, one of my favorite movie stars.

At first, I felt a little uncomfortable. Here I was, a reporter with long hair and drooping, Zapata mustache, a little more than a year out of college where I had participated in numerous anti-Vietnam War protests and had built a healthy distrust of the FBI and suspected that they probably had a similar distrust of me. But Sullivan quickly put me at ease -- probably a skill he learned from his interrogation techniques.

For more than an hour we conducted a wide ranging interview on a variety of topics of interest to both of us. I was fascinated by the man because of the history of his work with the FBI, particularly in the area of counter intelligence, which he began to specialize in almost immediately after joining the bureau shortly after the start of World War II when he was dispatched to Spain as a counter-intelligence officer. During the war he chased Nazi spies. Afterward, from the 1940s into the 1950s, he headed FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's efforts to ferret out the alleged Communists among us and, at the same time, led the bureau's efforts to crush the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan -- an activity he felt a strong commitment to. In the 1960's, Hoover had Sullivan turn his counter intelligence skills against the Civil Rights movement, including the secret wire tapping of Dr. Martin Luther King, and the anti-Vietnam War movement, an effort that he admitted to me he had little stomach for. For more than two decades, his career in the FBI had been dedicated to chasing down the nation's enemies, both real and perceived, on both the right and the left.

Finally, as the interview wound toward a conclusion, I asked: "Given your experience, if there was ever really a threat to the nation's government as we know it, where do you think it will come from, the right or the left?"

He collected his thoughts for a moment and then spoke.

"I don't really see the left as a threat," he said. "The 'left' as we know it today is made up of some well-meaning, but largely ineffective politicians and bunch of over-educated college students who will eventually grow up to be bankers and stock brokers and will moderate their views. Basically, the left is a just bunch of socially concerned wimps.

"If there is ever to be a real threat to our government as we know it, to the Constitution, to our liberties and the principles we hold scared, it will come from the right. There are people there with serious money and more power than you might expect. They have the potential to be ruthless and they know the issues that can be raised to swing the fearful and ignorant to their side," he said, concluding the interview.

Although I was surprised by his candor, his views -- which he had taken to frequently expressing even though they ran counter those held by his boss -- apparently did not go unnoticed by Hoover. Despite their years of friendship, several months after our interview Sullivan arrived at the FBI headquarters in Washington one morning to find his nameplate removed from his office door and his tenure with the bureau terminated.

In the following years, he became steadily more publically critical of Hoover and his counter-intelligence activies -- dubbed COINTELPRO -- including testimony critical of the bureau and Hoover before the Senate Intelligence Committee in 1975.

Sullivan died in November 1977 when he was accidentally shot in the neck by a hunter, who said he mistook the former FBI agent for a deer, despite the fact that his rifle had a powerful scope, as he walked in the woods near his home. His death has long been considered by some to be "suspicious."

In his obituary, The New York Times described Sullivan as "the only liberal Democrat ever to break into the top ranks of the bureau."

Over the 43 years since that interview, Sullivan's words of caution regarding the extreme right have come back numerous time to haunt me. They did so in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, the bombing at Centennial Park in Atlanta during the Summer Olympics in 1996 and in 2010, when a disgruntled government hater flew a plane into the IRS building in Austin, Texas.

Now, in the wake of the Las Vegas shootings, the Sullivan interview is again as fresh in my mind as it was moments after it was concluded in 1971.


Blog Readers: If you enjoy reading my postings here on The Ancient Newspaper Editor, I sure would appreciate if you'd consider subscribing to or following the blog. It's easy to do and there are several options for doing so. If you look on the right side rail, you'll see the "Subscribe to" buttons and a "Subscribe by email" button. Just click any of those and follow the instructions. If you are a Google+ user you can click on the "Follow" button right under my profile picture and follow the instructions. Or, you can click on the "Google+ Add to Circles" button next to my photo and add me to your circles and get notifications of new blog entries when I post them. Also, please share the blog with your friends and colleagues.  Thanks for giving this consideration.

Your thoughts and/or comments are welcomed.

Monday, June 9, 2014


Could CNN -- which has been nailed several times in recent years for lack of transparency or jumping the gun without all of the facts in it's reporting on certain stories -- be headed for another black eye for possibly failing to check into or to reveal details of former U.S. Army Sgt. Josh Korder's military background before giving him pretty much free rein in calling Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl a deserter?

Shortly after Bergdahl's release on May 31, after five years in Taliban captivity, CNN aired an interview with Korder, who served in the same unit with him, in which the former sergeant accused Bergdahl of being at best a deserter and "at worst a traitor." Although CNN and other media outlets have since broadcast or written about other former soldiers making similar accusations, Korder remains as the center of the political maelstrom swirling around Bergdahl's release in exchange for the release of five Guantanamo Bay detainees.

Now. a new undercurrent is percolating with regard to Korder and his accusations. Beginning last Friday, a number of liberal websites started reporting that Korder received a "less than honorable" discharge from the Army and suggesting that his type of discharge may be providing him an ulterior motive for lashing out at Bergdahl. Thus far, I can find no evidence that CNN or any other "mainstream" media outlet has reported anything about this.

How true this tidbit of information regarding Korder is I can't say since I haven't had time, or really even the need, to do any research into it myself since I'm retired and no longer a member of the active news media.

However, if it is true, it's something that should have been checked out before Jake Tapper's original CNN interview with Korder was aired and should have been revealed in conjunction with that interview. That would have been the proper and transparent thing to do. It seems to me, that if this information is true, viewers were entitled to know it in order to help them assess how much of what Korder said -- despite having signed a non-disclosure agreement with the Army -- to believe.

Throughout my nearly 35 years as at various editor levels at newspapers, I always insisted that reporters look into the background of those who came forward to provide information for "GOTCHA" stories and to, at least briefly, reveal in those stories anything possibly negative in the accuser's background that readers ought to know as they weighed the veracity of the accusations.

The need to do that as a matter of credibility was one of those things drummed into my head by editors during my reporting years at the Louisville (Ky.) Courier-Journal & Times -- sister morning and afternoon newspapers that were among the first to have a written and strictly enforced news department code of ethics.

If CNN failed to run a background check on Korder, including looking at the type of Army discharge he received, it was significant example of lackadaisical basic reporting and the viewing public has a right to expect better from a media organization that still has loads of resources and bills itself as the nation's premiere all-news network.

If a background check was run by CNN and Korder was honorably discharged, that fact -- to insure fairness to Korder, who they should have known would come under attack from Bergdahl defenders -- should have been reported somewhere in connection with the original Tapper interview.

If a background check was run and it was learned that Korder received a "less than honorable" discharge and that information was not revealed as part of the Tapper interview, CNN richly deserves any black eye that might develop as a result of its failure to do so.

If you want to know more about what constitutes a "less than honorable" discharge, there is an easy to understand explanation of it here:


Blog Readers: If you enjoy reading my postings here on The Ancient Newspaper Editor, I sure would appreciate if you'd consider subscribing to or following the blog. It's easy to do and there are several options for doing so. If you look on the right side rail, you'll see the "Subscribe to" buttons and a "Subscribe by email" button. Just click any of those and follow the instructions. If you are a Google+ user you can click on the "Follow" button right under my profile picture and follow the instructions. Or, you can click on the "Google+ Add to Circles" button next to my photo and add me to your circles and get notifications of new blog entries when I post them. Also, please share the blog with your friends and colleagues.  Thanks for giving this consideration.

Your thoughts and/or comments are welcomed.

Thursday, June 5, 2014


It's funny what will sometimes set a person's -- particularly a journalist's -- memory banks in motion.

This morning, my friend Scott Maier, who is now senior public information officer at the University of California, San Francisco, posted this photo on Facebook with this accompanying text: "Yes, these still exist where I work. Anyone remember, or ever use them?"

Well, of course, being almost 70, I remember them and, as a reporter in the pre-cell phone era, used them frequently. In fact one of those stupid working pay-phone booths was every bit as important -- although frequently far less reliable -- a reporting tool in those days as a "smart phone" is today. Back then, a good reporter had to be just as resourceful as, and sometimes a whole bunch sneakier than, today's reporters when it came to beating the competition on a breaking story -- something that could become a bit problematic back in the phone-booth era.

As I prepared to respond to Scott's post, my memory banks kicked into motion.

Back in 1973, I was the crime and courts reporter for the now long-defunct afternoon paper The Louisville (Ky.) Times and, as part of my beat, covered the Jefferson County Circuit Courts. At the side entrance to the circuit courts building, there was one, and just one, phone booth.  When covering a particularly big, "hot" trial, I had to rely on that phone booth as my primary mode of contact with the rewrite desk to call in and retop and update my story between each of the paper's four daily editions.

When I first was assigned to the beat, I often found that when I'd come dashing out of a courtroom and head to the solo phone booth to call in a story update, it would be in use by some lawyer or other miscreant. That would sometimes cause me to miss a deadline which was never something that sat too well with my direct boss, Assistant City Editor Harold Benjamin. So, after several ass chewings as only Ben, as he was known, could deliver them -- and remember, this was long before dyspeptic HR twits had much say or any sway over what happened in the newsroom -- I decided that I would have to find a means of making certain THE phone booth was not in use when I needed it. Let's face it, one can take just so much brutal verbal abuse before the resourceful and creative juices begin to flow.

It didn't take me long to come up with a solution.

First, I "acquired" an official Southern Bell "OUT OF ORDER" hang tag. Then, whenever I was covering a major trial that required me to call in regular updates to the rewrite desk -- yep, newspapers had those back in the day, staffed by generally older, burned-out reporters who took notes or dictation from their colleagues in the field and made sure that stories that needed it got retopped in time to meet deadlines -- I would hang it on the phone booth to discourage use by others. As an added measure of insurance, I would also unscrew the mouthpiece cover from the receiver, take out the speaker and pocket it just in case someone didn't believe the sign and tried to make a call anyway.

Then, when I needed the phone, I simply removed the sign, reinstalled the speaker, dropped my dime in the coin slot and dictated my update. When finished, I'd check to make certain no one else was around and remove the speaker from the mouthpiece, rehang the sign and head back into court.

Was this fair to others in the media who were covering the same trial and might need a close by phone? Nope, but I did in particular love the way it drove the reporters from the three local TV news stations nuts.

Was it ethical? Well, I'll let you be the judge of that.

Did I feel bad about doing it? Although I hate to admit it, not in the least because it helped me to get the job done and keep each of the daily editions of The Louisville Time current and relevant in their coverage of big, important trials at a time when that mattered every bit as much as it does today.


Blog Readers: If you enjoy reading my postings here on The Ancient Newspaper Editor, I sure would appreciate if you'd consider subscribing to or following the blog. It's easy to do and there are several options for doing so. If you look on the right side rail, you'll see the "Subscribe to" buttons and a "Subscribe by email" button. Just click any of those and follow the instructions. If you are a Google+ user you can click on the "Follow" button right under my profile picture and follow the instructions. Or, you can click on the "Google+ Add to Circles" button next to my photo and add me to your circles and get notifications of new blog entries when I post them. Also, please share the blog with your friends and colleagues.  Thanks for giving this consideration.

Your thoughts and/or comments are welcomed.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014


In the latest post on his media blog, "The Buttry Diary," under the headline "Corrections should be accurate, not misleading," my friend Steve Buttry has an interesting discussion regarding just how transparent the corrections most newspapers run should be. His position essentially is that they should be as transparent as possible, short of creating a finger pointing blame list or giving the name of the person or persons responsible for the error that required correcting.

Since I am pretty much in full agreement with what Steve has to say in the post, I want to avoid a repetitive, me tooish discussion. So, I suggest that you read his post. Here is the link:

Buttry notes that the genesis of this post was a Twitter discussion about corrections that I guess I entirely missed. To be honest, since my retirement a little over a year ago from my position as editor of The Monitor in McAllen, Texas, I am not as connected on a daily basis with newspaper industry discussions as I used to be. So, after reading Steve's post, I did some "research" into the discussion on Twitter and on other media-related blogs to bring myself up to speed.

Basically, the discussion involves two points of view.

As simplistically as I can put it, one of those points of view holds that when there is a mistake, it is the newspaper's and everyone essentially shares the blame. This is represented in corrections that are written something like this: "In a story published in Tuesday's Daily Bladder it was incorrectly stated that the mayor is dead. In fact, he is alive. The newspaper regrets the error." Blame is laid at no one in particular's doorstep, but the reader's natural assumption is that the reporter screwed the pooch.

The other point of view -- again as simplistically as I can state it -- acknowledges that when readers, who really don't know a whole lot about the internal processes of a newsroom, see a correction, they automatically assume the mistake was made by the person whose byline appeared on the story. Those who ascribe to this point of view -- including me and, apparently, Buttry -- believe that allowing readers to make that assumption when the error might not have been the reporter's fault creates an inaccuracy and is unfair to the reporter. In accordance with this school of thought, that same correction might be written this way if the error was made by the reporter: "In a story published in Tuesday's Daily Bladder it was incorrectly stated, due to a reporting error, that the mayor is dead. In fact, he is alive. The newspaper regrets the error." If the error had been created by an assigning editor or a copy editor while editing the story, the correction might read like this: "In a story published in Tuesday's Daily Bladder it was incorrectly stated, due to an editing error, that the mayor is dead. In fact, he is alive. The newspaper regrets the error."

Frankly, there is not really anything new in the discussion of these two differing points of view regarding how to structure a correction and the assigning of blame. It's been debated within the newspaper industry for decades.

However, what seems to be rarely discussed -- and is totally missing from the current back and forth -- is something that I think is every bit as important as publishing corrections and that is WHERE in the newspaper corrections appear.

Regardless of where they land philosophically on the issue of assigning blame for mistakes, most reputable newspapers believe they must correct them as a matter of preserving their credibility with both readers and news sources and do so, usually, in some anchored position inside the newspaper where readers can grow accustomed to regularly look for them.

This is good, but I don't think it's good enough for every error a newspaper makes.

Again, this is pretty simplistic, but I've always felt there are two basic categories of newspaper errors. First, there is what I regard as the "standard" errors which include things like name misspellings; correct last name, wrong first name; misattributions; pied type; typos; wrong addresses; and any other mistake that does not alter or change the gist or meaning of a story. The other category is any of a variety of what I'll call "HOLY CRAP, WE DIDN'T REALLY TO DO THAT" mistakes that are serious errors in fact that can adversely impact the truth or credibility of the story and may even go so far as being libelous. Such mistakes can occur even in connection with the most seemingly routine stories and can appear anywhere in a paper from deep inside to a main display page like Page 1, or the local, features, sports or business front.

Such errors absolutely should and must be corrected whether they are noted by a staffer, by a reader or by a news source who may have been the subject -- or victim -- of the error. Some newspapers may choose to run these needed corrections as part of their anchored list of standard "We Were Wrongs."

That might be considered "good enough" placement for the correction of even an egregious error in a story that appeared inside the paper since we train readers to look for corrections in those anchored spots. However, it's my belief that it isn't good enough for a serious error in a story that appears on a main display page.

I think, for instance, that if you erroneously report the mayor dead in a story appearing on Page 1, you need to correct it prominently on the same display page where it appeared. It's a matter of accuracy, of fairness and of the newspaper's credibility with readers and sources who frequently -- and often justifiably -- complain that we, like bad surgeons, tend to bury our worst mistakes.

If you get it egregiously wrong on Page 1, you need to set it straight on Page 1. To not do so could make it appear to readers and to the news sources used in the gathering of information for the story as though the paper is trying to hide or minimize its bonehead error in a story that was given prominent play. It's as much a matter of transparency as making it clear in the correction where in the process the error crept into the story.


Blog Readers: If you enjoy reading my postings here on The Ancient Newspaper Editor, I sure would appreciate if you'd consider subscribing to or following the blog. It's easy to do and there are several options for doing so. If you look on the right side rail, you'll see the "Subscribe to" buttons and a "Subscribe by email" button. Just click any of those and follow the instructions. If you are a Google+ user you can click on the "Follow" button right under my profile picture and follow the instructions. Or, you can click on the "Google+ Add to Circles" button next to my photo and add me to your circles and get notifications of new blog entries when I post them. Also, please share the blog with your friends and colleagues.  Thanks for giving this consideration.

Your thoughts and/or comments are welcomed.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014


I've been trying very hard to just keep my mouth shut regarding the New York Times' firing of Executive Editor Jill Abramson, the first woman to hold that post at the paper, and the swirl of hubbub that has grown in wake of it. After all, I have never met her or her bosses or ever even been in the New York Times building, much less its news department. What's more, I am writing from the border in deep South Texas, some 2,000+ miles from the granite canyons of Manhattan.

However, two factors do come into play that led me to finally say something here. First, after 45 years in the business at eight different newspapers, I do know something about the nature of the beast. And, second, as anyone who knows me can readily attest, after more than 69 years of living I still lack the willpower to keep my mouth shut even about things that may not directly involve me.

The impetus for me to finally unshackle my tongue (or, perhaps, more accurately my fingers) with regard to the firing was this Facebook post this morning my by friend Jimmie D. Davis of Fort Worth, Texas, another former, longtime newsman:

"Oh, the ignominy. Getting unfriended by Amy Siskind. I had the audacity to disagree with her about the NYT mess.

She took out after Rachel Maddow for lack of coverage of the mess. If anyone out there has definitive knowledge of who is right and who is wrong in this, please share with the rest of us.

From the facts I so far have been able to gather I tend to lean with the NYT. But that may be totally wrong, so I am hesitant to go deeper than that. Rachel Maddow may just have the same problem.
But, apparently Amy Siskind thinks that any woman journalist worth her salt must take the default position in favor of the female in any dispute of this sort. That's thinking like a Fox."

Clearly, Abramson's seemingly abrupt firing on May 14 has sent the national journalism community into a tizzy.

Her supporters, in general, contend she is a victim of sexism and speculate that she might have been fired because she "may" have been being paid less than her predecessor and wanted a salary boost that cost her her job.

Her detractors, in general, contend she was let go because of her "management" style, alleging that she played favorites and sometimes publicly vilified those who weren't and, therefore, got just what she deserved.

Since I have no knowledge of what she or her predecessor were being paid, the only thing I have to say about that is that gender rightfully should have absolutely nothing to do with pay. If she had the same skills -- which I think you must assume or she would not have or should not have gotten the position in the first place -- and the same experience level, she should have been paid the same, or even more if she could have negotiated it at the time of her promotion. The only justification for having paid her less should have been, in my opinion, based solely on her skill and/or experience level compared to her predecessor. Gender should never play a role in a pay decision.

As for her "management style," I  have to suspect that considering the era in which she got into the business, she may have been a bit old school -- a style that sends today's newspaper H-R people into fits of apoplexy, but from which many of us learned one hell of a lot and became far better newspaper people than we might have been otherwise. However, being a tough, unyielding and possibly even harsh editor is one thing and playing favorites to the detriment of the others is quite something else. But I don't know anything about her personal management style.

What I DO know is that Abramson had established a reputation within the industry as a good and qualified editor and I, for one, was pleasantly surprised when she was named the NYT's first female executive editor in September 2011.

This all brings me back to my response to Jimmie Davis' Facebook post which was based on what all of us who have ever been the top news executive at any newspaper in the United States regardless of size or location knows all too well. My comment was:

"JIMMIE: There is one immutable fact here and that is that regardless of race, gender, ethnic origin, religion or sexual preference, if you are the editor of a newspaper, you serve at the pleasure of the owner and/or publisher. The question here is not one of whether or not the publisher had a right to fire her or whether or not it was the right thing or wrong thing to do, but rather how the dismissal was handled and from what I can see, it was not handled well nor with anything bordering on class from either side."

Whatever the "real" reason for Jill Abramson's firing -- fair or unfair, just or unjust -- it would appear, in the final analysis, that she displeased Publisher Arthur Sulzberger and he decided to show her the door. It has always been thus for chief news executives at newspapers and very few have ever survived getting irrevocably crosswise with their publisher.


Blog Readers: If you enjoy reading my postings here on The Ancient Newspaper Editor, I sure would appreciate if you'd consider subscribing to or following the blog. It's easy to do and there are several options for doing so. If you look on the right side rail, you'll see the "Subscribe to" buttons and a "Subscribe by email" button. Just click any of those and follow the instructions. If you are a Google+ user you can click on the "Follow" button right under my profile picture and follow the instructions. Or, you can click on the "Google+ Add to Circles" button next to my photo and add me to your circles and get notifications of new blog entries when I post them. Also, please share the blog with your friends and colleagues.  Thanks for giving this consideration.

Your thoughts and/or comments are welcomed.

Monday, May 5, 2014


Whenever I think about declining newspaper readership in the United States -- which is something I still do a lot, even in retirement -- I can't help but think that newspaper editors are as much to blame as any of the factors more commonly and popularly mentioned, particularly by newspaper editors.

I also can't help but recall perhaps the best known line from one of Bob Dylan's most popular early songs, "Subterranean Homesick Blues":  "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows."

Beginning decades before the steep circulation declines newspapers have been experiencing since the turn of the Millennium, the industry started turning to "weathermen" in the form of research companies like Belden Associates, Yankelovich and Market & Opinion Research International (MORI) to tell us which way the winds of reader content interests were blowing.

Unfortunately, too many media companies and individual newspapers began relying more and more exclusively on readership survey findings as the sole gauge of reader content interests rather than talking and listening directly to their readers. This, I believe, is where and why the disconnect between newspapers and their readers began to take serious root.

Some like to say that it came rather precipitously as the nation's economy began to slip into recession starting in about 2005 and that the economic downturn, coupled with other factors -- such a expanding free website access to information that papers once sold exclusively in print, already declining advertising revenues and rising production costs -- created a "perfect storm" for newspapers.

Certainly, those perfect-storm factors may have set off the industry's panic alarms, but I think the clouds began gathering much earlier than 2005. In fact, I believe the readership barometer may have already been starting to drop when I began my first, post-college, full-time newspaper job as a reporter in the Indiana Bureau of The Louisville Courier-Journal & Times in 1970.

Whenever I ponder a newspaper's content relationship with its readers, I remember what my favorite journalism professor at Indiana University, Dr. Ron Farrar, who taught courses in in-depth and investigative reporting, once told me: "You earn the right to give readers the information YOU think they need to know by first giving them the information THEY actually want to know."

Farrar always emphasized the idea that content is the key to readership and I think it would hard find anyone in the newspaper industry who would disagree with that, then or now.

The questions, however, are how should we determine what sort of content attracts readers to buy newspapers and who should make that determination.

By the time I took my first full-time job many newspapers companies had already seemingly decided to turn that task over almost exclusively to the companies that conduct scientific readership interest surveys to determine what sort of content readers find most appealing.

While I believe such surveys are a great tool and do provide valuable information about readers and their interests, I don't think that information should be blindly accepted as gospel nor should it be the dictator of content. I say this, in part, because most readership survey questionnaires are more theoretical than practical. I also believe that when people provide answers to formal surveys, they aren't always honest and give answers they think the researchers want to hear or that they think will make them sound more intelligent and thoughtful. The same thing, I believe, is true when it comes to relying too heavily on formally assembled focus groups.

Editors who really want to know what readers and potential readers read in their newspapers need to get out of the office, go where people are and talk to them informally and actually listen to what they are saying.

Editors also need to realize that their best and staunchest ally in understanding what sort of content appeals to readers in their market is their newspapers' circulation director.

I don't know how many times over the years I heard many of my fellow newspapers editors pompously and erroneously say: "It's not my job to sell newspapers. It's my job to inform the public. Selling papers is the circulation director's job."

Well, one of the industry's biggest problems is that far too many editors have done a great job of not selling newspapers and have failed to realize the paper that doesn't sell also doesn't do a very good job of informing the public. As bluntly as I can put it, it's my opinion that at a this critical time in the life of the industry, any editor who doesn't sell newspapers shouldn't be the editor for very long.

If content truly is the key to selling a newspaper, there are a number of things you can do to determine what sort of content actually attracts buyers. This is where both getting out of the office to talk to real people, real readers, in their natural habitat and a good working relationship with your paper's circulation director come in.

Throughout my 30+ years as an editor, I made a habit of identifying popular local breakfast spots that had a good mix of customers from laborers to professionals and executives. Then, at least once a month, I would stop in early (always at a different restaurant), get breakfast and look for people who where reading my newspaper, with the understanding that if they had a paper at the restaurant, they probably picked it up as an impulse, single-copy buy from a vending machine. I would politely approach the cafe readers, introduce myself and ask them why they had purchased the paper, what story or stories might have attracted them to make the buy and why that story or those stories had grabbed their interest. Although I would sometimes be told the paper was purchased for inside content -- particularly sports -- the majority of cafe readers I talked to over the years would cite a particular front page story as the reason for that morning's buy.

And what sort of stories most frequently fueled the single-copy impulse buy? Except for the occasional really big national or international story -- such as 9-11 or the killing of Osama Bin Laden -- it was usually a local hard (usually breaking and/or developing) news or investigative story. There's an old saying that "if it bleeds it leads." And, like it or not, it is still those sorts of stories that grab the single-copy buyer by the labels and give him or her a shake, not the story about the city's new multi-bazillion dollar sewer project -- unless of course the angle on THAT story is that the mayor's brother-in-law got the job on a no-bid contract.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying you should take a mediocre story, sensationalize it and slap it on Page 1, like some grocery store tabloid, just to appeal to the prurient interests. However, you should understand that a really good, hard-hitting story given strong play above the fold on the front does draw in readers and sells papers.

Another way to learn what sorts of stories appeal to readers in your market is to work with your paper's circulation director who maintains loads of data on home-delivery and single-copy sales. Of these, the most important to use in determining what sorts of stories really attract readers are the single-copy numbers. Any good circulation director will readily tell you that the person most likely to be converted into a home-delivery buyer is the one who makes frequent single copy buys and can be convinced that it's a lot cheaper and easier to have the paper tossed on the front lawn every morning than having to run around town -- particularly on a Sunday -- and find one in a circulation vending machine.

Get your circulation director to provide you numbers that show when single copy sales jumped and then look at the papers for those days and inspect and think about the front page stories and how they were played.  Doing so will tell you a lot about types of stories that get people to read your paper.

At the last several papers where I was editor, I had clear plastic sleeves installed on the wall of the news department conference room so that either a week's or two weeks' worth of the above-the-fold portion the newspaper could be displayed. Then, I asked the circulation director to have the single copy manager post the sales figures for each of those day's papers plus the numbers for the corresponding day of the previous year. By inspecting those postings, I and everyone else who attended the daily news budget meetings could see what was and wasn't selling on the street, based on the type of content and it's front-page play.

Granted, if you follow the lead of what the single-copy sales numbers tell you, you are occasionally going to get calls from irate readers who accuse you of "only trying to sell newspapers." But, let's face you're already getting those calls -- even if you don't pay attention to single copy sales -- every time you run a story that some readers find offensive for whatever reason.  I don't know how many times over the years I've had angry callers hurl the "you only ran that story to sell newspapers" accusation at me over a story buried inside the local section where it had absolutely no impact on sales.

Keep in mind that even though such calls might cause your blood pressure to spike, they come from people who have at least bothered scoop your paper off the front lawn and read it. And having people read your paper is a good thing, even if they seem to do so only because they need something to piss them off in the morning.


Blog Readers: If you enjoy reading my postings here on The Ancient Newspaper Editor, I sure would appreciate if you'd consider subscribing to or following the blog. It's easy to do and there are several options for doing so. If you look on the right side rail, you'll see the "Subscribe to" buttons and a "Subscribe by email" button. Just click any of those and follow the instructions. If you are a Google+ user you can click on the "Follow" button right under my profile picture and follow the instructions. Or, you can click on the "Google+ Add to Circles" button next to my photo and add me to your circles and get notifications of new blog entries when I post them. Also, please share the blog with your friends and colleagues.  Thanks for giving this consideration.

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Wednesday, April 30, 2014


This is it! Retirement One Year Anniversary Day. At 4 p.m. today, it will be one year since I left the newsroom for the last time as editor of The Monitor in McAllen, Texas.

It's seemed like the shortest year of my life. I didn't die from lack of stress, nor have I been bored. In the past year the only day that I really wished I was in the newsroom was the day a couple of months ago when Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Trevino -- who I never trusted because of the false cult of personality he worked so hard to establish and the fact that he always protested way to much when anyone even HINTED that he might be less than always on the up and up -- resigned in advance of being indicted by the Feds on money laundering charges. He has since pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.

Mostly what I miss is the people I used to work with not just at just my last paper, The Monitor, but at all of the newspapers where I've worked since graduating from Indiana University: The Louisville (Ky.) Courier-Journal & Times; The (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion-Ledger; The Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram; The Cincinnati Post; The (Springfield, Ill.) State Journal-Register; and The (Florence, S.C.) Morning News.

I was fortunate in my nearly 45-year newspaper career to have worked with or under some excellent reporters, editors,  publishers and college professors to whom I am grateful for their impact on my newspapering tenure and from whom I learned much. They helped to make me a success. Notable among them were:

* John Anderson, editor of the New Albany (Ind.) Tribune, for whom I worked briefly at my first reporting job shortly after getting out of the Navy in 1966. When I told Anderson that I was thinking about just staying on at the Tribune instead of going back to college, he fired me. He then told me that if I still needed a job after I graduated, he'd be pleased to have me come back to the Trib.

* IU journalism professors Ron Farrar and Ralph Holsinger and hard-nosed journalism school dean John Stempel. They were all demanding taskmasters, but the training they provided to all of their students was invaluable.

* Robert Crumpler, city editor of The Louisville Times, from who I learned what it meant to be a truly great city editor. In the final analysis, I think that Crump and what I learned about newspapering from him was the single greatest influence on my career. In many ways, I tried to pattern myself after him.

* Dick Krantz, who headed the Times investigative team of which I was a member. Dick did more than anyone else to help me hone my investigative reporting skills -- skills that I tried to pass along to those who later worked for me.

* Don Farrell, who hired me at The Clarion-Ledger to head up the paper's fledgling investigative reporting team and then, after just four months, threatened to fire me if I didn't accept his offer to become the paper's city editor -- my first editing position.

* Rea Hederman, executive editor (also known as executive heir) of The Clarion-Ledger who promoted me to managing editor and protected me from the other members of his family who were involved in the upper management while the staff and I worked to transform a paper that had a reputation as being among the 10 worst in America to one that was considered one of the best its size. Were it not for his intercession, the paper would never have been able to win the more than 40 national journalism awards it won between 1977 and 1983, including the a Public Service Pulitzer for the last project I launched before leaving to become business editor at The Star-Telegram and culminating after the C-L was purchased by Gannett.

* Henry Holcomb, managing editor of The Star-Telegram, who hired me as business editor and taught me important lessons in newsroom diplomacy and later promoted me to assistant managing editor for news and projects. And Star-Telegram Executive Editor Jack Tinsley, who overcame some early jangly nerves to stand staunchly behind me and, even more importantly, behind Washington Bureau reporter Mark Thompson, during the firestorm that developed after we began publishing the Bell Helicopter series that went on to win the Public Service Pulitzer and several other major national awards.

* Publishers Barry Bingham Jr. of The Louisville Courier-Journal & Times, Phil Meek of The Star-Telegram, Tom Marschel of The (Florence, S.C.) Morning News, and Ray Stafford and his successor Olaf Frandsen of The Monitor, all of whom unwaveringly supported me and encouraged me to practice the sort of journalism I loved and believed made a difference.

I just hope that some of the reporters, photographers and editors who worked under me feel that I had a strong, positive influence on their careers and that I did an at least decent job of passing along to them the skills I was taught. I certainly know that I am grateful to many of them because their hard and diligent work helped to make me a success. Although there are more of these former staffers than I could possibly list here -- including a significant number who went on to win one or more Pulitzer Prizes and numerous other prestigious journalism awards -- some of the key ones include Rick Tulsky, Mark Thompson, Ryan Gabrielson, Nancy Weaver, Stephanie Saul, Johanna Neuman, Lauraine Miller, Pat Larkin, Dana Heupel, Larry Nighswander, John Liston, Henry Miller, Jeremy Roebuck, Mike Perry, Lee Ann Hamilton, Sara Ovaska, Jared Taylor, Kirsten Luce, Nathan Lambrecht, Delcia Lopez, Frank Kimmel, Ray Wong, Wade Baker, Marci Caltabiano-Ponce  and Mike Kelly (deceased).

Many old friends have passed on. Most recently -- about two weeks ago -- Kenneth Bunting, who I became friends with when he joined the staff of The Star-Telegram just shortly before I left my position there as night managing editor to become managing editor of The Cincinnati Post, one of the papers where Ken had previously worked. Ken, with whom I maintained contact as we both moved from paper to paper, was a highly skilled reporter and editor and an all-around great newspapering practitioner, but, even more than that, he was wonderful, warm and caring person whose last job was as director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition headquartered at the University of Missouri.

However, Ken and the others who are gone now still live on in nearly 45 years of wonderful memories of a career that I felt was worthwhile, in an endeavor that I believe actually made a difference in the world around me.


Monday, March 24, 2014


Ray Sullivan, a good friend of many years, retired last week after more than 13 years as publisher of the Clovis News Journal, Portales News-Tribune and Quay County Sun in New Mexico and a total of some four decades as a newspaperman at papers big and small.

Over the years Ray and I have had lots of fun and often highly contentious political -- well, let's say -- "discussions," with him coming from right of and me from left of center. Although neither of us has EVER let the other win one of those discussions, which always seem to taper off into an exhausted truce, I have always had the utmost respect for Ray not only as a person, but also as a publisher and a newspaperman -- two things at which he was/is very skilled.

Looking back -- and probably forward, too, since I seriously doubt our political wranglings will end merely because we are both now retired from newspapering -- I think maybe one of the few politically charged things we've ever been in pretty much complete agreement on is the need to not only honor those who protect us through their military service, but also the duty to see that our veterans and their sacrifices are properly remembered and adequately and appropriately rewarded. Granted, we share what probably can only be described as a bias in this regard because we are both veterans. Ray was a Marine and I was a sailor and this gives us an understanding and appreciation of what it means to serve in the military and the issues faced when that service ends.

This made us an increasingly rarer breed in today's media -- journalists with military service -- and that worries me, particularly at a time when when we have service men and women engaged in hot situations in various places in the world and the potential for involvement in yet another if issues between the United States and Russia over Ukraine can't be settled sanely.

These military involvements are keeping our Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force regularly in the news. And the fact that fewer and fewer members of the media -- particularly "local" media -- have a firsthand understanding of things military worries me because it opens up all sorts of avenues for potentially embarrassing mistakes.

Although some of those potential mistakes might seem "minor" to those print, electronic, visual and digital journalists who've not been in the military, rest assured they are not trivial to those who are or have been and their family members.

Like any mistakes the media makes, those that occur with regard to things military cast doubt on our credibility -- particularly among members of the public who may already be predisposed to distrust us and seek any opportunity to believe that there are times when we don't know our asses from third base.

In case you've not already learned it, let me tell you from personal experience that veterans can be a cantankerous lot. They have little tolerance for members of the media who, for instance, don't understand that while everyone who has been in the military technically can be considered a G.I. (Government Issue) it is a term most often applied to soldiers in the Army; or that Marines want to be referred to as Marines, not soldiers; etc. It's been my experience, for example, that far too many of today's young journalists don't understand the difference between an officer and a non-com and haven't a clue as to the hierarchy of rank within the individual branches of service.  Even those with some understanding of the order of military ranks are sometimes confused by seeming inconsistencies such as the fact that while in the Army, Air Force and Marine Corps a major outranks a lieutenant, a lieutenant general outranks a major general; that a captain in the Navy is a several steps higher in rank than a captain in the other services; and that the "captain" of a ship in the Navy may or may not carry the actual rank of "captain."

Without veterans like Ray and me around to catch these potential mistakes, many a cantankerous vet could grow to regard your newspaper as totally FUBAR (and if you don't know what they means, I suggest you look it up), so much so that it could cost you readers or damage your credibility in your community -- things we simply can't afford.

Fortunately, we do have a safeguard against these sorts of goof ups. The AP Stylebook lays out all of this pretty clearly and if you're an editor, I suggest you familiarize yourself and get your staffers -- particularly your copy editors who are your last line of defense -- to familiarize themselves with the Stylebook's military entries.

Honestly, this is important and because it's a journalistic issue. It's one of those things Ray and I have discussed on and off over the years and are in thorough agreement on. But, then, that's among the things that I like and respect about Ray Sullivan. Despite our frequent political sparring, I really can't recall us ever disagreeing over what it takes to make a good newspaper -- particularly a good community newspaper -- that has value, meaning and relevance to readers.

I guess I could go on longer and discuss my view of Ray's values as a publisher who came up through the news department ranks, but why should I, since he expressed them far better than I ever could in his swansong, published in the Clovis New Journal in the waning days before his retirement: 

"Telling Clovis’ stories had profound impact

By Ray Sullivan
Growing up in Pueblo, Colo., I’d come home from school in the 1950s and ’60s, I’d do my chores and homework, then read an escapism western or sports story in a library book I’d checked out the Saturday before.
Ray Sullivan
Ray Sullivan

I’d sprawl on the floor in front of the small black-and-white television and plug my ears with tucked up fingers to block out the sounds of my seven siblings. Then I would drown in the world of the images the words created in my mind’s eye.
Oh, I’d watch a bit of the hometown TV station’s kid show, but mostly I’d escape into the story at hand.
A book is where I first experienced the power of words strung together the right way. The comic strips of the Pueblo Star-Journal reinforced that belief. By seventh grade I knew I would be a storyteller.
I’ve had the good fortune and privilege to follow that meandering path through five states — Colorado and California, Idaho and Ohio, and now New Mexico. I quit twice, once for a brief Peace Corps stint and once from burnout — no balance between work and play and prayer. But the draw of ink rubbing off on my fingers was too powerful to ignore.
When I became an editor for the first time in Idaho in the late 1970s, my goal was the same as it is today: Produce a strong community news report. Be prepared to do it unflinchingly because newspapers that do things right are attacked when they don’t buckle under pressure to print only the truth as interpreted by one faction.
Some days we do that pretty well. Other days, well, not so much. Most importantly, we never give up. We strive always to produce the daily miracle of newspapers. Now we do so in print and online.
We’ve always been guided and supported by our readers. Recently, our latest report of the tumbleweed barrage was far better because of the public’s stories and photos, and they did so again last week with dozens of dust-storm photos we posted online.
Now that I’m 66 and a retiree of two days, I can say my career has been as rewarding here in what I call “The Flat Windy” as it was when words captured me back in junior high.
My wife of nearly 31 years, Bev, our cats and I drove here in late 2000 from Ohio, for my opportunity to become a publisher. Fulfilling that challenge has enriched and educated us far more than we expected.
This region grew on us quickly. Walking in the early mornings, my soul was filled with the breathtaking beauty of a full moon setting in the west as the bright sun peeked over the eastern horizon.
A trip to the Billy the Kid graveyard in Fort Sumner and its more somber partner, the Bosque Redondo Memorial, spoke volumes about our rich, sometimes shameful history in America’s hardscrabble west.
Tucumcari’s Route 66 remains remind us all that we had best find ways to strengthen our roots while seeking new opportunities. Portales’ vibrant town square and nearby university campus mirrors the success of that message.
In Clovis, our sounds started more than a century ago when the first shrill train whistle scared a plow horse. The notes soon were enriched by the roar of propeller-driven engines on those new-fangled aeroplanes landing and taking off at Portair Field. Today, of course, that’s Cannon Air Force Base, which keeps the sound of freedom alive with its fiercely dedicated special operations airmen and civilians.
Our love of music arose in our first schools and churches and that morphed into the Clovis Sound out on West Seventh in the 1950s. We celebrate that sound today at the annual Clovis Music Festival.
And don’t forget the musical sound of water. This life-giving, scarce commodity offers a healing sound as it nurtures our farm fields and parks. We can’t lose that sound, people. We are in the west so of course we fight over water. But we best not fight each other so hard our neighbors take our liquid gold.
My final sound, though, is heard throughout our Clovis Media buildings each day as our good people take care of your needs. They do it well and our business is as vibrant today as ever. We were blessed with new owners 25 months ago when Gary and Sue Stevenson and Garry Ellis bought the Clovis News Journal, Portales News-Tribune and Quay County Sun from Freedom Communications. They restored balance out of what had eroded into a corporate labyrinth that made good newspapering difficult. They let us do our jobs. It is a gift I will take to my grave.
In Clovis the music culminates six nights a week when we turn on our presses. I love the expanding reach of the Internet, but when the motors on the only newspaper presses within 90 miles rev up, I feel the goose bumps of freedom arising.
It is that sound I will miss as much as the tunes played by our eastern New Mexico winds."

In closing, I will only say that when a journalist-editor-publishers like Ray Sullivan retires, it leaves a hole in the fabric of American newspapering.

Thanks, Ray, for your service to the nation and, even more importantly, your service to the newspaper business.


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