Thursday, April 17, 2008

Learning as I go

A number of folks who weren't there and who viewed my exchange in Raleigh last week primarily as a discussion of hotel bills have told me me they don't understand the ruckus.

I do.

The newsroom at the News & Observer is a collection of highly talented people who hold themselves to tough standards in pursuit of public service journalism. They're working as hard as anybody in the business and achieving results far better than most. For some time now, we've been asking them to do more with less: extend vigorously onto the web, embrace community participation, uphold standards, learn video ... and, oh yeah, keep putting out that award-winning newspaper.

Not to paint everybody with one brush, but they're tired and mad about it – for the very best reasons. They want to keep doing superior work and need tools and colleagues to help.

They view the industry and our economics from a different vantage point than I do; I think we're both right in some ways.

For starters, they're right about me staying at the Umstead – not because it cost $400 a night like Gearino and others implied (it didn't), but because it wasn't my best choice. They're right in reminding me that examples matter. I can't promise to sleep on Gearino's couch next trip – despite the invitation – but I'll never stay at the Umstead again. (I do hope I can get some credit, at least, for having spent only $21.31 on dinner for both editor John Drescher and me that night.)

They are also right for keeping the issue of newsroom resources squarely at the center of the agenda. If they're not passionate and activist about that, who will be? Speaking freely and forcefully about what we're doing is essential as we navigate through The Present Troubles.

I do want those folks and the other McClatchy newsrooms I visit to keep in mind that the decisions that impact them are necessarily made in a broader context than they can see. McClatchy remains a profitable and fiscally sound company, but it's experiencing unprecedented revenue declines amidst a double-barreled threat based on both cyclical (recession-driven) and structural (new internet competition) factors. We don't yet know where the bottom of that decline will be. As stewards of the company, management seeks first to ensure its stability and security and then to see that it is well positioned to emerge from this challenge in the best possible shape to pursue its mission.

On that, the Raleigh newsroom, me and all of McClatchy's management and directors and I are aligned: We're a public service journalism company, and we must do everything we can to ensure that the mission survives and prospers.

Nobody does more for that mission than the people in the Raleigh newsroom. I am proud to work with them, and hope I can make them proud to work with me.

Thanks to Anonymous #6 for the copyediting help.


  1. Anonymous4:28 PM

    That's a big dinner bill. I'm told to treat sources to coffee...

  2. Anonymous7:32 PM

    Last time a colleage and I from the N&O ate on McClatchy's dime, we hit CiCi's Pizza:


    They're a little skimpy on the sauce, but hey...

    "Anybody eaten at Zengo in Washington DC? We're booked there tonight. "

    "Price: $31 to $50"

    Will you post your receipt from Zengo's too?

  3. Anonymous6:49 AM

    Oh get off it, people. $21.31 is not a big deal for dinner. Yes, we need to be cost conscious, but nickle-and-diming BS is going to paralyze us.

  4. Anonymous6:56 AM

    Hey, Howard - try the Homewood Suites, not far from the MI Office - and free breakfast to boot!

  5. Anonymous7:03 AM

    Thanks for this followup. As a reporter in Raleigh, I can say that watching staff shrink, morale plummet and the quality of our paper decline has affected me like a death in the family. This isn't just work, it is personal, and the cold atmosphere of cost-cutting has been deeply painful for many of us. Obviously, we know our leaders don't control the economics of newspapers right now. But it would really help if we stood together sometimes and remembered how important our work still is, rather than talking about revenues and budgets all the time, and if we acknowledged openly and without fear of retribution (a real fear around here lately) that what's happening at our paper and in our industry just plain sucks.

  6. Anonymous7:19 AM

    "me and all of McClatchy's management and directors are aligned"

    Oh, Howard, I'm more upset about this egregious grammatical construct than the hotel bill. Priorities, people!

  7. Anonymous9:11 AM

    "Yes, we need to be cost conscious, but nickle-and-diming BS is going to paralyze us."

    You're right. In fact, nickel-and-diming paralyzes us in newsrooms across the country every day.

  8. Anonymous10:21 AM

    I'm glad Gearino is free from McClatchy's surly bonds to freely blog about this:

    I’ll ask him to focus on the part of my previous post that he conveniently sidestepped – specifically, the million of dollars that McClatchy now wants to add to the pool of incentive money set aside to “attract and retain” executives like Howard, even as lower-level employees are being nudged out of their jobs.

    The floor is Howard’s to take. I’d like to hear his thoughts on those big bonuses. But judging by his reaction to the hotel flap, I can guess his response: Sure, McClatchy may be losing billions of dollars, but fatter executive bonuses are actually a cost-cutting move.

  9. Anonymous7:19 PM

    Are you still flying first-class, Howard?

  10. Anonymous8:30 PM

    I believe there is a fine line between being frugal and cutting back to the point where we lose good employees from lack of benefits or hardship. I know I was ready to spit when my N&O home delivery subscription was cut off. I'd be interested in reading about the life of a person who travels frequently, sleeps at the Econo Lodge and eats off of Wendy's $0.99 value menu every night. How long can we keep quality people if we don't treat them like the bread and butter they are to us?

  11. Anonymous8:54 PM

    This is such a hoot. What do you expect from a corporate VP (for news or anything else) in a company that has over-extended and gone from being the Cadillac to just another expense-and-people-cutting hack-mobile in this shambles of a profession? Let Howard ride on his arrogance until he retires with more money than the rest of us have lost (by 10 or 20 or 50-fold) with our IRAs stuck in the blind faith of our newspapers and newspaper companies. Somebody has to win, even if it is only one out of a hundred. This is a guy who, a lifetime ago, made it possible for bulldog reporting and the kind of journalism some of us used to practice to win a Pulitzer in Anchorage for exposing the scams behind the pipeline. I understand he was kickass. I've been reading his blog occasionally for the last few years and can almost chart the escalating cost of his suits. (Note: Bitterness alert. After more than 30 years in the business, a handful of Pulitzer finalists -- no enchalada -- and a shuffling out because I ran solid coverage rather than pro-Bush crap in 2004, I couldn't get a response from this smug SOB, I might not be as objective as Howard would certainly be if he had ever faced a zero-income/zero-health-insurance circumstance personally as a result of being such a beacon of integrity in the profession.) Hey, I'm working again. Putting out a little paper that means something important in the community and making good journalists out of some bright, doomed kids, while the corporate/career-killing shills staying in expensive hotels can't understand why I don't get with the program and make my handful of reporters blog 10 hours a day in between taking pictures of strangers and handing out cards saying "visit our Web site and see your picture online!" (Oops... I would use the Web for a positive impact on an informed public, but that's not the revenue-generating model). But the end is coming soon, and I am going to be extinct. Howard will be in the journalism Hall of Fame, not least of all for the sacrifice of eating a 21-dollar dinner. Thanks, man, for everything you've done to serve the Republic from your Fourth Estate throne. Did somebody say bullshit? Not me. I understand it all the way down to my shriveled Tribune 401K.

  12. Anonymous1:08 PM

    Um, OK, some of us aren't quite that bitter. But as a longtime McClatchyite, I have to say the part about becoming a typical overextended corporation running its business and its employees into the ground sure does ring true.

    Howard, if you you're still paying attention: You're breaking our backs, and you're breaking our hearts.

    And you're defensive because someone wrote a critical blog about your hotel bill.

    At least you know you'll have a job next year. There are 100 people in Modesto and 15 people in Fort Worth who can't say that today.