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Archive for January, 2009

Leaders at all levels are failing Cedar Rapids.

We need to get tough. We need to get mean. And we need to do it now.

I remember after last June’s floods, I got tired of all the e-mails I would receive, both from Iowans and from people outside the state, who found some sort of virtue in comparisons between gritty Iowans who weren’t begging for federal handouts and the pathetic people from New Orleans who did.

That was balderdash then and it’s way past balderdash now. The federal government and the state government have an obligation to help in disasters. Iowa leaders at the local, state and federal level need to be loud and insistent about meeting that obligation faster and stronger than anyone has so far.

This is no handout we need. No community can absorb a disaster without help. Iowans’ tax dollars have supported federal relief for disasters ranging from hurricanes to earthquakes to terrorist attacks. We shouldn’t be begging for a handout, but insisting on justice.

B.J. Smith of Cedar Rapids runs a pleasant blog called “Iowa Nice,” celebrating how nice this state is. That’s an admirable trait to our culture, but let’s not forget that Meredith Willson also described us in “The Music Man” as “Iowa stubborn.” We need to put Iowa Nice on the shelf for a while and turn Iowa Stubborn loose on Washington and Des Moines. Along with Iowa Furious and Iowa Indignant.

At the local level, we are leaderless. From the day the waters hit, people have been asking where Mayor Kay Halloran was. Some council members have been more prominent than she has in responding to the challenges of the flood. City Manager Jim Prosser is an administrator, but the city has no strong leader.  

The change in city government is no excuse. Leadership is not a function of structure but of the ability of the leaders and how they respond to challenges.

County supervisors are not in as strong a position as city officials to lead in this disaster response, but they certainly have enough power that someone could fill this vacuum.

Gov. Chet Culver and state legislative leaders sounded downright timid in their explanations about why the Legislature did not meet in special session last year to address this problem. They feared that making state money available would mess up our chances for federal aid. Or maybe a swift state response, accompanied by strong leadership demanding a swift federal response, would have underscored the urgency of the problem.

Instead, nearly eight months after the floods, the Legislature last week approved less than 1 percent of the need.

Senators Tom Harkin and Chuck Grassley have more than a half-century of experience combined in the U.S. Senate. What good is that experience if they can’t deliver better federal aid more swiftly than they have following the worst natural disaster in their state’s history?

President Barack Obama (and for that matter, President George W. Bush before him) got his launch to the White House from Iowa. Both of them visited flood zones and flood victims. Was that a photo opportunity rather than a call to action?

Editors normally don’t like it when their bosses get involved in community affairs. It makes us uneasy because people might think that involvement will skew our coverage. The Gazette Company CEO Chuck Peters joined a trip to lobby Department of Housing and Urban Development officials in Washington last month and Publisher Dave Storey will be in Washington this month to lobby with other Chamber of Commerce members.

That doesn’t bother me right now. I can deal with any conflicts and perceptions their involvement might create. Mostly I hope they get something accomplished. This leadership shouldn’t have to come from the business community. But it’s about time it came from somewhere.

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Rumors and questions are inevitable when a company is restructuring.

Sometimes the rumors are quicker and more accurate than news reports. Sometimes they are wishful thinking or fears from friends or critics. Sometimes they are grounded in fact but grow in the retelling.

The restructuring of The Gazette is feeding the rumor mill. When I wrote about the restructuring last week, I didn’t address the rumors and that might have given them extra life. Or maybe they just picked up steam because that’s how rumors work.

As I mentioned last week, the restructuring affects many, if not all, parts of our company. I have been concentrating primarily on the changes involving the newsroom, so that’s what I will address here. Perhaps it’s tunnel vision, but I haven’t been hearing the rumors and questions about other aspects of our operation.

The first question to address is whether we plan to stop publishing The Gazette. Absolutely not. We have several teams right now working on plans to keep our core print product healthy long into the future.

As I noted last week, this product has been around for 126 years. We’re not sure that print newspapers will last another 126 years and we want this company to last that much longer and more. So we are reorganizing to manage products differently, cover news differently and develop content differently. But we are reorganizing in the full recognition that our flagship product is The Gazette and with every intention to keep that product strong and continue serving its audience.

Do you want to know how big that audience is and how valuable it is to our advertisers? On Feb. 1, crowds across our community will gather around their television sets to watch the Super Bowl. The crowds will include some non-football fans who just want to watch the new commercials trotted out on the biggest television advertising day of the year. That same day and every Sunday, more people in our community will read The Gazette than will watch the Super Bowl.

The Gazette faces some financial challenges: Beyond the challenges of the digital age, which I have written about extensively, newsprint and ink prices have been rising as the national economy tanks and the local economy struggles in flood recovery. But a product that regularly reaches as much of the community as the Super Bowl won’t be folding any time soon.

Whether we would actually stop publishing The Gazette was more a question than a rumor. I presume it was prompted by my noting last week that products come and go and that lots of newspapers were closing, going bankrupt or cutting editions. Not this one. We know that our growth opportunities lie in other areas, but The Gazette remains our flagship.

We believe The Gazette has been a force for strengthening this community throughout our history and the changes we make will be focused on strengthening the community.

More than once in the past week, I heard a rumor that we had laid off the entire news staff and forced people to reapply for their jobs. This rumor is false, but it has its roots in confusion over what we are actually doing.

No one on the news staff has been laid off. Even with the addition of news web sites more than a decade ago, virtually every newsroom in our industry remains heavily focused on producing the print edition or on dually producing the newspaper and the news web site. As I explained last week, we have decided to develop separate operations focused on developing content and on publishing packaged print and digital products.

In explaining this new operation to the news staff, I explained that all of our jobs, including mine, would fundamentally change. No one is being “forced to reapply for their jobs.” Their current jobs won’t exist.

In such a thorough reorganization, it would be unfair to slot people into particular jobs without giving everyone the opportunity to apply for the jobs that most fit their skills and interests. That would doom the reorganization in two ways: It would entitle people to think their jobs hadn’t really changed (so they wouldn’t really have to work differently) and it would deprive us of some of their creativity.

Our newsroom is an anxious, uneasy place during this change. But I’m getting a lot of great ideas from staff members applying for new jobs and I am convinced that creativity will help us succeed.

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Every reporter or editor should have the experience of dealing with the news media. We are a pushy lot who ask difficult questions, often just the questions you can’t answer.

I have spent much of the past week dealing with the news media. The easiest questions came from a television reporter for KWWL, wondering what’s going on here at Gazette Communications. The tough ones came from the reporters, photojournalists and editors on my own staff.

As I did with the staff, I will tell you right away that we don’t have all the answers yet. We’re trying to be as open as possible with the staff and public as we consider changes that will fundamentally transform how this organization operates and how our staff works.

I have worked for newspapers that were making big changes and the managers kept employees in the dark until all the details were worked out. You can answer all the questions at once that way, but you damage trust and make clear that management is deciding everything in a one-way process.

Either way, it’s a scary time for our staff and leadership. David Lee, a copy editor, spoke for many of his colleagues when he wrote in his Write On blog last week, “I’m worried about my career, I’m worried about the newspaper I work for, I’m worried about my profession.”

Management has to set the strategic direction and makes the final decisions. But employees deliver the success or failure of any organization, so this week we have been informing our staff of changes that are taking shape in our company, even as we continue making crucial decisions.

I have told the newsroom staff that all of our jobs are fundamentally changing. The jobs in our new organization, including mine, won’t be the jobs we currently hold. We posted some new jobs earlier this month and will post more this week. I have told my staff the general framework of some new jobs, but I’ve asked them to help me shape those jobs.

News spreads quickly by word of mouth, so you might already have heard some of this from your friends and neighbors who work for this company. News also spreads inaccurately sometimes by word of mouth, so you may have heard wrong (some of the rumors that made it back to me were certainly wrong).

The changes we are making are no surprise: Chuck Peters, our CEO, began discussing them with the staff about two years ago, long before I showed up last June. He began blogging last April about the need to change.

Still, when you’ve been operating much the same way for 126 years, as our company has, or for decades, as many of our loyal employees have, it takes a while for the changes to sink in. They’re still sinking in for me, and I’m supplying some of the ideas.

For all of those 126 years, our success has been tied to a packaged product, a newspaper. Even though our customers like that packaged product and many even love it, they aren’t buying it because of the package but because of the content: stories, photographs, columns, graphics, editorials, obituaries, calendars, box scores, lists of information, advertisements.

If the content of this newspaper was in a different language, or if it was dictionary entries, pornography, gibberish or children’s riddles, we would have had an entirely different set of customers, or none at all.

Of course, we can present content in different ways: We can package content digitally or we can focus the content on particular niches. We can publish content in different packages – magazines such as Edge or books such as the popular “Epic Surge.”

Products come and go. The first newspaper I carried as a boy in the 1960s, the Columbus Citizen-Journal in Ohio, went out of business in the 1980s. The first newspaper to give me a writing job in the 1970s, the Evening Sentinel in Shenandoah, Iowa, went out of business in the 1990s. I was present for the deaths of afternoon newspapers in Des Moines in 1982 and in Kansas City in 1990. But the newspaper industry has never seen – at least not in my career – as much upheaval as it has in the past year. A web site called Paper Cuts counts more than 15,000 newspaper jobs lost in 2008 and that has continued this year.

Tribune Company, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and Baltimore Sun, filed for bankruptcy protection last month and the Star Tribune in Minneapolis did the same last week. The Detroit newspapers cut daily home delivery to three days a week.

Demand for the packaged newspaper product is falling at the same time that newsprint prices are rising and the economy that supports our advertisers is in turmoil. But demand for information content – news, photos, videos, answers to questions – is stronger than ever. The community always needs to connect and engage.

So the leaders and employees of Gazette Communications are working to reorganize into a company that can meet the information demands of the future and continue connecting and engaging the community effectively.

Products come and go in response to market conditions but information always remains essential to the community. So we are developing a new organization that separates content from products.

We will have a separate operation, which I will lead, to gather information content and publish it digitally in large quantities without regard to the limitations of packaged products. We will work out ways to tag the content and make it easily searchable, so you can quickly find what you’re looking for or browse by topics of interest, looking for nothing in particular.

Another operation will manage a portfolio of packaged products such as The Gazette, GazetteOnline, Hoopla, Edge, Penny Saver and IowaPrepSports.com. Those products will draw heavily on our information content as well as content from other sources. They will manage those products in response to changing market conditions.

Other parts of the company are organizing to provide production services or to focus on sales, distribution or customer care. No one is unaffected. We are committed to creating an entirely new media company, focused on and structured for the challenges and opportunities of the future.

Some of the newsroom staff will work in information content, others in product management, but all of our jobs are fundamentally changing.  

Even as I sympathize with employees in turmoil who want quick answers to their questions, I am excited about our plans to transform this company and pleased with the willingness – and at times eagerness – of our staff to lead the way in developing a new organization that will serve our community long into the future.

Another staff member, Angie Holmes, wrote in her Frumpfighter blog last week: “I see opportunity and forward-thinking in The Gazette’s plan. Will everybody who works there now make it through the restructuring? Probably not. I am guaranteed a job? No, nobody is. But I do have a sense of resilience that will keep me going no matter what happens.”

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So this is the Iowa winter

In my first column as editor of the Minot Daily News in 1991, I asked readers to tell me about Minot. I didn’t want to know that it was cold or friendly. I had already heard that and I wanted to know something deeper. If they had to tell me about the cold or the friendliness, I wrote, tell me stories that would help me understand.

The best story I was told: When the wind chill gets to 80 below and you go out to dinner, all the cars in the parking lot at the restaurant would be running. But it’s the kind of town where your car will still be there when you come out after dinner. My response: You go out to dinner when the wind chill is 80 below? Of course their cars were still there; the car thieves aren’t crazy.

Our parking lot at work had posts every few spaces so we could plug in our cars during the day. Today I wished we had them at The Gazette (not that I have a block heater these days), but my car did start tonight.

I haven’t heard 80-below wind chills this week, but it’s Minot-cold here in Iowa. And I’m not going out to eat.

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Calendars are one of the oldest staples of the newspaper business.

As proud as we are of our news reporting, photojournalism and columns, one of the most important jobs we do for the community is to help you know what’s going on and decide what to do and where to go. The calendar is a simple tool that helps us perform that job.

We publish several calendars in the newspaper during the week, but the truth is, those barely begin to tell all the clubs, faith communities, sports teams, social groups, and other organizations that meet, perform and present events each day throughout our region. And for the events we do include on the calendars, we provide only the barest details.

But as you started your new year with a new calendar, so did we. Check out our new Gazette calendar and you will learn more about Eastern Iowa events in one place than through any other source I know.

You can search events by date if you want to know what’s going on today. If you want to search for events of a particular type, such as art, theater or children’s events, you can choose from more than 40 categories. If that isn’t enough, you can suggest a new category. You can search by location or keyword.

Or maybe you’d prefer not to search. You can ask to receive an email newsletter, notifying you of events in categories you select.

Once you click on an event, we provide basic information such as date, time and location. We provide the description of the event, as entered in the calendar by the organizers. If the location isn’t familiar to you, click the map icon and you’ll get a Google map you can print out. Or click the weather icon and you’ll get the conditions and forecast for that location from weather.com.

If you’d like to tell others about the event, click icons to post it on social networks such as Delicious, Facebook, Reddit or Twitter. Or you can email the event listing to friends. If you want to put it on your calendar, you can click icons to save the event to various calendars on your computer or on the Web.

If you use RSS feeds, we give you a variety of choices to receive calendar listings directly. You can select a feed of all of our listings or you can select a feed of events for your community or for only the categories that interest you.

If you would like a community calendar for your organization’s web site, click “tools” and we’ll provide the script for a widget to embed our calendar on your site.

Our new calendar will be convenient for organizers to use. Enter your information at this site, and you will be submitting it to the calendars of various print and online products of Gazette Communications: The Gazette, GazetteOnline, kcrg.com, Iowa.com, Edge, Hoopla, HooplaNow.com, PennySaver and Community News-Advertiser.

By entering the information yourself directly, you can ensure its accuracy. (If you see information in our calendars that is inaccurate, please let us know so we can fix it quickly.)

Though we provide easy entry for event organizers, we also provide a check against mischief by anyone who would enter a bogus event. Each event will be reviewed by Gazette staff before appearing anywhere (so allow some time for your event to post).

This new calendar is the result of lots of hard work by more Gazette staff members than I can name here, but those deserving praise include Zack Kucharski, Jason Kristufek, Matthew Manuel, Linda Cruise, Christine Doty, Trent Orris, Brian Siguenza, Tom Altman and Stephanie Heck.

Take a look. This calendar demonstrates our commitment to continue improving how we do one of our most important jobs: Telling you what’s happening in your community.

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I am glad to see the Journalist’s Toolbox has completed its move from the American Press Institute web site to the Society of Professional Journalists.

I helped make this match earlier this year when I was still at API. I heartily recommend it to journalists. It’s well-organized, with topical material on subjects you might report on, both timeless material that would be helpful on your beat and timely material on issues of the day (current links deal with covering the inauguration or the Obama administration).

Kudos to Mike Reilley, who developed the Toolbox years ago as his own product and has continued to update and expand it as it moved to API and now SPJ.

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My Sunday column:

As a young adult, I had this misguided notion that someday I would move from learning to knowing.

Haven’t reached that day yet.

As the calendar turns from one year to the next, many of us savor the year past and wonder what the year ahead might hold. As I look back on 2008 and ahead to 2009, I am pleased with what I have learned and excited by what I still need to learn.

In my sixth decade of life, I learned more in 2008 than I can remember learning in a single year since my youth. (more…)

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