Archive for December, 2008

One thing that hasn’t changed in the newspaper business is that we get annoyed when broadcast media, as they frequently do, rip off our stories without credit.

My friend Daniel P. Finney of the Des Moines Register, night cops reporter and author of one of the best beat-reporting Twitter feeds, DM_in_the_PM, expressed this annoyance Saturday, noting in a tweet that KCCI had ripped off a Register story.

Newspaper ethics tend to do better about direct ripping off the competition. Plagiarism is a career capital offense, so if we can’t advance a story or find the same sources to duplicate it, we reluctantly attribute. (more…)


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A draft of my Sunday column:

Many of the stories, photos and videos at iowafloodstories.com will already be familiar to you. We want you to add your own stories, photos and videos to make this a complete record of the 2008 Cedar Rapids flood.

What is new about iowafloodstories.com is the presentation. You can use a map or search window to look for specific properties and click to read the stories and look at the photos and videos of hundreds of individual homes and businesses.

The map already leads to stories, photos and videos shot by staff members of The Gazette and GazetteOnline as well as photos posted on Flickr and videos from YouTube. We hope eventually it will include even more stories, photos and videos submitted by the residents and business owners who experienced the flood.

Before I came to The Gazette, I was studying the use of databases by newspaper companies. They are great tools for answering questions about a community in much greater detail than a news story can. I wrote a report on databases for the American Press Institute as one of my last chores before coming to The Gazette.

When I came here, I was pleased that Zack Kucharski already was doing outstanding work with databases, which I like to call answerbases because most people who use them don’t really think of themselves as looking for data. We want answers to our questions. Kucharski was already providing answers to questions about Hawkeye football history, state salaries, crime and other topics.

On June 11, my second day on the job, I told him we were going to do lots of interesting things with databases to provide answers to our community’s questions. Though we knew at the time that the Cedar River was rising, expected to crest at record levels in Cedar Rapids in a couple of days, we couldn’t realize yet how many questions the flood would present and how many ways we would use databases to provide answers.

In the months since the flood, Kucharski has posted databases answering questions about such topics as reopened businesses, missing pets and buyouts. We’re still working on getting records from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. For much of that time, Kucharski and other colleagues were also working on iowafloodstories.com.

We should credit our colleagues at the Des Moines Register for inspiring some of the format for iowafloodstories. They developed an outstanding map that told the story of each property in Parkersburg, with photos before and after the May 25 tornado and with stories, photos and videos from the Register’s coverage attached to the appropriate properties. We liked the idea, but had far more properties (more than 7,000) to chronicle in Cedar Rapids.

The Carl and Mary Koehler History Center, Coe College and Mount Mercy College collaborated in this project, helping us collect people’s stories.

Dozens of Gazette and GazetteOnline staff members contributed stories, photos and videos to the archive. Librarian John McGlothlen and Production Coordinator Diana Pesek assisted in loading stories from the Gazette archives into the database. Matthew Manuel and Matt Thiessen did the web development. Kucharski contributed in more ways than I could understand or detail here.

The result is an archive of this flood that will grow as you and we add more stories, photos and videos. We have some more work to do on it this week, so we encourage you to take a look today and to come back again and again.

Mostly we encourage you to add your own stories and photos. If you lived or worked in the flood zone, tell us about your home or business – what it was like before the flood, how badly it was damaged, about the cleanup and rebuilding.

Send us photos and videos – if they weren’t ruined – of your home before the flood. We have the static photos from the county assessor’s office, but we want to see children playing in the yard, family celebrations in the home. We want your photos and videos of the damage, cleanup and rebuilding. If you have questions, need help or have printed materials to be digitized contact Kucharski  at (319) 398-8219 or zack.kucharski@gazcomm.com.

My last note reflects a bit of vanity, but we want your help in preparing our public service entry for the Pulitzer Prizes. In emails and in person, many of you have suggested we have a shot at a Pulitzer for our flood coverage. Of course, every journalist dreams of winning the big prize someday, but my sincere answer was always that the highest honor in journalism is not the Pulitzer Prize but the respect of your community. So I am more honored that you think we should win than I will be if we do.

Of course we are going to enter. We are selecting our best photos and stories for the various categories where we think we have a chance. But I liked a suggestion from our financial editor, George C. Ford. When we were discussing what to submit in the public service category, he suggested asking the public.

What did we do in print or online that most helped you during the disaster itself or as the community has been rebuilding? What stories, columns, editorials, text alerts, photos, videos, databases, graphics or other information from The Gazette, GazetteOnline and GazetteToGo most served the public in 2008?

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If you still don’t understand the value of Twitter for covering breaking news, check out how it’s covering two stories breaking today:

Search Twitter for Bethesda or River Road and you will find lots of eyewitness accounts and links to blogs, photos and video about the huge water main break that flooded River Road in Bethesda, Md.

Search Twitter for TVA, sludge, coal ash, pond (this one uses too common a word, but many of the links are still relevant) or #coalash (@agahran suggested that hashtag) and you get lots of tweets (again, first-hand and links) about the TVA disaster.

If you are covering breaking news and you don’t use Twitter as a reporting tool and to spread links to your own coverage, you are practicing 2005 journalism. And it’s nearly 2009.

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It’s been a while since a column has drawn the response that I got from Sunday’s column (Saturday’s blog post) on Chet Culver’s refusal to call the Iowa Legislature into special session. In the interest of giving my critics their due, I will start with the only critical email. (I should note that my emailers are not bashful about being critical; columns about The Gazette possibly leaving AP or dropping “For Better or For Worse” drew plenty of criticism.)

Floyd Sandford of Cedar Rapids tipped off his view in the subject line of his email, referring to  my “nasty piece of journalism.” He elaborated: “What a missed opportunity, insinuating that all the blame for lack of response to a natural disaster over which any single mere mortal has any control or responsibility [unlike a manmade disaster such as the shambles left by the most bumbling, incompetent, tunnel-visioned president in the history of our country] is the fault of Iowa’s govenor. Was this your revenge at getting yelled at in public forum?  One would have hoped for a less petty and sarcastic piece of partisanship from someone on the Gazette’s Editorial Staff.  Hopefully, Culver will rise above your personal attack and not view Cedar Rapidians from the perspective of the nasty, whining tone you established in your forgettable article.”

Every other message I received (and some tweets as well) told me that Culver has not earned much respect in these parts with his response to the flood.

“What part of ‘NO’ don’t we all understand?” asked Sue Bailey, echoing Culver’s response to me in September when I pushed him for a better explanation of his refusal to call a special session. Bailey has two daughters affected by the flood, one who will be bought out and one who is rebuilding, and she liked my “Barelystart” reference to Culver’s “Jumpstart” program. “Each has gone through hoops with the jumpstart and SBA, not to mention the city,” Bailey wrote.

Kristi Murdock shared my reaction to Culver’s boast that he was working to provide aid “as quickly as possible.” “Too little too late from ol’ Chet,” she responded.

City Council member Chuck Wieneke, who stressed that he was not speaking for the whole council, wrote: “I could not agree with you more on the fact that the Governor’s words have not been backed up by his actions.  In my opinion the fact that we did not have a special session of the legislature called to take action on the greatest disaster this state has ever faced is nothing less that moral cowardice on his part. I have been very outspoken on this issue and have hoped on many occasions that both the Gazette and local media would have been much more active in promoting the calling of such a session to deal with the challenges we are facing. Since we have been forced to wait for the Legislature to meet in normal session I would hope that all local media will stay on top of the legislature, calling for immediate action to assist in flood recovery issues and not just put it on the rear burner to deal with the other issues facing the state which the Governor has finally become so interested in. Thanks again for a good column, I only wish more individuals were willing to call it like it is. Politics were the sole reason, in my opinion, that we didn’t have a special session and I believe that is inexcusable.”

Another local official, County Supervisor Brent Oleson, agreed on Twitter that the criticism of Culver “was spot on.”

B.J. Smith, an active Twitterer, affirmed my view that a similar disaster in Des Moines would have received a more vigorous state response.

Barry Boyer, an employee owner of Van Meter Industrial, responded to the column: “I think the state government response led by Culver is pathetic. How do we lead a revolution here in CR to really put pressure on these guys? I am ready to throw some elbows.”

Doug Schumacher of A1 Rental and the Cedar Rapids Small Business Recovery Group responded: “What you failed to mention was how much of the $100 million is in people’s hands today (very little), or the fact that several of us sat in Des Moines in July telling the Rebuild Iowa Task Force that we needed “IMMEDIATE CASH ASSISTANCE”.

 Greg Q. ArBuckle had nothing but disgust for the state and city in their response to the disaster: “I don’t think you could have said it better! Between the Chet and Kay, I left Cedar Rapids. I could not get any help and the city was fighting me at every turn. I was not asking for free ride, just help to get things rolling. They said I would have to replace my boiler rather than repair it. The boiler was shut down for the summer and had not electric or gas going to it. For about $6,000 I could have it all cleaned and all the outside gauges replaced, it would have been like new! A far cry from the $23,000 quoted to replace it. The city said no. This is just one of the battles I butted heads with them. So I sold my buildings and moved to Jesup, Iowa. I bought a motel and will build onto it. Here I was welcomed with open arms.” ArBuckle added, “I was a life resident of Cedar Rapids. Now the name leaves a sour taste in my mouth!”

I’m not saying that just because some people agree with me that I was particularly insightful (if I did, I’d have to admit I was off-target when the reaction goes the other way). But I think the reaction shows that Culver has a problem here in Cedar Rapids, and it’s going to take more than talk to address the problem.




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If you’re not yet convinced of the value of Twitter as a news-gathering and storytelling platform, check out Mike Wilson’s (@2drinksbehind) account of the Denver plane crash. Vlogger Loïc LeMeur notes the difference between the tweets and standard coverage on CNN. Check out AP’s coverage, too.  

I turned to the Rocky Mountain News more than 12 hours after the crash and the link from the lead position on the home page was still an AP account that made no mention of Wilson’s Twitter feed. (Might explain why Scripps is trying to sell the Rocky.) (more…)

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Here’s a draft of my column for the Sunday Gazette:

Pardon my skepticism, Governor.

I had to laugh when I saw the quote from Gov. Chet Culver in large type on the front page of Saturday’s Gazette: “I want to get businesses up and running as quickly as possible.” I didn’t laugh because it was funny. This was the laughter of sarcasm.

Culver also said in the taping for “Iowa Press,” airing today on Iowa Public Television, “My focus is to get these families back on their feet, to get them into their old houses that need to be repaired, to get them in new houses if their homes were destroyed.”

I thought back immediately to Culver’s meeting in September with The Gazette’s editorial board, when he gave us lame, buck-passing reasons for his refusal to call the Legislature into special session to provide emergency aid to flood victims.

Annoyed when I noted that the situation in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and other eastern Iowa communities was too urgent to wait for January, Culver turned to me, his face flushing and his voice rising, and asked, “What part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?” The reaction was heated enough and animated enough that colleagues parroted it back to me at comical moments for the next week or so.

But there is nothing comical about Culver’s weak and slow response to the worst natural disaster in the state’s history. I’m glad you’ll be visiting Cedar Rapids this week, Governor. Let me know if you find a single person who thinks you have done anything “as quickly as possible.” See if anyone credits the state with getting them “back on their feet.”

You will see that hundreds of businesses reopened mostly through their own investment and hard work because waiting for sufficient state aid would have put them out of business.

When Culver met with our editorial board, he was proud that he had cobbled together $100 million without the Legislature’s help to provide state aid to disaster victims in a program called Jumpstart. Thanks, but the need in Cedar Rapids alone is more than $5 billion.

This summer’s catastrophe demanded a swift session of the Legislature to consider a range of responses beyond the power of the governor. At the very least, we should have been dipping into the state’s emergency reserve fund. It’s called a “rainy day” fund and Iowa hasn’t seen rainier days than we saw this June.

Lawmakers also could have considered diverting money from other state projects to flood relief. They could have considered a bond issue to spread disaster relief over several years. They could have considered an increase in the gasoline tax to repair the roads and bridges damaged and destroyed in the flood. They could have considered giving local governments more options to raise local money for rebuilding.

You can make a good case against some of those measures. All of them wouldn’t have been enough, but any of them would have helped more than the trickle of aid from Barelystart. While Culver has dithered away seven months since the flood with no legislative action, the national recession has forced severe cuts in state spending, making it that much harder to provide money for rebuilding.

Would the state response have been this slow if 5,000 homes and 1,000 businesses plus hundreds of government buildings and non-profit organizations had been flooded in Des Moines?


Culver’s goal is to get displaced families into new homes by December 2009, which is as long as they can stay in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. No point in trying to get them out of there before the deadline, I guess. 

Culver’s excuse for the inexcusable delay in legislative consideration of the state’s disaster response was that he didn’t want to jeopardize our chance at federal money by committing state money too early. The fact is that the maximum the state could commit would not come close to filling the need. State and federal money combined will leave us far short. But the swifter we get any aid, the faster businesses and families can get on with life.

Here’s hoping that the governor’s stocking Thursday morning includes a replica of Harry Truman’s famous desk plaque reminding that chief executive: “The buck stops here.”

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My blogging history

It took me a while to start blogging for The Gazette, but this isn’t my first blog. I have to confess, though, that most of my blogs have been more like online columns. Part of this is because I have not previously used blogging software that was set up for effective commenting. Part of this is because I am an old newspaper guy who thinks like a columnist.

But here’s my blogging past:

I started out writing the Training Tracks blog for the No Train, No Gain web site in 2004.  I wrote about issues of newsroom training.

Training Tracks moved to API’s web site when I began working there in 2005 and No Train, No Gain linked to the API blog. While I continued to write about newsroom training, I broadened my scope, addressing training in general as well as innovation.

While I was at the Omaha World-Herald, training our staff and on the road about writing and leadership, I developed two email lists on which I would send out links to interesting blogs and other materials relating to writing or leadership. When I moved to API, I turned both of these into blogs, Leadership Tips (includes contributions from others) and Writing Tips.

API used a blogging software that didn’t discourage spam and that required bloggers to approve comments before posting. I got so many spam messages about comments that I deleted them in bulk without reading. I did spot and approve a few comments, but I am sure I missed many that snuck in with the spam, so my blogs were not very interactive.

Early this year, I started Twittering and that microblogging experience took over the blogging part of my brain. When I accepted the job as editor of The Gazette and GazetteOnline, I intended to start blogging right away. But then this flood came along and lots of other challenges. I kept telling myself that a blogger needs to post regularly and I was too busy to do that. Well, I still am, but blogging is too important not to. So I will make time to post regularly. Sometimes I will take an email response that I write to a colleague and (with some editing to make it less personal and more broadly applicable) post that. I will post my weekly columns first to the blog (and may post some drafts during the week, seeking feedback). I will blog on some community and regional issues, but I will blog more about the changing newspaper industry and our quest to transform the Gaz into what we’re calling a “Complete Community Connection.” I presume that blogging will cut into my Twittering, though I will tweet each blog post. 

But at any rate, I’m blogging again now. I welcome your feedback. I’m still learning this stuff (not sure what I did to get spaces between the paragraphs on this post but not the first one, but I do prefer this). I’ll develop the links, feeds, blogroll and other features as I go. I welcome advice from WordPress veterans.

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This has been a tumultuous month for the newspaper industry, stumbling toward the finish line of a traumatic year. And it’s been a great week for The Gazette.
WGN, the broadcast flagship of the mighty Tribune Company media empire, took its call letters from the longtime boast in the Chicago Tribune masthead: “World’s Greatest Newspaper.” Last week Tribune filed for bankruptcy.
Gannett Co., the largest newspaper group in the country, cut 10 percent of its jobs. That pushed the nationwide total of jobs lost in the newspaper industry this year above 15,000, according to Paper Cuts, a site that keeps track.
Iowa’s Gannett casualties included the Des Moines Register’s outstanding cartoonist Brian Duffy. As editor of The Gazette, I am delighted that we have added him to our opinion pages in syndication. As a longtime Register reader and former colleague of Duffy at the Register, I am saddened to see the end of the front-page cartoons that became a Register distinction.
I brushed away tears some 25 years ago as I edited the 1983 obituary of Frank Miller, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist whose work graced the Register’s front pages for three decades following the tenure of Jay N. “Ding” Darling, winner of two Pulitzers. Many of us wondered then if the Register’s front-page cartoons – even then an anachronism, though much beloved by Iowans – would continue. But the Register hired Duffy, gave him the front-page slot and he lasted nearly as long as Miller. But the turmoil in the newspaper industry was more powerful than that quaint tradition.
The loss of a cartoonist paled, though, in comparison to the nationwide loss of billions of dollars in advertising revenues and in value of newspaper stocks.
Stock in Lee Enterprises, Davenport-based publisher of five Iowa newspapers and 48 other dailies, dropped last week to 35 cents a share. Within the past year Lee’s high was $15.97. That means the stock lost 98 percent of its value within the past year. Shocking as that is, Lee is faring better than a couple other newspaper companies, Gatehouse and Journal Register, and not much worse than McClatchy or Media General.
Even the powerful New York Times has lost nearly two-thirds of its stock value in the past year. As it struggles to restructure debt, it plans to mortgage its Manhattan headquarters and rumors swirl of a buyout by Google.
“Perfect storm” is a cliché that we have overused since that George Clooney movie made it popular. But the newspaper industry is facing a perfect storm of economic challenges: Print circulation has been falling for decades; online audience is growing but online advertising commands a tiny fraction of the rates of print ads; print advertising revenue dropped suddenly and sharply last year and even worse this year; and now the nation’s economy has plummeted into recession or worse. Even with all that, newspaper companies generally would have healthy operating profits. But those circumstances have made it difficult to impossible for many companies to handle their burdensome debt loads.

As companies like Lee, McClatchy and Gatehouse expanded in recent years, when advertising revenues were still rising, they bought at the top of the market, like lots of homeowners now facing foreclosure. As with banks, insurance companies and lots of overextended families, it is the debt that threatens these newspaper companies.

So why was this one of my most exciting, optimistic weeks in 37 years in the newspaper business? Not just because we’re doing better than other companies or just because our debt is manageable. If we were operating the same as other companies, we still might be heading the same direction.

This past week was exciting and optimistic because the Gazette staff did some outstanding journalism, looking back six months after our devastating flood. But we also looked ahead last week. Gazette executives spent lots of time planning a course that I think will secure a prosperous future for our company in face of all this turmoil. We are headed toward an organizational transformation unlike anything attempted in the news media. As we work out details, we will tell you about our plans. Chuck Peters, our CEO, is already blogging about the new mindset we need, the new tasks we must do and the new organization we will become.

Read his blog and mine. We’ll keep you updated on our plans. I hope it will be more uplifting than reading about what’s happening elsewhere in the news industry.

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