Monday, May 05, 2008

The Tribune's tricky transition

Trick question time.

The Portland Tribune has:

A) gone from publishing twice a week to being a weekly (published on Thursdays)

B) become a daily

Tribune publisher and president Steve Clark wants us to believe both A) and B) are true.

Last Friday, Clark, top executive of Robert Pamplin Jr’s Portland Tribune and Community Newspapers, wrote a front-page article titled “Tribune announces changes.”

As it appeared on the page, readers might have mistaken it for a news story, but fully the first half turned out to be corporate puffery. Clark’s by-line came at the end. The piece should have been labeled “Publisher’s note,” “To our readers” or some such.

The news describing the “changes” mentioned in the headline appeared in the seventh paragraph after the jump inside the paper.

Moreover, Clark seemed on the defensive. Why else would he take bloggers to task for being prone to “vitriolic negativity” about the Tribune? Why would he feel compelled to anticipate the Willamette Week would “throw stones”?

That said, beyond my critique of the slant and tone of his announcement, Clark won’t find any “negativity” from me, vitriolic or otherwise.

(Disclosure time: You need to know that I am paid by Clark’s Community Newspapers for a column I write in the monthly Southwest Community Connection. I founded The Connection but sold it to Clark nine years ago.)

I agree with Clark that the Tribune has become a valued journalistic asset to Portland. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether it has all the virtues he attributes to it in his announcement. It certainly has many of them.

Clark and Pamplin, like so many in the newspaper business, are migrating to the Web, by degrees. Friday’s announcement marks a major leg in the baggage-laden journey. Part of the baggage is the vocabulary of journalism. A key and burdensome word is “daily.” Is an on-line website that tracks breaking news really a “daily”?

It is, but only if readers turn to it each day, as nearly every literate adult once turned to daily newspapers.

Reading habits aren’t so easily transferable from print to computer. For one thing, the competition for attention on-line is intense and wildly distracting. Moreover, the entire on-line medium is in flux. Is a newspaper site going to become a portal to video images and audio feeds? Will moving images simply overwhelm the printed word? What happens to “journalistic objectivity” in the process? (Look to cable TV news for one answer — it tanks. Cue the celebrities! Roll the violent footage! Run the gotcha sound bite!)

The other question mark is revenue. Clark’s decision to drop the Tribune's Tuesday edition cuts distribution and printing costs. But producing an on-line daily, by rights, should increase editorial costs. All Clark says in his announcement is “…we will employ fewer people in some departments.”

He had the chance to say which departments, but he conspicuously didn’t. Specifically, is he cutting editorial? If he were adding reporters — as he should to fill the news hole — he has every reason to tell us.

Reading between the lines we can conclude that the cost cutting on the production/distribution side isn’t going to free up enough revenue to bolster news coverage. The decline in advertising revenue in print isn’t offset by an increase of on-line ad revenue.

That’s the problem plaguing the industry — and journalism in general.

The question we as citizen-readers need to ask is whether the changes will leave us better or worse informed about the world around us.

I believe that, taken as a whole, the changes have the potential to leave us far better off, but only if — and it is a big “if” — we, as readers, take responsibility for seeking out the best, most trustworthy information available.

The journalist’s job is to make it available — and get paid a living wage for the work.

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