|In The Manchurian Candidate, Lansbury (left) also massaged text.|
Yesterday's big news about the Butterfly Project reminds me of a pivotal scene in 1962's Manchurian Candidate, a Cold War political thriller about a plot to take over the White House.
Angela Lansbury plays Eleanor Iselin, a Communist agent married to a conservative U.S. senator set up to steal his party's presidential nomination with a speech carefully crafted from afar. "It's the most rousing speech I've ever read,'' she says. "It's been worked on here and in Russia for over eight years."
Now, bear with me as my critics howl. After all, this isn't the first time I've compared an examination of Corporate's communiqués to Kremlinology.
For the Butterfly Project, four such dispatches arrived yesterday via Indianapolis; Rochester, N.Y.; Louisville, Ky., and USA Today outside Washington. They all reported that Gannett is adding a whole lot of news to its community dailies.
But a closer reading reveals columns, a story and a memo that are long on promises, yet short on important details -- from how much news is being added, to whether it's serious or fluff. Moreover, some of the language employed sounds like everyone's working from scripted talking points from Corporate headquarters.
At its most basic, Gannett announced that in early October, it will start testing a redesign of four newspapers that will add a new daily section of national news produced by USAT. In addition to Indianapolis and Rochester, the others are in Fort Myers, Fla., and Appleton, Wisc.
If the Butterfly Project is successful, it would be extended to about three dozen of Gannett's other biggest community papers across the country, according to my readers. The idea is to improve the content of the company's dailies to stanch the growing losses of circulation and advertising revenue.
Butterfly would also shore up USAT's circulation volume as it faces the threat of staggering retail sales losses when the cover price is doubled to $2 on Sept. 30.
So, what, exactly, were we really told?
The headline over yesterday's story said: "Indianapolis Star announces plan to boost local, national content in partnership with USA Today."
Star correspondent Tony Cook, stuck with a politically dicey story, also reported that a revamped Sunday business section will emphasize jobs, the workplace and the economy. "Daily local business coverage will be integrated into the front local section," he says.
Integrate is another red flag because it doesn't mean there will be more of it, or even the same amount now being published.
Indeed, one of the more candid remarks in the story was a quote from Editor Jeff Taylor, who told his paper: "We’re adding a whole lot more of the stuff that, frankly, has been disappearing from the paper over time. Now we have a chance to give that back to people."
Stuff, of course, isn't news.
Publisher Michael Kane's note to readers was headlined: "Democrat and Chronicle content improvements change the game."
A reporter schooled in pinning down details would ask: how much more in inches, and exactly what kind? Will it be deeply reported watchdog news, or reader-generated blogs and videos that don't adhere to professional journalism standards?
Kane assigned this important story to himself, however, so those questions don't get asked or answered.
Kane also mentions that the paper has "committed to even more watchdog and investigative work."
Oy, vey. If I had a nickel for every time a Gannett publisher has said that, I'd be a very rich man. (Kane's pledge is all the more curious after his paper laid off its political reporter in August while she was covering President Obama's visit to the area.)
Finally, it's worth pointing out that Kane stoked speculation that USAT could try to count the new section as paid circulation to the industry's Alliance for Audited Media next year. Tellingly, he wrote: "We will effectively publish a national newspaper inside the D&C."
The Courier-Journal isn't one of the four dailies getting the Butterfly treatment. But Publisher Wesley Jackson nonetheless weighed in with a note to readers of his own about similar new changes. The headline: "Amid The Courier-Journal's evolution, dedication is the same."
For example, he says: "We’re combining news sections in print and moving local news up front." Why is this a good thing for readers? Is it like "integrating" in Indianapolis?
Presentation will be more "robust." There will be more "voices" in the online editorial section. (Random op-ed rants from readers? Embarrassing letters to the editor like this? He doesn't say.)
Several things seem guaranteed. There will be more entertainment news, and health and fitness will be "sporting a fresh new look."
Sunday's features will focus on style and travel, he says: "Readers will be able to pair their interest in the hottest retail buys and style makeovers, with the popular Sunday coupons and store inserts." Sounds like advertorial to me, but Jackson doesn't offer enough specifics to know for sure.
"Overall," Jackson wrote, "our aim is to give print readers more of the in-depth, community-focused news, features and sports content they consistently tell us they want and that no other news provider in this region can match."
|Today's C-J detail, Newseum|
Finally and unfortunately, Jackson says something that simply isn't true: "Our emphasis on public service has never wavered, and it never will."
Traditional public service journalism is expensive investigative work that forms the core of government watch dogging.
When I worked at the C-J in 1996-2000, I was on an investigative team of four full-time reporters and a full-time editor. That was in addition to at least one full-time investigative reporter on the Metro desk.
As well, the paper had a statewide network of news bureaus, including one at Hazard, Ky., in a part of the state with a particular history of government corruption, environmental and workplace dangers by powerful coal mine operators, and years of deep poverty.
Yet, most if not all of those resources were eliminated in multiple rounds of cost-cutting over the past decade. This is not wavering?
My esteemed colleague (to use an honorific popular elsewhere in Washington) Publisher Larry Kramer sent staff a memo of his own about the key Butterfly role of Gannett's struggling flagship.
"By partnering with our local markets, it helps us expand our circulation and allows our local partners to focus more on the regional coverage that their readers want."
The word partner appears three other times in his memo.
I've been noodling over why that word keeps coming up. My best guess is that it sounds full of bonhomie, as though Butterfly is something everyone happily and enthusiastically agreed to -- rather than a cost-cutting drive crammed down the chain from Corporate HQ.
Readers at the community level already suspect a multinational conglomerate is controlling their news from afar. A partnership sounds entirely different.
Cost-cutting, after all, is the name of the game here. For decades, Gannett has been trimming the space it devotes to news as it tried to satisfy Wall Street’s insatiable appetite for high profits quarter after quarter. And that was mostly during good economic times.
Dialing for dollars
It seems highly unlikely Corporate would only now reverse course, and provide a net increase of newshole when the industry is still reeling from a record contraction of circulation and ad revenue.
Broadcasting’s sales will be down from a year ago because the 23 TV stations don’t have last year's Olympics and political advertising to bolster results. The long-suffering newspaper division has now cycled through a big subscription price increase disguised as a paywall.
Digital Segment revenue from employment site CareerBuilder is threatening to flatline because of the weak job market. And the $1.5 billion deal for TV company Belo, assuming it's consummated by year's end, won't produce results until 2014 at the earliest.
For several quarters, Martore has warned Wall Street new investments in sales and technology will produce uneven financials. “Our transformation plan,” she said in July during the second-quarter call, “is a complex and multifaceted process, and we do not expect linear growth each quarter.”
Pension funds and other big investors controlling Gannett want to hear revenue is still growing and the company's famously disciplined spending remains locked down.
But they don’t want to hear about a Butterfly Project that will do the reverse. That’s because bottomline-obsessed shareholders hate six words more than most any other:
"We are investing for the future."
Related: Watch the trailer for The Manchurian Candidate.
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