Friday, September 20, 2013

Spoiler alert: Parsing those Butterfly communiqués

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."

Publisher Karen Crotchfelt said the Star would add more than 70 pages to the paper per week, including the USAT section. That's pages of something, including hopefully lots of paid advertising. But it's not necessarily all news, and certainly not all local news, since it will include USAT's world, national, sports, business and entertainment news.

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."

Like the Star, Kane wrote about a partnership with USAT that will add 60 or so pages a week to the paper, including more local news.

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."

In a way, Jackson comes closest to the unvarnished truth among yesterday's announcements. Clocking in at about 800 words, his note can be boiled down to this: Content is getting moved around in print and online.

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
Again, how much more, in inches or some other very specific yardstick? Also, it's worth noting, content that no other provider can match may be news so weak, they don't want to even try.

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?

USA Today
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.

From Corporate's Crystal Palace in a suburban office park outside D.C., he wrote of Butterfly:

"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.

In about three weeks, CEO Gracia Martore will brief Wall Street during the quarterly earnings conference call. Stock analysts are already forecasting declines in revenue and earnings during the current quarter, which ends about Sept. 30. Indeed, their revenue outlook is even more bleak for the fourth quarter.

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.

Please post your replies in the comments section, below. To e-mail confidentially, write jimhopkins[at]gmail[]; see Tipsters Anonymous Policy in the green rail, upper right.


  1. So let's do the math on this. A page of broadsheet newsprint runs between $500 and $600 in cost. 60 - 70 additional pages each week will cost conservatively $30K/week...$120K/month...$1.56 million/year. How do you cover these expenses, much less turn a profit?

    1. That's a page of broadsheet multiplied by what to get the $500-$600?

    2. Those are the costs in paper and ink to produce a single broadsheet page. Regularly quoted by the financial execs in building P&L statements for a paper the size of Rochester or Ft. Myers.

    3. Calling B.S. on this one, and sensible people should, too. If this crap is true, weekly print newspapers would have died off a long time ago. They never would have been able to cover their costs.

      Just another daily slice of B.S. at Gannett Blog.

    4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    5. They're getting some of that space from the elimination of most wire news -- remember, that's being shifted to the USAT section. The local paper will have little or no wire in future. That newshole can now be used for other purposes -- good luck finding content of significance, with their depleted reporting staffs.

    6. @ 10:46 - clearly you don't understand how the newspaper business works. Let's say the paper is a total of 40 pages on a given day. Just for newsprint and ink, it will cost the company $20K in expenses. Clearly, the advertising - including preprints, classifieds, post-it notes, obits, etc. - covers those costs plus a whole lot more. But as you get less and less advertising, your profit declines (revenue minus expenses is profit). Now you're increasing your expenses without any genuine plan to grow advertising to cover it. Could your digital and/or circulation gains cover it? Oh yeah, those aren't quite as robust as they once were either. Savings from wire service stories can't be the only solution here folks.

    7. Spare us the condescension, 11:23. Clearly you don't understand how common sense works.

      It will not cost the company $20,000 in newsprint and ink. Get a clue. Act as if you know what is going on.

      I suspect you are including labor costs in there. Those are generally fixed -- they don't vary by page.

      Have someone explain it to you. But don't try to act as if you get it and others don't.

      Also, your numbers are changing significantly between one post and the next -- another indication of B.S./cluelessness.

    8. @ 11:42 am - do you have any idea what the cost of paper is? Next to people/benefits, it's the next highest expense at any newspaper. That $500-$600 per page cost is for paper and ink. Don't believe me? Go ask your finance guy. And if you can't multiply 40 pages times $500/page to get $20K, you have big problems!

    9. Except it doesn't cost $500 a page.

      Also, I like how you toss out that point about paper costing less than people, as if you somehow have stumbled across something newsworthy. Too bad that comparisons are irrelevant here.

      The more you post, the deeper the hole gets.

    10. Perhaps it doesn't cost $500 a page at your pissant paper, 3:09. If you're only printing 8,000 copies the incremental cost of additional pages is going to be far different than if your pushing Indy Star circ numbers out.

      The more you post, the bigger asshole you prove yourself to be.

    11. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    12. It won't cost $500 a page for newsprint and ink. This is a noble attempt to mislead people, but the entertainment value is lacking.

  2. USAT has been playing tricks with its circulation figures since the beginning of the paper. It's been one gimmick after another. Skewing the numbers, forcing the paper upon people, etc. Now this Butterfly crap. Hey, USAT, maybe you should try putting out a product that people want instead of boosting numbers with smoke and mirrors. The nation's newspaper spends more time trying to get the brand on camera in movies (yes, that is one of their marketing techniques over in the Crystal Palace) and playing shell games with circulation numbers than it does on creating and providing consumers with reliable, thoughtful content. Then when these stupid ideas don't work, they lay off employees. What an embarrassment to journalism.

    1. So what happens with all the coin racks when removed from the streets after the price increase and the sales tank? Any ideas? That's a lot of tin men doing nothing.

    2. The famous TV-shaped honor boxes are going to be sent to salvage yards where they will be scrapped, according to one of my readers.

  3. Kane forgot to mention to his faithful readers, that the D&C is going up in price Oct.1st from 26.50 a month to 42.00 a month for 7 days, Sunday only 6.00 per week! WOW... Think that will cover print cost? These new price quotes are listed on the second page of section A in the D&C in Rochester. Kane needs to go back to where he came from....

    1. That tracks with what I wrote yesterday:

      The addition of local news in the Star -- and the possibility the same could happen at other Gannett dailies with a full Butterfly roll out -- comes after a published report this summer saying the community papers were in line for another round of subscription price increases.

      In July, Des Moines TV station KCCI said The Des Moines Register had started notifying 80,000 subscribers of a rate hike as high as 40%. The paper's marketing chief, Kurt Allen, told the station the increase is a "Corporate initiative, across all Gannett properties."

      Restoring local news reduced during cost-cutting since 2008 could be used to sell readers on any subscription increases.

    2. Every paper has cut reporters. Where is "more local" going to come fro?

  4. Tyson's Corner is not an "office park". It is the functional equivalent of a city center, and on the basis of total office space is comparable to Houston.

  5. Some thoughts:

    1. Would you buy a used car from any of the featured executives here?
    2. Why would Usa Today readers pay $2 for an obviously inferior product?
    3. Why would a local reader pay $42 a month?
    4. What's Plan B?

  6. Plan B: cut the shit out of the employee base and collect a fatter bonus.


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