Archive for the ‘Newspapers’ Category

Hacks and flacks

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

In a recent blog post, Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic writes that some of his friends in the public relations business have been “inundated with calls from journalists looking to escape our profession before it dies, as opposed to after it dies.”

I’ve heard from a few journalists myself in recent months. No, we’re not hiring right now.

Goldberg goes on to report that Jeff Birnbaum has left The Washington Times to serve as the president of BGR Public Relations in Washington. What’s now BGR was founded by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and former Republican White House aide Ed Rogers back in 1991.

This is interesting because Birnbaum made his reputation covering the lobbying business in Washington. Now, he will be working with and for lobbyists.

“If I were younger, and if we lived in a different age, I might feel slightly condemnatory, but this is the world we live in,” Goldberg writes. “All this gyrating does raise a couple of questions, though: Can journalists turn themselvs into skilled flacks? And, if all the journalists become flacks, who will the flacks flack to?

“The answer to the second question is easy — they’ll flack to underpaid, undertrained bloggers. For an answer to the first question, I turned to my friend Richard Mintz, who owns the Harbour Group, a public relations firm in Washington. He, too, is seeing a rise in queries from stressed-out reporters, but he was not entirely positive about their utility.

”’Journalists by their nature don’t make great advocates or public relations people because they’re trained to be objective rather than to take sides,’ he said. ‘They also tend to work alone, and they have no business experience.’ Other than that, of course, hacks make excellent flacks.”

This brings up the whole issue of “crossing the fence,” one I’ve dealt with numerous times during my career. Back when newspapers were much more successful financially and newspapermen were thus far more arrogant, some had the idea that you couldn’t leave the newspaper business for a public relations job or a political campaign and then return. In their minds, it was like being a priest. Or being in the Mafia.

To put it as delicately as I can, that’s crap.

I left journalism to work full time on a political campaign in 1984. When that campaign concluded, I went back to the newspaper business.

In 1989, I left the newspaper business again to work full time on a political campaign. Guess what? When that campaign was over, I returned to journalism.

When the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette created the position of political editor during Bill Clinton’s 1992 run for the presidency, I was selected to fill that job. I was asked a legitimate question. It went something like this: “You’ve worked on two political campaigns. Both were Republican campaigns. In Arkansas, most of the officeholders you cover will be Democrats. Is this a problem?”

I’ve always felt that one’s body of work and past experience will tell you far more than anything a person can say in a job interview. So, since I had been the Arkansas Democrat’s Washington correspondent from 1986-89 and covered our two senators virtually every day during that period, I suggested that those hiring me could talk to Democrats Dale Bumpers and David Pryor. I felt certain those two pillars of the Arkansas political world would say I had been tough but always fair as a reporter.

I can tell you this much: Because I had worked full time on two political campaigns, I was a much better political editor of the state’s largest newspaper than I otherwise would have been. I better understood the games the consultants and the pollsters played. I understood more about raising funds and leading volunteers.

And when I left that job in July 1996 to become the communications director for a new governor named Mike Huckabee, I was a much better hire because I had spent so many years as a reporter and editor. I would have been far less effective to Huckabee had I followed the traditional political route of Young Republican, College Republican, campaign worker, governor’s staff member.

I started working in the newspaper business when I was in high school. I was never a member of the Young Republicans. I was never a member of the College Republicans. I was hired because I was a communications professional.

The communications director for a statewide officeholder should serve as a go-between. I would at least like to think that those in the Arkansas media knew I would never knowingly give them false information. If I found out later that I had said something that wasn’t entirely correct, I would set the record straight as quickly as possible. I was honest in letting them know that there would be times when I would be unable to tell them all I knew. However, I would never lie.

I would attempt to be their advocate in the governor’s office. I would try to give the governor my best advice on how to respond and my best analysis on the fallout from certain acts. It wasn’t always an easy position to be in. More than once, an angry governor would look at me and talk about “your friends in the media.”

He knew, however, that he had hired me to give him just that side of the equation. He always listened. Had he not, I would not have stayed for more than nine years.

So, for any journalists out there thinking about jumping that fence, don’t worry. You can always return. And if you do return, you’ll probably be a better reporter, writer and thinker than you were before you left.

I just hope too many of you don’t leave. I worry about the decline of print journalism in this country. It’s vital. And there are few things I enjoy more than reading multiple newspapers each day. That, however, is another post for another day.

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Knock ’em out, Henry

Friday, November 6th, 2009

God bless Henry Allen of the Washington Post.

We don’t normally editorially endorse physical violence at Southern Fried, but the story of Henry Allen’s fight in the Post newsroom a week ago is the best story we’ve read all week.

Here’s what happened on that final Friday in October: Veteran features editor Henry Allen punched one of his writers, Manuel Roig-Franzia, during an argument in the office of the newspaper’s executive editor.

Allen, who is 68 and served as a Marine in Vietnam, was upset that another Style editor had assigned a story to writer Monica Hesse and Roig-Franzia without his knowledge.

That editor had asked the two writers to play off the disclosure last week that many members of Congress are being investigated for ethics violations. The two writers compiled a list of similar inadvertent disclosures throughout history and came up with what’s known as a “charticle.”

When Allen got the story, he began to rant loudly about the mistakes he found in the copy.

One of the incidents referenced in the “charticle” was an account of how a Confederate solider lost the military plans of Robert E. Lee; plans that found their way into Union hands. The original story said that the incident had occurred in Virginia. Wrong. It occurred at Antietam, which is in Maryland.

Allen screamed: “This is total crap. It’s the second worst story I have seen in Style in 43 years.”

The worst apparently was a mistake-filled profile of Paul Robeson that never made it into the newspaper.

Roig-Franzia cursed Allen. Editor Allen punched him.

The reason I say “God bless Henry Allen” is because I have a soft spot for an old editor who still cares enough about the written word to get into a fight. Too many of today’s editors seem to have no intensity, no fire. The joy of writing and editing is missing from their work. They might as well be in a cubicle at Entergy turning out corporate news releases.

Not to get too nostalgic, but I long for the days when people became angry about reporters’ mistakes. Like many people, I’ve mellowed with age. In my younger days as an editor, I was known to throw a dictionary or two.

When I was the assistant sports editor at the Arkansas Democrat in the 1980s, I once had our “recreation writer” (a cute young thing) tell me she had “writer’s block.”

I didn’t realize I was going to make her cry when I began my rant: “That’s impossible. You can’t have writer’s block because you’re not a writer. Hemingway was a writer. Faulkner was a writer. You’re not a writer. You’re a newspaper reporter. So finish your dang story.”

Later that year, John Robert Starr transferred me to Washington to cover Congress. During the four years I lived there, the Style section of the Post became my favorite newspaper section in America. I would stay up late into the night in the basement where I lived on Capitol Hill’s Tennesse Avenue Northeast, reading the great long-form journalism in the Style section. Those stories ran for thousands of words and were crafted like fine magazine pieces. What a joy it was on a cold night to curl up with the Style section and some coffee or hot tea.

In this sad period for the American newspaper, I echo the words of the Post’s Gene Weingarten, who said: “The first thing I want to say is hooray. Hooray that there is still enough passion left somewhere in a newsroom in America for violence to break out between colorful characters in disagreement over the quality of a story.”

David Von Drehle, one of the finest writers ever to work at the newspaper, wrote this on a Washington City Paper blog earlier this week: “Of all the people to be drummed out of the Post newsroom, Henry Allen was the most dazzling and original talent I’ve seen in 30-plus years in the journalism business. His was one of the truly great Post careers, and he’s my ideal of Style at its best. When I try to unpack the reason I once dreamed of a place at the Post, it has to do with the sense of experimentation, of risk-taking, of form-busting that defined the Post in the glory days. People tried to capture the spark by saying that the Post was the ultimate writers’ newspaper. But what we were really getting at — even if we didn’t realize it — was that the Post was Henry Allen’s newspaper. He took newspaper journalism to places no one realized it could go, and thereby filled a lot of us with big ideas about what the business could be. . . . In these parlous times, how do you put the last exclamation point on a fearless career spent smashing limits and efforting the impossible? No damn sheet cake for Henry Southworth Allen, nossir. He’s left us with one more story that we’ll never forget.”

God bless Henry Allen. God bless newspapers. God bless the written word and those who care deeply about it.

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The family-owned newspaper

Friday, September 4th, 2009

I began thinking anew this week about the demise of family-owned newspapers after reading of the death of Frank Robins III, the former publisher and last family owner of the Log Cabin Democrat in Conway.

Frank Robins III was the president of the Arkansas Press Association in 1974. His father had been the president of the Arkansas Press Association in 1940. And his grandfather had been the president of the Arkansas Press Association in 1923. Talk about a family tradition.

The newspaper, one of the most uniquely named publications in the country, had been purchased by the family in 1894 in a trade for a sawmill. Frank Robins III went to work there in 1949 as soon as he graduated from Hendrix College. He became the publisher in 1959 following the death of his father.

I loved the quote about Mr. Robins in The Associated Press story from former Log Cabin editor John Ward: “He was very hard-nosed about assumptions. Reporters, in gathering information for a story, sometimes tended to make two or three assumptions so they could crank out one story and go on to something else. Frank hated assumptions. If you made an assumption and it was wrong, he was a hard man to deal with.”

There was something special about those local owners and editors who had their lives deeply invested in the communities where they lived. It’s something that simply can’t be matched by many of the publishers who work for newspaper chains and tend to bounce from city to city.

I remember hearing stories growing up about Mr. Phil McCorkle of Arkadelphia and his stewardship of my hometown daily newspaper, the Daily Siftings Herald. There also was a weekly newspaper in Arkadelphia at the time, The Southern Standard, which was owned by 1961 Arkansas Press Association president Keith Tudor. By the time I went to work for the Siftings Herald (another Arkansas paper with a name not replicated elsewhere), the paper was under the ownership of the Freeman family of Pine Bluff. But we still considered ourselves a family-owned publication since the Freeman “chain” consisted only of newspapers at Pine Bluff, Arkadelphia and Yazoo City, Miss.

Ed Freeman, one of those publishers who cared deeply about the English language, who mark up past editions on a regular basis and send his comments back to us. I would have loved to have been able to listen back at the Commercial offices when Mr. Freeman and Paul Greenberg would discuss the content of editorials for hours at a time.

It’s fun to look at the list of past Arkansas Press Association presidents and remember some of the newspaper greats in Arkansas — Charles Young and Porter Young in Helena, O.E. Jones in Batesville (the newspaper there is still controlled by the Jones family), Ray Kimball in Magnolia and later DeQueen, J.E. Dunlap in Harrison, Sam Hodges in Benton, Louis Graves in Nashville, Melvin Schexnayder and later Charlotte Schexnayder in Dumas, Cone Magie in Cabot, Tom Gillespie in Atkins, Ted Larimer in Green Forest, Fred Wulfekuhler in Paragould, Orville Richolson in Newport and others.

As the sports editor at Arkadelphia, I often would cover University of Arkansas football games at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium. Representatives of the small dailies (there was not room for weekly newspaper representatives in those days) would sit at the far end of the press box. I often found myself seated next to J.E. Dunlap. I was young and convinced that a sportswriter should not show bias. Mr. Dunlap would have none of that. He always showed up in the press box in a bright red blazer and a tie with Razorbacks on it.

That’s the same Mr. Dunlap who, upon receiving some self-serving news release from an ad agency, was known to insert a rate card and mail the release back to the agency.

The people like him were the ones I looked up to as a young newspaperman. There was nothing better than attending an APA convention, sitting back, shutting my mouth and listening to the old guys tell stories. I miss them. They were a special breed.

There are still a number of family-owned weekly newspapers in Arkansas, but the family-owned daily is becoming a rare breed. I never got around to buying a newspaper, which is probably for the best given the current state of the industry. But it would have been kind of fun to have turned into “a hard man to deal with” for young reporters who made assumptions.

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