Friday, March 3, 2006

On Recalls and Redesigns

Why do newspapers and elections cater to people who ignore them?

Posted By on Fri, Mar 3, 2006 at 4:00 AM

Wonderful. In Memphis we now have newspapers designed for people who don't read newspapers and special elections for people who don't vote.

This is progress in journalism: a daily newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, chopped up into so many sections that it is as annoying to read as an online newspaper with pop-up ads on a slow computer with a dial-up connection.

"Honey, you mind handing me the front page?"

"You mean the front front page, the second front page, the front of the Greater Memphis section, or the front of the Memphis and Region section?"

"Hell, just give me the remote."

Judging from the e-mails I get from CA employees and the letters to the editor in the CA, I'm not alone in my confusion. I'm pulling for the print edition of the daily to survive and even prosper. I'm sorry to see them lose another good reporter, Oliver Staley. But I think they should quit pandering to their non-customers and start leveling with their loyal customers and share some of the financial realities that are driving the design changes.

As consumers, we know what Northwest Airlines earned and spent last year, what its CEO earned, what its pilots and mechanics and flight attendants earn in salaries, what its fares are, even more than most of us probably want to know about its pensions and benefits and debt load. We know the same things about the financially troubled companies in the auto industry, General Motors and Ford. So when we read about layoffs and plant closings and union contract negotiations, we can put things in perspective.

"Old Reliable" (the hoary self-imposed nickname for the CA hauled out of the attic last weekend by way of softening the shock of the changes) and its parent company, E.W. Scripps, don't disclose financials and profit margins for individual newspapers, although the Scripps newspaper division earned over $200 million in profits last year. Where are the numbers in those times-are-tough columns from the editor and publisher? What are advertising revenues for classifieds and displays ads? How much have they fallen? What is the profit margin? What does it cost to keep a reporter or editor? What is the daily and Sunday circulation? This is a business story of local interest, and it should be covered like any other business story, with facts not fluff.

Newspapers have to deal somehow with the loss of young readers. A former colleague, Rheta Grimsley Johnson, told me she spoke recently to college students interested in writing careers. She could understand them not knowing about Ernie Pyle and Mike Royko. But they'd never heard of Maureen Dowd, either. So I'll go along with any design change for a while, but don't shortchange me on the story.

Meanwhile, this is progress in democracy in Memphis: A recall campaign is officially under way to boot Willie Herenton out of the mayor's office. Backers need slightly less than 65,000 valid signatures of Memphis voters. That's more than twice as many as the 31,183 people who voted against Herenton in the 2003 mayoral election and well over half the number of people who voted, period (103,226, or a 23 percent turnout).

I don't think they will get them without a more broadly organized effort. Some of the current backers are mainly and perhaps exclusively interested in making a noise. Herenton fatigue is one thing; Herenton removal another. The language of the city charter indicates that Herenton's chief administrative officer, Keith McGee, would replace him. If recall supporters believe the mayor guilty of gross malfeasance and fiscal mismanagement, it's hard to see how installing his CAO or the survivor of a deal brokered by the City Council make things any different. And Herenton himself could run again in 2007, if not sooner.

Then there is the still unresolved matter of Ophelia Ford's seat in the Tennessee Senate. Challenger Terry Roland, the Republican who lost by 13 votes in a special election last year, says he was robbed. A do-over election is possible. But nine out of 10 voters eligible to vote in last year's special election stayed home. If either the Ford side or Roland side had expended as much energy getting out the vote as they have fighting over the results, the issue would have been settled long ago.

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