Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Print News, R.I.P.

Idaho Statesman parent company tanking?

McClatchy Newspapers Bonds Rated as Junk

By Jill Kuraitis, 4-30-07

If you sometimes search to find something compelling to read in the Idaho Statesman, you won’t be surprised by the news that its parent The McClatchy Co. is in trouble. Its first-quarter profits were down by a whopping 67 percent, and last Thursday, April 26, Standard & Poor’s slashed McClatchy bonds down to a BB-plus rating, which is considered to be junk.

By last Friday morning shares of McClatchy were traded at prices between $28.80 and $29.63, closing at $29.29 after a day of heavy trading. $28.80 is the lowest price for McClatchy since Feb. 1999.

A Standard & Poor’s analyst told Thomson’s Financial in London, “The lower ratings follow our review of operating conditions in the newspaper sector, and consider McClatchy’s ability to improve credit measures over the next few years through management’s focus on debt reduction. It is unlikely that credit measures will return to levels consistent with an investment-grade rating over the intermediate term.” Ouch.

McClatchy owns and publishes 30 daily and weekly newspapers, including state capital papers the Sacramento Bee and the Idaho Statesman. The Statesman was acquired in 2006 when McClatchy bought Knight Ridder.

Are McClatchy bonds tanking because of poor products? The newspaper industry is struggling nationwide, and it’s not that simple. But it’s a basic of running a business to produce something people want to buy. Considering the population growth in Ada County, the Statesman’s circulation should have increased proportionally. The Audit Bureau of Circulations reports 85,000 subscribers currently, which is down from 86,500 in 2001.

The Statesman’s bland stories from wire services and out-of-state copy mills sometimes miss a glaring mark. For example, a recent story about Spanish-language and bilingual preschools was written by an out of state service, and used examples of schools in other states. There are two new schools of this type in Boise to which no connection was made.

Anyone who wants a serious Sunday read – on paper – long enough to last through a bagel and coffee has to scramble around town for a rare New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, both of which are expensive.

That the Statesman can be a difficult place to work is an open secret among journalists and public relations professionals in Idaho. The frequent changes in ownership have bred an underlying tension about job security and a high stress level. The salaries for junior staff are lower than what I made as a secretary more than 30 years ago! - in some cases below the poverty line. Complaints about inept and sexist middle managers are common, but never on the record, of course. But chief among complaints was summed up by a Statesman reporter who asked, “Why can’t someone just take the place in hand and make a NEWSPAPER out of it?”

That’s a sad thing for a reporter to say. Reporters tend to care very much about their communities and their newspaper, and they are naturally competitive. They compete with other news outlets to get a story first and to write it best. They compete within the newsroom for plum assignments and more ink. They compete with each other for awards and citations, and they compete with themselves to write better, tighter, and more clearly than their last draft. They are poised and ready to produce the best possible edition, day after day – if management gives them the tools, column inches and inspired leadership that might get them there.

Heck, Statesman reporters don’t even have laptops, and many of their in-house computers are turn-of-the-century.

The Statesman does a good job covering the state legislature with some excellent and experienced writers like Greg Hahn, Kevin Richert and Shawna Gamache. Longtime political columnist Dan Popkey’s institutional memory and big-picture understanding of Idaho’s character add another layer of worthwhile content. Community and civic news is very well done - well enough to make the paper hard to do without.

But the paper’s regional coverage is poor. There is an occasional article about eastern and northern Idaho; sometimes a blurb about something in eastern Oregon – but rarely an original, analytical story about issues common to western states. (Popkey often provides that missing link, but his column hasn’t appeared in ages, the rumor being that he’s working on something big.) The Statesman often projects a sense of isolation and little material to connect Idahoans to a larger world. That sounds a lot like the Idaho legislature, and lack of those connections are an alarming problem there, too. The ancient attitude of cowboy invincibility and the antiquated idea that our state doesn’t need connections – we’re doing just fine on our own, thank you and by the way do NOT dictate to us – does not deserve support from its de facto state newspaper. The Idaho Statesman is really the Boise Statesman. But it could, and I believe should, assume more responsibility for a broader mission. Each time it changes ownership there is hope it will happen, but it’s always disappointing.

Media types have been asking the question of whether internet news and the blogosphere are becoming the mainstream, and print newspapers the marginalized “papersphere” - for several years now.

Has it already happened?

Read more New West Boise articles.

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