Jeff Pelline: Bring it on, but don’t call us imbeciles | TheUnion.com
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Jeff Pelline: Bring it on, but don’t call us imbeciles

Is our newspaper a business, or is it a public trust?

It’s not that black and white, but last I checked, it definitely was a business.

I just got here, but already I’ve helped draw up the 2007 newsroom budget on Excel, helped write next year’s business plan for news and presented it to the honchos (in PowerPoint, naturalment!), and visited our corporate offices in Reno to be reminded of our 11 initiatives, such as “C2 – streamline internal processes through centralization, standardization and fanatical use of resources.” (I also used the trip as a chance to check out snow tires at Costco).



Along the way, we’ve done the routine stuff: You know, publish a daily newspaper, write a special report on the upcoming Nov. 7 election, and hire and promote some talented people. “It’s all good,” as my teenage nephew puts it. Besides, our son is back in preschool, and it’s too cold to go sailing, so I might as well work long hours.

I’ve been a student of businesses for years. In 25 years of journalism, I’ve written about a lot of companies – and a lot of questionable and “weak” business practices. (Also my nephew’s phrase.)




In the 1980s, for example, I broke a story about a Texas financier named Charles Hurwitz who doubled the timber cut of old-growth redwoods in Humboldt County to pay off junk bond debt from his acquisition. I got the scoop by reading the fine print in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing.

In the ensuing years, Pacific Lumber’s timbercutting under Hurwitz led to a firestorm of protests on the North Coast, congressional investigations, and it became fodder for books and TV documentaries. Check out “The Last Stand” by David Harris, who was married to singer Joan Baez and after that, my journalism professor at UC Berkeley.

I also broke a story about “rubber rooms” at the Southern Pacific railroad, a byproduct of bad management. A rubber room is a place where a worker subject to a disciplinary hearing waits and does not work. The isolation makes you a little crazy. More recently, I’ve written about Microsoft’s monopolistic business practices and helped a colleague fight the software giant’s unsuccessful (and ill-advised) efforts to subpoena documents that were leaked to him.

When it comes to newspapers, many of them are too greedy, care too little about customer service and have tortured labor relations.

In 1994, I was sucked into a labor strike at the S.F. Chronicle. It was a painful experience. I walked the picket line with my reporting friends, while my “management” friends were bused into the building under tight security. For years, we had worked together to publish the paper, including during a blackout when the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake struck.

Nowadays the media business is under siege like never before, thanks to the Internet, changing reading habits and weak management. Many media companies engage in what a former colleague used to call “C+” business school mentality: cut costs because you aren’t clever enough to grow revenue. Last week NBC slashed its news staff by 600 people and had the audacity to tell the New York Times, “Viewers won’t notice the cuts in the news staff.” I doubt that.

Compared with all this gloom and doom, that’s why I like The Union.

We belong to a group of family-owned newspapers run by Swift Communications. These typically are smaller papers in the West and Rocky Mountains – the end of the newspaper food chain where the Internet is your friend, not a foe. We don’t have to worry as much about Internet companies such as Yahoo, Google and Craigslist eating our advertising lunch because the Net’s Big Three are focusing on bigger markets, at least for now.

Instead the Internet is a friend that lets us interact with readers like you in real time – by providing a forum for reader comments on stories, for example.

Besides benefiting from the “small is beautiful” ideology (you know, “Diet for a small planet” and all that), we’re a privately held business.

This protects us from corporate raiders like the guy who forced the break up of the Knight Ridder media chain earlier this year, dismantling some of the nation’s best newspapers. This led to the layoff of 101 staffers at the San Jose Mercury News last week.

What led to the bust up of Knight Ridder? The investor thought the media giant’s stock price was “underperforming.” (Like most corporate homewreckers, this man wound up holding stock that is trading at an even lower price. Ha Ha.)

Being private also lets us focus on long-term growth. Swift’s shareholders are willing to forego short-term profits to bulk up for the future. Next year, for example, the company is spending millions of dollars on new computer hardware and software to make it easier to serve customers.

We are focused on customer service. The only time I’ve got in trouble here – so far – is by parking in the spaces near the entrance to our building. I was politely (but firmly) told that we are supposed to park in the back lot, so our customers can park by the front door. “OOPS,” I said and reparked the car ASAP! On the street, no less, since the back lot was full.

This week we participated in two hours of customer-service training, a companywide initiative that includes role playing (AKA, ‘Great Service Theater’), “five steps to handling a complaint,” and “secret shopper,” where you get $20 to go shopping and record the customer experience. It’s also a good idea because newspapers are notorious for talking down to their customers, including readers.

So let’s be clear: Our newspaper is a business. I also think it’s a better business than most, because it is focused on the long run, it cares more about its customers, and it is using the Internet to interact with its readers.

But that’s not enough, at least to some of our readers. They see The Union more as a public trust – or at least act like it. (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_trust_doctrine).

Last week is a good example. The Nevada County Elections Office mistakenly mailed out incomplete or inaccurate information to voters, upsetting residents and city officials. Our publisher was on vacation (visiting a Great White shark at an aquarium), so I asked the cities of Grass Valley and Nevada City to write an “other voices” column, figuring they’d like a public forum to express their concern.

Careful what you wish for. One of the cities (you can figure it out) wrote a good column but also asked us to publish a detailed two-page document that the Elections Office had left out of voter packets. I explained that the information gobbled up a lot of space, but the city didn’t budge much.

In the end, I pulled the political cartoon off the page to make room for the documents. (The last time I did this, the cartoonist was in my office the next day, asking me what went wrong). This time I just holed up in my office. Phew, he didn’t show up. But he phoned two days later.

As it turned out, the city was grateful for providing a “public service” and thanked us. I hoped the readers benefited but worried we should have passed out magnifying glasses to help them read “Exhibit A, page 2 of 2,” not to mention edit out some of the “cityspeak” that it contained.

Some of our customers aren’t as polite – and are more demanding. Some recent examples:

• “Why the hell haven’t you run my letter,” one reader asked us this month. How RUDE! Around election time we get a slew of letters to the editor (more like free campaign ads) supporting election candidates. “Ray Shine is good!” reads one. “Ray Shine is evil!” reads another. We’d like to run all of them but don’t have room – at least right away.

•One local political figure called us “imbeciles” for running a photo that this person didn’t consider flattering. We apologized and published another one – although it seemed the person in this photo was much younger. Whatever.

• “Do not edit this without our prior approval,” said one opinion piece that was sent to us. OK – sounds like there’s some history there. (Don’t tell me. I only want to know about the present). My favorite is a photo that was sent to us reading: “Can you edit my wife out of the photo?” Unlike the other requests, we didn’t agree to that. We just didn’t run the photo.

Conspiracy theorists also abound in our community. Earlier this month we offered a podcast of a debate between Democratic challenger Charlie Brown and John Doolittle (R-Roseville). Our multimedia reporter edited the podcast, figuring most people were too busy to listen to the entire two-hour debate. Wrong!

“What a crock, this is an edited file,” one reader said in an anonymous posting. “We want the entire audio! Doospittle has kept this from us! The Union is cooperating.”

To set the record straight, we are not involved in any conspiracy. Next time we will work hard to publish unedited versions, along with the edited ones. The file size of any two-hour discussion creates some technical challenges for us.

Don’t misunderstand me: Fire away with the criticism and complaints, and make any demand you want.

I, for one, have celebrated the “passion” in this community since we moved here 11Ú2 years ago. As your local newspaper, we want to provide you with a “platform” to express your various opinions. We want to publish your letters, we want to publish your opinions, and we want to publish your public documents (well, at least some of them).

We don’t mind being research assistants, either, like this week’s callers who asked me to look up the address to the Nevada County Democratic Headquarters or provide statistics about car accidents on Highway 49.

In this sense — publishing your thoughts and answering random questions — we are a public trust.

Thank goodness for the Internet, too, because it provides unlimited space. Early next year we plan to roll out a redesigned, more interactive Web site. Down the road we have more ideas up our sleeve. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could publish your thoughts, even photos, videos and music, on easy-to-navigate, visual and personalized news and entertainment sites? In the meantime, check out our e-Edition at http://www.theunion.com/eedition.

We also will hold “town hall” meetings to hear your opinions for improving our newspaper in informal settings, including our paper’s offices. Would you like to tour our paper or pull up a chair and join one of our editorial meetings?

Now that the budget season is completed, I want to meet more of you. One stop next week is Java John’s in Nevada City, a favorite vocal local hangout. Another is the weekly Rotary Club lunch meeting at the Holbrooke Hotel in Grass Valley.

When it comes to working together, I’d like to make my own “Modest Proposal” (more mellow than what Jonathan Swift proposed back in the 1729 — see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Modest_Proposal): I know it’s heresy, but please remember that we are a business.

I’m proud of our newspaper, but it has limitations, like all businesses. Our “news hole” is limited, so we can’t publish your opinions and letters as quickly as you might like. We also have limited time, so we can’t always call you back right away.

Most important of all, we are human beings. We make mistakes and – although this is a gold-rush community out West – most of us prefer a more business-like discussion to the “shoot ’em up” approach. Think about that; otherwise, bring it on.

ooo

Jeff Pelline is the editor of The Union. His column appears on Saturdays Contact him at 477-4235, jeffp@theunion.com, or 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley 95945.


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