Strupp’s Top 10 Newspaper Industry Stories of 2006

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By: Joe Strupp

As always, the newspaper industry had more than its share of ups, downs and, well, more downs. Still, the newsprint kept unrolling, and, more importantly, the Web sites kept growing. Jobs were cut, deals made, and some press freedoms were protected while others were lost. YouTube was the craze of the year.

For better or worse, here are my top 10 newspaper industry stories of 2006.

10. Loss of Stock Listings and TV Books (Among Other Things): There was a time when some people bought newspapers just for these specials. But with Internet competition and space cutbacks mounting, the traditional stock tables and TV grids are becoming less and less relevant. And when was the last time you saw an Extra Extra print edition? They are almost unnecessary today. For many TV watchers, a click of the clicker gives the TV line-up, while nearly every news Web site has a fast stock quote. Will my beloved box scores be next?

9. Upheaval at The Miami Herald: It wasn’t enough that the South Florida daily changed hands with the sale of Knight Ridder to McClatchy this year. But the longtime circulation leader also got into a tussle with sister paper, El Nuevo Herald, over coverage of the Spanish-language daily’s semi-scandal involving some staffers’ paid appearances on a government-supported broadcast outlet. When the dust settled, Publisher Jesus Diaz was out and Editor Tom Fiedler soon announced his retirement (although he says it was in the works already). And don’t forget the angry el Nuevo Herald cartoonist who stormed the offices, held authorities at bay for three hours, and prompted an evacuation of the building. Well, at least they got to cover the Miami Heat’s NBA title.

8. Jill Carroll: A year ago she was a little-known freelancer covering Iraq for The Christian Science Monitor. But when the brave correspondent was kidnapped in Baghdad and held for 82 days, her abduction sparked an international movement to free her, while also drawing some controversy when major U.S. news outlets agreed to a news blackout of the kidnapping for the first 48 hours. After her April release, her first-person story became the most popular Monitor series and Web project ever, drawing record online traffic and syndication revenue. It was no surprise when Harvard University came calling, offering Carroll a fellowship to its Shorenstein Center. What’s next in 2007? Surely a book but Carroll’s passion appears to fervently be in journalism, not fame. Look for her to head overseas again, but likely not to the Green Zone.

7. The New York Times Reveals Bank Records Monitoring Program: He did it again. Reporter James Risen, who months earlier had uncovered the Bush Administration domestic wiretapping program, teamed with staffer Eric Lichtblau to expose the federal government’s SWIFT program that kept watch on thousands of banking records. Unlike the wiretapping story, which the Times sat on for about a year, this bombshell was held up for only a few weeks while the president sought to keep it from print. As with the previous story, the Times received both praise from supporters and criticism from opponents, including to some degree it’s own public editor.

6. Subpoenas: That ugly word continues to rear its head, most prominently in San Francisco where San Francisco Chronicle reporters Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada were found in contempt for failing to reveal their source in the award-winning BALCO steroid scandal coverage. They face a possible jail cell in February. Elsewhere, former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who spent several months in the slammer in 2005 for refusing to reveal a source, was the subject of a subpoena again, this time for her phone records related to coverage of Islamic charities.

Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, meanwhile, received his own court order demanding that he reveal a source for 2001 columns on the anthrax attacks as part of a civil lawsuit. Then there’s freelance video blogger Josh Wolf, who has been in and out of jail since August for refusing to turn over unaired tapes of protesters attacking a San Francisco police car, obviously the work of a hardened criminal.

5. Continued Job Cuts: While not at the 2,000 job cut level of 2005, 2006 continued a downward trend in job security, with papers from the Los Angeles Times to The Washington Post either announcing such cuts or implementing them. The same old causes, declining ads, circulation and growing competition, were the usual culprits. But in most cases, it was still-profitable papers making these staff reductions, which always ultimately lead to a poorer product and less-emphasis on foreign coverage, investigative series, and broad-based reporting.

4. Labor Battles: Newspaper unions felt the brunt of management angst more than ever in 2006, with contract battles at the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, The Boston Globe, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and even the York (Pa.) Daily Record, among others. Although no strikes occurred, Philly folks came close and nearly every union local did not get new deals until they gave up either raises, pension protection or benefits. Then there’s The Toledo Blade, which has locked out five of its eight unions since August, while getting the guild unit there to cough up more money for health benefits as it seeks a new contract.

The ultimate labor slam has to be the one at the Santa Barbara News-Press, where nearly 30 newsroom staffers have quit or gotten fired since July when former editor Jerry Roberts started a resignation movement to protest owner Wendy McCaw’s alleged meddling. Although the remaining rank and file voted in union representation, the paper has challenged the vote and even sued an AJR reporter for libel after she reported on the strange doings there. Makes some locals long for the days of normalcy when the Michael Jackson trial was being held nearby.

3. Knight Ridder Dissolves: We knew it was coming, but when the McClatchy Company took over Knight Ridder it set in motion one of the biggest cross-chain effects yet of a major newspaper deal. While McClatchy held on to 20 of the 32 former KR dailies, it sold off a handful to MediaNews Group, which in turn brought Hearst, Gannett and Stephens Media into the deal. Meanwhile, other buyers took over the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, Akron Beacon-Journal, and the remaining properties from South Dakota to Pennsylvania. It seemed everyone short of Charles Foster Kane and Donald Trump were in the mix. But don’t think this is the last of the big chain buyouts, with Tribune likely to make a move in 2007.

2. Dean Baquet and Jeff Johnson Exit/Tribune Problems: It seems like it was just a year ago that the hiring of Dean Baquet, the first black editor of the Los Angeles Times, was big news. That’s because it was just a year ago. But time moves fast in today’s ever-changing, ever-declining, newspaper world. When Baquet and former publisher Jeff Johnson stood up to Tribune Company calls for even further cutbacks, they received praise, accolades and platitudes. Unfortunately, Tribune honchos did not see the courage in their convictions, dumping both in a matter of weeks and bringing in two Chicago-based company men.

Meanwhile, the chain as a whole remained under a budget squeeze, with execs putting the entire group on the auction block, but finding few takers thus far. Much speculation buzzed around interest in buying the L.A. paper expressed by David Geffen, Ron Burkle and others.

1. The Web Comes of Age: Hands down, the online growth, both for and against newspapers, was the dominant story in 2006. The daily miracle became less daily and more, well, minute by minute. Not only did numerous papers, from USA Today to Chicago Tribune, either combine their print and Web newsrooms or establish a “24-hour news cycle,” but nearly every paper saw their online audience surpass their print readers.

Blogs exploded, with dozens sprouting at many papers’ sites. Podcasts became common. Amid Youtube mania, sites feverishly added more and more video.

The Pulitzer Prize Board again expanded its rules to allow more online entries, while the New York Times’ online “TimesSelect” service drew nearly 200,000 Web-only paid subscribers. More and more stories were broken first on the web, from that New York Times’ bank records probe to The Wall Street Journal’s scoop that Dean Baquet had been fired.

Add to that newspaper companies lining up with Google and Monster and Yahoo in recent months. The rapid rise of the Web report means newspaper budget wizards need to quickly nail down two things — how to make more money on the web and whether to charge readers.

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