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Obiturary of Journalism

This story, in a nutshell, tells all you need to know about the sad state of journalism.

A little more than a month ago, immediately upon the death of French composer Maurice Jarre, an Irish college student inserted a phony quote in the Jarre entry in Wikipedia. Shane Fitzgerald wanted to see if he could fool the vaunted open-source encyclopedia.

Wikipedia caught on pretty quickly, but the media fell for the hoax and swallowed it whole.

"One could say my life itself has been one long soundtrack. Music was my life, music brought me to life, and music is how I will be remembered long after I leave this life. When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head that only I can hear."

This fake quote appeared in a number of English-language publications worldwide. And until last Monday, when Fitzgerald came forward to reveal his "experiment," the quote was going down in history as fact.

Talk about putting words in a dead man's mouth.

The Guardian, so far, is the only paper that has acknowledged that it fell for the hoax. Others have quietly deleted the offending quote in their online archives. Wikipedia, on the other hand, caught the unsourced quote quickly and removed it twice - but not quick enough for the obit writers to pilfer it off the site.

That this outrage could happen is but an illustration of the sad state of the modern media. Its taste for instant dissemination is sometimes irreconcilable with the need for accuracy. Particularly in an age of severe newsroom cuts when skeletal crews are often overwhelmed by their workload, this shouldn't be surprising.

There was a time when obituaries were finely tuned, painstakingly researched work of art (not fiction). As such, I want to present you the best obit you've never read.

More than a decade ago, Ed Beitiks was tasked to write an obituary on Kurt Vonnegut, who was neither in ill health nor all that old at the time. But it was an old newspaper practice to have obits "in the can" just so the paper wouldn't be caught out when somebody really do drop dead on deadline.

The thing is, Vonnegut ended up outliving Ed, who was a prince of a man and a masterful storyteller. A Vietnam vet who fought brain cancer (from exposure to Agent Orange and war wounds) for the better part of a decade, Beitiks wrote the obit for the old San Francisco Examiner before he passed away in 2001. His Vonnegut obit never ran because ol' Ed hated the rival Chronicle, which would later merge with the Ex after being purchased by the Hearst Corporation. Ed never wanted his byline to appear in the Chron and his editors honored his wish.

Nevertheless, when Vonnegut died six years after Ed's own passing, his obit was resurrected by editor Allen Johnson (an Indiana native, a huge Vonnegut fan, Ed's friend and the best man at my wedding). It appeared in Chuck Nevius' blog in its entirety, but never ran in the Chronicle.

Ed didn't have the benefit of Wikipedia. He didn't need it.

Fired in the Press Box

Is there nothing sacred anymore?

I first found out about what happened to David Steele and two other Baltimore Sun staffers from an inning-by-inning blog in the Orange County Register (it came in during the eighth inning). I was flabbergasted: Getting laid off by phone. In the press box. In the middle of the game.

I've known David since our days as fellow sports columnists in the San Francisco Bay Area. He's a very good writer, well-versed in all sports but particularly the NBA, of which he was a beat writer for more than a decade. But he's also a great guy, someone who's most definitely paid his dues in this business and yet doesn't have an air of attitude. (Sportswriters can be such curmudgeons sometimes.)

David moved (back) to Baltimore in 2004 to get back to his roots, to be closer to his family. The Sun did its best to pry him away from the San Francisco Chronicle. And now, in less than five years, they couldn't even bother to say goodbye in person.

"I live 10 blocks away from the paper," David said to me the other day, with a chuckle. "But they had to FedEx me all the paperwork. I guess they really didn't want to see me."

He was ready and willing to tell his story. Not just for himself, but for all of his fellow journalists who were so unceremoniously dumped. It needs to be told and he's glad to do it (as he did today in an exclusive for RealClearSports):

And just like that, I was unattached, by phone, while on an assignment.

The next couple of hours were a flurry of shocked expressions and reactions, condolences, bitterness and dread, plus lots of phone calls to family members and friends whom, ironically, I didn't want to hear the news from someone else. Rick - who is roughly the age I was when the National sank - looked as if someone had drained all the blood from his body.

The overriding theme from all concerned: "They couldn't tell you to your face?''

Just why is that?

Last Tuesday, the day before David was laid off, the Sun fired 21 editors. They were immediately escorted them out of the building upon learning the news, by security goons. Marched out of the office. The perp walk. Most criminals were treated with more dignity.

What was management afraid of? That they would smash their desks, assault the bean counters with a pica pole or infect their computers with worms and viruses? Look at the Rocky Mountain News and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Didn't their staffs put out top-notch papers to announce their own demise? Did anybody blow up the building on the way out?

These are difficult economic times. People get that. They can accept the fact that they might be laid off. They just deserve a little more respect, that's all.

But all this is just a continuation of Jonestown-style suicides committed by newspapers. They're getting rid of the very people who could help their survival. If anything, they need to keep talented people who can produce the content that keep them afloat instead of booting them out to the curb. This makes as much sense as shooting the soldiers after their officer kept leading them to defeat in battle.

Dan Rodricks, a longtime Sun columnist who wasn't laid off during the two-day, 61-person purge, had this to say:

I thought by now The Sun and other newspapers would have figured out how to make money off the Internet, and that doesn't seem to be happening. We lost the classifieds; the recession has taken a wicked toll on retail advertising . . . so here we are, in bankruptcy with Tribune Co. The last round of cuts at The Sun were not buyouts--they were layoffs--and no one seems to know where we're going, if anywhere.

Say this about the newspaper business - it's not sunk because of its labor problems, unlike the automobile industry. Most journalists don't belong to unions and the few who do aren't paid all that well anyway. And unlike the workers at the UAW, they're not going to get a piece of the company in a restructuring deal.

They get a cardboard box to collect their belongings. Or just a phone call.

Boston Globe Averts Shutdown

At the end, the guild caved.

The Boston Globe's largest union reached a tentative agreement with management just after 3 a.m. today, the last of the paper's unions to sign off on concessions to the parent New York Times Co. The guild, which represents the newsroom, agreed to a substantial pay cut and unpaid furloughs, but more importantly, it finally allowed for modifications to the lifetime job guarantee provisions. The guild's previous insistence to keep the guarantee whole had caused the negotiations to reach an impasse.

Neither side released much details on the new agreement, which is still pending a vote by the union members. But the deal should be enough to lift the New York Times Co.'s threat to shut down the Globe. The company had set a May 1 deadline, extended it to May 3, before reaching agreements with all unions.

The NYT Co. won hard concessions, totaling $20 million, from the unions. But its problems at the Globe may not be over for a long while. The paper is expected to lose $85 million this year. And the threat of shutting down the Globe may have an adverse effect on the paper's circulation, which has dwindled steadily since the company bought it in 1993 for $1.1 billion.

Boston vs. New York (Continued)

If you thought last night's Red Sox-Yankees game took forever (because of a rain delay), you haven't kept up with the marathon negotiations between the unions of the Boston Globe and New York Times Co.

Talks broke off yesterday morning after management rejected the "last, best offer" from the guild. The company didn't follow through on a threat to file a plant closing notice with the state, as it's apparently confident that a deal will be reached. It has an agreement with every union except the guild, which represents the newsroom.

Negotiations are scheduled to resume at 5 p.m. today. The sticking point now is the guild's insistence to keep the "lifetime guarantee" intact. Management so far has not been willing to budge.

There may be some dissension growing out of the ranks as the Boston Herald disclosed that Dan Totten, the guild's lead negotiator, has seen his pay increase by 12 percent over the past three years. "I think it's unconscionable that union leadership is not suffering the same cuts that we are," said one guild member who has seen the filings and didn't want to be identified.

Meanwhile, the New York Times didn't stop negotiating in the Big Apple. Yesterday, the Times' own staff agreed to a 5% paycut, effective immediately. This deal saves the Times from trimming 80 jobs for now, but does not rule out future layoffs.

At least in this case, the New Yorkers proved to be more of a pushover than Bostonians. But the fact that the paper from its biggest rival city owns the Globe has been a sore spot in Beantown since the Times acquired it in 1993:

Boston residents have long resented the takeover of the Globe by a company based in New York, with which the region competes in sports, banking and cultural bragging rights. ...

"From the moment the Times Co. purchased The Globe in 1993, it has treated New England's largest newspaper like a cheap whore," former Globe columnist Eileen McNamara wrote last month in the Herald. "It pimped her out for profit during the booming 1990s and then pillaged her when times got tough. It closed her foreign bureaus and cheapened her coverage of everything from the fine arts to the hard sciences."

Yes, she said "cheap whore."

A Staredown of a "Lifetime"

The game of brinksmanship between the New York Times Co., and the Boston Globe's guild is coming to a head. At stake: The continued existence of New England's largest newspaper, first published in 1872.

With all other unions having agreed to concessions pending a formal vote by their members, the guild, which represents the newsroom employees, is holding out. While it has given the $10 million in concessions management demanded, it is unwilling to let go of a "lifetime guarantee" provision that affects over 500 former employees and 190 current ones.

The guild's latest offer was rejected last night, prompting its negotiators to leave the table as of this morning. More talks may resume tomorrow, but no resolution is likely unless the guild is willing to relent on this one issue.

That the guild is playing hardball, in the face of a threatened shutdown, is surprising. Elsewhere in the country, almost every union has quickly acquiesced to management demands given the fast unraveling of the newspaper business.

While the NYT Co. has backed off an earlier threat to file a plant closing notice, it's still not impossible for the paper to be shuttered. The Times paid $1.1 billion to acquire the Globe in 1993, and now it's expected to lose about $85 million this year at the paper. The circulation of the Globe has dwindled from 508,800 in 1993 to 382,500 today.

Dan Totten, president of the guild, said his union is negotiating in good faith. But the union's unwillingness to give in on the "lifetime guarantee" issue is not winning any friends or sympathies.

The idea of lifetime jobs seems hopelessly quaint in this era of Darwinian globalization, continuous technological disruption and profound economic uncertainty.

It also was born of arrogance on the part of publishers who thought their market supremacy would endure forever and arrogance on the part of unions who once wielded sufficient power to intimidate management into agreeing to this perfectly preposterous proposition.

Apart from federal judges and tinhorn dictators, no one has the luxury of a job for life. And no one should.

Across town at the Boston Herald, Howie Carr snickers:

Outside the employees themselves and a few limp bloggers, nobody cares about the Globe's demise. Let the epitaph be: Smug Is Not a Workable Business Plan. These pampered poodles assumed they had a monopoly. Nobody ever has a monopoly, at least not for long. ... One last thing to all my dear friends on the Boulevard.

We're not hiring.

Will the guild dare management to shut down the paper? Will the NYT Co. follow through with its threat? One thing we already know: Despite all of his liberal and union-friendly politics, Pinch Sulzberger is proving to be quite a capitalist when it comes to his own family business (as he should be).

Boston Globe Negotiations Ongoing

Boston Globe's unions and the paper's parent New York Times Co. continued negotiations well after the expiration of a second deadline imposed by the company.

The NYT Co. originally threatened to shut down the paper if no settlement with the paper's 13 unions were reached by May 1. It was extended to midnight Sunday. As of this morning, tentative deals with several unions have been struck while talks continue with the pressmen's union and the newspaper guild.

As a precautionary measure, however, the paper's management is prepared to file a plant closing notice with the state in case negotiations fall apart.

The sides agreed to "take a break" as of 6:45 a.m. EDT and it's unclear if the deadline has been extended and whether the negotiations will resume later today.

(UPDATE) As of 8 a.m., all unions except the guild have tentative agreements with management pending a vote by members. The pressmen union was the latest to announced its deal. The guild, which represents the newsroom, has stopped negotiations for today after its latest offer was rejected by management.

Boston Globe Lives ... for Two More Days

In the 11th hour, the Boston Globe gets a reprieve - for 48 hours.

Friday was supposed to be the deadline imposed by the parent New York Times Co. for a negotiated settlement to keep the Globe afloat. The company is threatening to shut down the Globe unless the paper's unions agree to concessions totaling $20 million.

Unlike other unions across the country that quickly folded under similar threats, the Globe's unions have negotiated contentiously. The guild, representing the newsroom employees, has been particularly steadfast since it's been asked to absorb half of the $20 million concession the company is seeking - while the other 12 unions are asked to carry the other half.

The deadline has been extended to Sunday at midnight as the sides haggle over an accounting error. Meanwhile, no buyer has emerged to take the paper out of New York Times Co.'s hands - the NYT paid $1.1 billion for the Globe in 1993 and now it's estimated to be worth just $20 million. John Henry, owner of the Boston Red Sox, has denied interest in buying the Globe.

The paper is covering its potential demise with good cheer, however, with daily updates and a special section on the web to keep the readers apprised of the negotiations. Most indications are that a settlement is within reach. But we won't know for sure until Monday morning.

Maybe.

For Newspapers, Good News and Bad News

More people are spending more time reading newspapers - but they're doing it online and without paying. That's the highlight of a rich survey result just released by USC's Annenberg School for Communication.

The annual survey, conducted by Annenberg School's Center for the Digital Future, offers a fascinating look at the changing habits of Internet users in America. It provides robust data on what people do online - whether they shop or pay bill - as well as how their children behave based on the availability of connectivity at home.

But of most interest to this space, as well as the researchers, is the glimpse of the future for the newspaper business. In short, there is a future, just not in print.

Jeffrey Cole, the director of the center, made a bold prediction:

"We're clearly now seeing a path to the end of the printed daily newspapers -- a trend that is escalating much faster than we had anticipated. The decline of newspapers is happening at a pace they never could have anticipated. Their cushion is gone, and only those papers that can move decisively to the Web will survive."

According to the survey, Internet users in 2008 spent 53 minutes per week reading online newspapers, a 28 percent increase over a year ago. Heavy users spent nearly two hours online reading papers' web sites each week. But as a result, 22 percent of the users said they stopped paying for a subscription because they could read the same content online for free.

There is one more piece of disconcerting news for newspapers and other media outlets. While people do flock to these web sites for information, they don't necessarily believe everything in it. According to the survey: Faith in news pages posted by established media (such as nytimes.com and cnn.com) decreased, and is now at the lowest level yet reported in the Digital Future studies that began in 2000.

For more on the survey, you can read the press release and the highlights. If you wish to get all of the 191-page report - be ready to drop 500 bucks - it's available here.