Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Beware What You Wish For

The Sun-Herald’s DeSoto County subscribers are in for a treat, characterized as “icing on the cake,” says Joe Gallimore, the local newspaper office’s general manager. (He’s the guy with the office thermostat key who, on the side, promotes boxing matches featuring young boys.) Gallimore dedicates his Friday column to the news that cow country folks will be getting a weekly Arcadian. The GM punctuates an amazingly strange column with numerous assurances that extensive surveys, polls, and a vast number of sidewalk requests show him that readers want the old Arcadian back.

Well, apparently, they’re going to get it.

What Gallimore glosses over is that the paper's six-day-a-week local section disappears. Well, actually, he does say this, but in an oblique way that requires dedicated reading to figure out, as well as the stamina to wade through 30 inches of meandering hype that borders on the bizarre.

Here’s the brief tour:

Lede : (posed as a question): "How do you react to seeing your favorite baseball team in back in the bottom of the ninth ....?" That graf goes on for three long, clause-laden sentences directed at “you,” which in this case would be me, and frankly, Joe, I don’t give a damn.

Second graf: Readers learn that the above produces the “ultimate high.”

Third graf: GM Joe adopts the intimate, personal voice: “I want to inform you about a change ....” False alarm. Readers will not be informed, yet. First, they have to read that his fantastic bosses “are going to continue our commitment ... but this is only a start!”

Next graf: The nice newspaper folks plan to “communicate back to the reader with the ability of reaching more and providing more of what this community has said it wants.” Readers are probably willing to overlook the dubious grammar that fails to say what GM Joe thinks he’s saying because linguistically challenged in one’s native tongue has never been a bar to writing for Sun-Herald newspapers. That tradition continues unchanged.

Next graf: “Everyone knows how hard the economy has been ....” Right, Joe.
Next graf: OWW paraphrase: Opening and running a business is hard work. This is true, Joe.
Next graf: “The Sun Newspaper Group did just that 25 years ago....” Got it, Joe.
Next graf: “...this family owned, community oriented paper has lasted!” That’s Joe’s exclamation mark there.

Next graf: “...our company will indeed make seven-day-a-week delivery service happen ... we will introduce both a DAILY and a WEEKLY news product.” Love the caps and the “news product” thing.

Next graf: GM Joe promises a new news product to deliver “news of extreme importance (breaking news) pertaining to DeSoto including obituaries.” Readers can be forgiven for emitting a giggle at this point, so long as they don’t become distracted from the task of finding out exactly what the news might be.

At this point, 22 inches into the thing, GM Joe’s opus jumps to page 10: DeSoto subscribers will get the Charlotte Sun plopped into their driveways. On Thursdays, they’ll get that icing on the cake, a local insert. Not only is that the icing, it’s “the combined punch,” he writes.

GM Joe uses another 10 inches or so to praise bosses who are like family, expound on photos readers can look forward to (there is no staff photographer covering DeSoto), and to promise that the town will be blanketed with fliers heralding the Oct. 1 event.

Actually, the fliers are probably unnecessary. The column ran last Friday. On Saturday, editor Susan Hoffman made a similar, if more literate, announcement. And then on Sunday, she undertook a follow-up that took up nearly half of the front of the local news section.

When Monday and Tuesday rolled around with no further developments in the three-day story, Old Word Wolf knew “the ultimate high” was headed into a downer.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Reilly: Quoting People He Didn't Interview

Steve Reilly’s report on a water-quality evaluation issued by a multi-state watchdog group ran today, Sept. 8. Without a time frame mentioned in the lede, however, the story startled 6 a.m.-readers awake when one of Reilly's sources says, “The report released today...”

Wow, that was fast! Well, maybe the water-quality report came out yesterday, and DeSoto readers don’t get news on Monday? Nope.

The story behind the day's big headline is that Reilly glossed over the little detail that Gulf Coast Restoration Network’s news hit the streets almost two weeks ago, on August 28.

Since then, Reilly has been busy interviewing sources, right? Well, not exactly.

The “today” reference comes from a state official who criticized the report in a prepared statement the day it was released -- "today" being August 28. Despite the reality that at least two other area newspapers and a radio station have already used the same quote, word for word, and acknowledged that the sources were quoted from prepared statements, Reilly chooses to quote the bureaucrat as if reporter and source had actually talked.

Reilly appears to do the same with at least two other people he quotes in the same story, representatives of state-wide and regional environmental groups: lots of words but no effort to tell readers that the "speakers" had issued prepared statements and weren't replying to Reilly's insightful questions.

This kind of reporting by omission does more for the writer’s ego than it does to help readers get a fair sense of what happened when and their ability to judge responses to the event. This writer deliberately creates the false impression that he made an effort to “dig,” as it used to be called. In fact, the writer took a week and a half to round up a lot of press releases that he stitched together in a way calculated to mislead.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

New Staff Writer Republishes His Old Stuff

Josh Salman, writing for the Times-Union back in January, led a story he wrote about solar power this way:
The Sunshine State is beginning to live up to its name, with an explosion of residents using solar-powered energy for both environmental and financial reasons.
Now a Charlotte Sun staff writer, Salman kicks off his Sunday story this morning on solar power the same way -- even recycling the "explosion of residents," despite having had nine months to reconsider:
The Sunshine State is beginning to live up to its name, with an explosion of residents using solar-powered energy for both environmental and financial reasons.
As a Times-Union reporter, Salman quoted a solar consulting firm:
... the new incentives are also expected to create an additional 22,000 solar-related jobs in Florida within 8 years, according to a study by Navigant Consulting Inc., a consulting firm specializing in the energy industry.
Charlotte Sun readers got essentially same data this morning, changing only a time frame that prompts the question of when, exactly, did this prediction take place.
State rebates and federal tax credits are expected to create more than 22,000 jobs in Florida within six years, according to Navigant Consulting, a firm specializing in the energy industry.
Salman’s newer solar energy story takes a breezy survey of officials, residents, and a saleswoman, culminating in these factoids:
The advantages of solar stretch beyond the wallet. Over its projected lifespan, a 5-kilowatt solar system will offset 298,106 pounds of carbon dioxide, 928 pounds of nitrogen oxide, 840 pounds of sulfur dioxide, and 57 pounds of particles that cause asthma. The savings are equivalent to taking one car off the road for 40 years, or planting nearly 3 acres of trees.
Readers, however, are left wondering: who said this? How was this equivalency calculated? These are extremely specific numbers. A fairly extensive Web search fails to locate a single one of them.

So: Welcome, Josh Salman. But stop recycling your old stuff. And start telling us where you get your data. If you are going to report something that’s not general knowledge, or numbers that require conversion, manipulation or interpretation, you are obligated to tell us who is giving you those numbers. It makes a difference if they come from a university laboratory or from a solar-panel salesman (or saleswoman). Just to show how obvious this problem is, the unsubstantiated/unattributed factoid that using a 5-kilowatt solar system over its lifetime is “equivalent of taking one car from the road for 40 years,” is meaningless unless we know whether the car is a 1969 Chevy Corvette or a 2009 Prius.
Actually, it's meaningless no matter what kind of car it is. All the more reason to know who is making this stuff up.