Thursday, September 28, 2006

Becoming an Ex

I still get e-mail asking me what I think of all the changes made to The Express (now the ex/press) and I normally demure. It's my old newspaper and while I don't care for the changes, I still have friends there and I didn't want to speak ill of their work.

However, I just found out that I have one less friend working there. Donnie Power, the paper's sports editor, is no longer there according to an e-mail I received.

I debated long and hard about whether or not to write the blog entry, weighing all the pros and cons. But it comes down to this - I'm pissed off. I'm pissed at the way a great reporter and good friend is being treated. I'm pissed at the way it appears a company is just destroying a struggling, but perfectly viable newspaper. It's a newspaper with a good history of investigative journalism and community involvement. Of telling stories that other people were missing. We used to be able to line the walls of a corridor with all the journalism and community awards the staff had won.

And now I feel like I'm watching a good friend (the paper, not Donnie) die. Slowly. Agonizingly.

So when I get like this it's either vent or spend the better part of the next month feeling like the top of my head is going to explode and driving Cathy insane.

Donnie has nearly two decades of journalism experience, most of it with The Express, and is considered one of the best reporters in the province. It's not just sports. He's a damn good reporter, with ability to get people to open up to him and tell him things they won't tell anyone else and then craft it into one hell of a story. He just happens to really love sports. He's also a top notch editor with some of the best eyes for grammar I've ever seen.

So yeah, letting him go and leaving the editorial "staff" at two, one of whom has only been at the paper for about a year, strikes me as odd.

I hate to say the "death watch" is on, but I'm not feeling all that confident in the long term survival prospects of the paper. I've yet to hear anything positive said about the redesign of the newspaper. Most people inform me that it is thin, cheap looking and with not much in the way of substantial content. Just to confirm this I went back and looked at the last couple of issues and I find it hard to disagree. It looks like a TV guide that's missing the listings. It's a shadow of what it used to be.

Admittedly, I don't know how much the paper is getting for the ads. Maybe they're doing ok. But if the paper has no respect in the community and they're just tossing it in the garbage upon receiving it (which I'm told is happening) then the advertisers aren't going to stick around forever. Businesses advertise in papers that are read. People read good newspapers with content they find interesting. And the current content in the ex/press is shaky at best.

It pains me to watch this. I have fond memories of my time with the paper. There were struggles, yes. And at the time I left, I was clearly ready to go. I had been getting antsy for something different for quite some time. But I liked the staff. They're good people working hard to put out the best product they could, challenged by a new company that didn't seem particularly interested so much on whether The Express continues, so much as they were in covering their ass with the Competition Bureau if/when the paper fails. One of the conditions of Transcontinental buying the Optipress papers was that they couldn't fold The Express and The Humber Log unless they became unviable. The Log became "unviable" earlier this year and was folded (In fairness, The Log had been struggling for more than a decade).

The "covering your ass" argument is not new. Craig Westcott made that point before a Senate Committee on media concentration last year. He argued (towards the bottom of the page) Transcontinental controlled too much of the Newfoundland newspaper market and didn't care about The Express, only about the rest of the community newspapers it acquired when it bought Optipress back in 2003. As The Express and the Humber Log competed with existing Transcontinental papers - The Telegram and The Western Star - he said they were slowly grinding those papers into the ground by strangling them of resources and demoralizing the staff. It's something Transcontinental denied and as you can imagine, didn't make Westcott many friends in the company. He left a year later.

I always thought Westcott was being a touch conspiracy minded when he made those points, but there are times I don't know. To this day I have no idea why you take the head of The Telegram's IT department and make him publisher of community newspapers (including The Express) in Newfoundland. I'm hardly the only one baffled by that move in local media circles.

My reluctance to say anything about The Express over the past few months, even though I was getting a queasy feeling, was twofold. First, I strongly suspect this post will get back to Steve and he's going to take it personally, which I feel bad about. He's a hell of a nice guy and if the paper is failing like I think it is, then I know he's doing everything he can to keep it going, despite the odds. I also suspect he's dying inside because he has sweated blood for this paper. Most editors are like that, to the detriment of having a real life if they're not careful.

And hell, I have the pragmatic, self-involved reason as well. You never know when I might need a reference one day, even though things are going well at work. Saying negative things about a former employer might be considered unwise in some circles (I believe in local journalism circles it's known as "Pulling a Westcott"). However, I suspect the next time I might need a reference, The Express probably won't be there. And I truthfully doubt I'll be working in Newfoundland anytime soon.

It's just sad that it's all come to this. The Express wasn't perfect when I was there. And I'm more than aware of my faults as a reporter when I was with the paper so I don't want to be casting too many stones.

Was my departure responsible for the dip? Good Christ no. Just fortunate timing on my part to get out before things went seriously weird. If I had stayed, would it have made a difference? Nope. I just would have been unhappy. Every time I looked at the paper online and started muttering something about it, Cathy responded, "Just be happy you got out when you did. Because you would be pretty miserable if you were still with the paper going through all this."

Maybe it's a blessing in disguise for Donnie as well. I can't imagine he was all that happy with the new format that curtailed the kind of sports coverage he excelled at. He did a story a few months ago on what kind of sneakers the cool kids were wearing these days. I dropped him a line to tease him about it. He sounded pretty disheartened when he responded, and I felt kind of bad about it afterwards.

I'm sure he'll land on his feet. Other media would be crazy to not make a real effort to snap him up. Not to mention the fact that he's one hell of a nice guy. I hope things work out for him.

I also hope The Express turns it around somehow, but the community rehabilitation needed will be extensive. It bounced back after The Sunday Express was gutted. It can happen again. All it takes is will, but that's something I'm not sure the fine folks at Transcontinental have at this point.


Joe said...

Hi Craig, Longtime reader, second time responder..

I am one of those who LOVED getting the Express on Wednesdays. I would read, in this order - Craig Wescott, you, and Paula Tessier (We have three boys as well and it is comforting to commiserate). I really enjoyed Donnie's stuff too, I got to meet him a few times. Staples flyer was always welcome as well - I am the computer geek.

However, since the format change I find my opinion drifting either to the Transcontinental slow death thing, or the paper was trying to re-invent itself into a teen/20 rag with overtones of the Current. More likely the former, but if the later.. nope, didn't make there, not even close.

I do not throw it in the garbage, Mount Pearl now has curbside paper and cardboard recycling. I hope the paper finds a more worthwhile life as an excercise book somewhere :)

colette said...

Shall I rant for you then seeing as how I don't need anything from the Express?

What a complete waste of paper (sorry Steve).

I always had a liking for Paula Tessier and I see that she's still writing a good column. There's some "meh" stuff but she is overall a good columnist.

I've generally enjoyed Geoff Meeker's column as well, gave up on Averill long ago, and also enjoyed Craig Westcott.

But for Christ's sake someone fire Kerri Cull and Kim Kielley immediately for the sake of the English language.

Case in point: column last week. Kerri dear, the word is palate, not pallet. For someone who writes about food and teaches English (dear God), that mistake is unforgivable. Please use a dictionary and proofread your stuff properly next time instead of relying on spellcheck, okay? (I read it once and thought it was a simple mistake that slipped by. Nope, there it was throughout the entire column.)

Neither one can write very well and there's a whiff of immaturity to all of their pieces (not just inexperience but immaturity). These days, the Express reads more like a high school newspaper's pathetic attempt to play with the grownups. I'm waiting for the 20-something Woodward and Bernstein wannabe to join the paper in a sad attempt to make it edgy.

Steve must think he's running a daycare these days. My condolences Steve, you ran a good paper and I have no doubt but you're hamstrung by the Powers That Be.

By way of contrast, I give you the Express's sister paper, the Georgian, which is overall a well-written community newspaper. The columnists could use a shaking up, though.

Ed Hollett said...

Wearing my reader hat, I have to say i have had a n on-again/on-again affair with the Express.

At times it has produced stuff that was basically bird-cage liner, but on balance - that is, more often than not - it filled an obvious niche and did it well.

Even if the stories weren't always my cup of tea, you could tell there was some ffort and ability involved. Let's just say it was a long way from the Daily News in its final years.

Overall, though, it is not hard to udnerstand that newspaper readship is in general decline everywhere. It is harder and harder to attract eyeballs, especially for smaller papers. Eyeballs drive sales and if one drops the other goes with it.

Not everyone has the desire to keep bleeding every week in order to have a vehicle for their own personal political agenda or because philosophically they believe in competition and local ownership or what have you.

There might be a strategy to the erosion of the Express. There might not be.

I imagine Donnie will get picked up by someone else pretty soon. Heck, the Telly newsroom could easily snap him up. If they don't, I wouldn't be surprised to hear more of him on radio and TV.

Greg said...

Hey Craig,

I stumbled upon your Express blog while doing a search for old Humber Log items still online. I now have a new website added to my favourites!

I'm in Timmins, Ont. now working as the city editor for The Daily Press...yep still hanging in this crazy business.

Hope all is well with you up North!

Greg Davis