Archive for the ‘Boise’ Category

How to produce great journalism, and win prizes

April 18, 2008

This year’s big kahuna of journalism awards, the Pulitzers, is now history — creating a good opportunity to consider the role of prizes in running a first-rate newspaper or TV station.

First, about the Pulitzers: Gannett employs a combined 5,000 newsroom staffers at its 85 daily papers, give or take a few — probably more than any other company. (A possible exception: Tribune. Its Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun and other titles might beat Gannett in total employment.) This year, the closest Gannett came to winning a Pulitzer was the Idaho Statesman‘s breaking news finalist showing — and GCI sold the Statesman two years ago.

Here’s the popular theory why Gannett was shut out of the Pulitzers and many other major awards this year: long-standing institutional bias against the company. (I mostly don’t buy that.) Another popular explanation: Gannett’s newsrooms are too small to produce the jaw-dropping investigations that win big prizes. There’s some truth to that, although the Statesman offers a compelling example of why that’s not necessarily the case.

The Boise paper employed about 65 folks in its newsroom when I worked there in 1991-96; I suspect employment under McClatchy hasn’t changed much. But my experience, working for one of the best editors I’ve known, shows that a small number of staffers, managed well, can produce very good work. The editor, John Costa, had come to the Statesman from Florida’s St. Petersburg Times. Costa was an outsider; he had not worked his way up through Gannett, so his hiring was a little unusual.

Costa was an old-fashioned First Amendment journalist. Over and over, he preached the importance of using freedom of information laws to hold powerful people accountable. Once, for example, when I was reporting on a state prison story, I found myself in a federal courtroom, hearing a judge about to seal an important court document from public view. During a hearing break, I called Costa and asked what to do. He told me to return to the courtroom, and ask the judge to reconsider. When the hearing resumed, I stood up at the back of the very big courtroom, and called out to the judge — startling the assembled attorneys. (In response, the judge offered a compromise.)

Costa’s approach to producing great journalism was simple: Take the best stories, assign them to the newsroom’s most talented people — then get out of the way, and let them do their jobs. He believed readers would remember big, impactful stories long after they’d forgotten the routine stuff we produce daily, just to fill tomorrow’s paper. If a reporter was working on a project, and Costa saw her name attached to a daily on that morning’s budget, he’d demand to know why. He insisted that watchdog journalism be a fixture in story planning meetings. (When’s the last time your editor mentioned the First Amendment to you?)

Newspapers aiming for Pulitzers almost always lose; it’s the law of averages. But as Cincinnati blogger Newsache says: “Prizes matter because you can’t be good if you’re not trying to be great. If you’re great, you’ll win prizes. If you’re trying to be great, you’ll get lucky and bag a few. If you’re not winning any, it’s a pretty good sign you’re not trying to.”

Your thoughts, in the comments section, below. Use this link to e-mail feedback, tips, snarky letters, etc. See Tipsters Anonymous Policy in the green sidebar, upper right.

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St. George reflects Mormon reporting dilemma

April 17, 2008

[Fundamental: A polygamist community member in southern Texas]

One of Gannett’s smaller papers, The Spectrum in St. George, Utah, is near the epicenter of the growing scandal over 416 children seized from a polygamist sect in southern Texas. With 68,000 residents, St. George is home to one such fundamentalist community: Last September, polygamous-sect leader Warren Jeffs was found guilty there of being an accomplice to rape for performing a marriage between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin.

But my quick search this morning of the Spectrum‘s website for the term “polygamy” didn’t turn up any staff-produced stuff. I found an Associated Press story about a court hearing today in the case in Eldorado, Texas. And, oddly, the search also turned up an advertisement for St. Georges’ Seven Wives Inn! (I often have trouble searching Gannett sites, using their built-in search tools; anyone know why?)

A Gannett paper since 2000, Spectrum‘s circulation is 22,755 daily, 24,151 on Sunday. Writing about Mormons is dicey business, because of the understandable desire to respect readers’ religious choices. That was the case at the Idaho Statesman in Boise, where I worked in 1991-96; Idaho has one of the nation’s biggest Mormon populations.

The Statesman didn’t only publish fluff, however: I co-wrote a series about a prominent Mormon doctor in eastern Idaho, caught molesting scores of female patients. It had been going on for decades. Our investigation found that his Mormon community’s wary-of-outsiders culture prevented victims from winning justice until long after they’d begun reporting his misdeeds. (I wish I could link to that series, but it’s in the abyss known as PIE — or Pre-Internet Era.)

Your thoughts, in the comments section, below. Use this link to e-mail feedback, tips, snarky letters, etc. See Tipsters Anonymous Policy in the green sidebar, upper right.

Overby politics make strange (prison) bedfellows

April 14, 2008

Former Gannett executive Charles Overby is a man of puzzling contradictions. As the high-profile chairman and CEO of the billion-dollar Freedom Forum in Washington, D.C., Overby says on the non-profit foundation’s website that the First Amendment keeps Americans free: “It guarantees free speech, free press, religious freedom and the rights of assembly and petition. But it is under frequent attack and needs help.”

Yet, as a moonlighting director of a for-profit prison operator, public documents show, Overby has contributed $25,000 to the company’s political action committee — a PAC I suspect is fighting congressional legislation that would strengthen the Freedom of Information Act. Sound strange? Stick with me; I don’t think any of this has been widely disclosed before now.

The prison company is Corrections Corporation of America, based in Nashville, Tenn. The legislation is the Private Prison Information Act of 2007, filed in the House and the Senate; Connecticut Independent Joe Lieberman is the Senate’s sponsor. The bill would force Corrections Corp. and other private prison operators to make the same information available to the public that federal government-run prisons are required to do under the Freedom of Information Act.

Overby’s $25,000 in contributions in 2003-07 are barely a rounding error in Corrections Corp.’s lobbying operation. Last year alone, the 25-year-old government contractor spent nearly $2.5 million to cozy up to federal lawmakers and agencies, public documents show.

Foundations are public trusts for the common good; we expect their leaders to be squeaky clean when it comes to appearances. Why is Overby working at a for-profit prison operator with a vested interest in a restrained Freedom of Information Act? I wanted to chat with him about that, and other related questions. But the foundation has not responded to any of my messages for more than a week now. (Overby and other officials have been busy celebrating the foundation’s Friday opening of its new $450-million Newseum in Washington.) Corrections Corp. also didn’t respond to my messages.

Overby and the company may, indeed, support the Private Prison Information Act, although few businesses favor regulations forcing them to open operations to public inspection; CCA’s lobbying disclosure reports don’t say what position the company has taken. It’s also possible Overby hasn’t followed the company’s PAC activities during the six years he’s been a director. That seems unlikely, given his political pedigree. Overby, 61, is a former aide to the late Sen. John Stennis, D-Miss., chairman of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, and to former Gov. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., now in the U.S. Senate. Plus, two of Overby’s fellow Freedom Forum trustees are retired Senate majority leaders Howard Baker of Tennessee and Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

Why jailhouse documents matter
I used them in 1998 at The Courier-Journal to show that nearly 90% of 350 county jail guards in Louisville, Ky., had been disciplined for violating rules — including beating inmates. In Boise at the Idaho Statesman, I reported in 1996 that a convicted killer sent to state prison was instead wandering around, largely unguarded, in a small northern Idaho town. The result: He and dozens of other felons were returned to the state pen.

Access to such public documents is threatened by the growth of companies, including Corrections Corp., that want to privatize more federal, state and local prisons — further walling off operations from public view. When he offered his bill, Lieberman said: “This legislation is intended to break down the wall of secrecy surrounding private prisons so that they can be held accountable to the public.”

Last year, public documents show, Corrections Corp. lobbied on privatization of Bureau of Indian Affairs prisons and on the Public Safety Act, which would outlaw private prisons, as well as the Private Prison Information Act.

Overby has been Freedom Forum’s top executive since 1989. At Gannett, he was editor of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., and Corporate’s vice president for news and communications. He also served on the management committees of Gannett and USA Today. He’s been a Corrections Corp. board member since December 2001, a seat that doesn’t appear in his online Freedom Forum bio.

Assets were once controlled by Gannett
Corrections Corp. paid Overby $165,000 in director’s fees and stock awards in 2006, the most recent regulatory filings show. That was on top of the $443,705 in salary and benefits Freedom Forum paid him as chairman and CEO that year, plus an $83,248 expense account, the foundation’s most recent public tax return shows.

Freedom Forum has around $1 billion in assets, giving it the power to spend millions annually on its three priorities: the Newseum, advancing the First Amendment, and promoting newsroom diversity. Gannett originally controlled those assets, when they were held by the company’s original Gannett Foundation charitable arm. Several Freedom Forum trustees and well-paid top managers are former senior GCI executives. Many of us who devoted decades to Gannett maintain a proprietary interest in how Freedom Forum spends that money.

There’s reason to wonder. The foundation has a well-documented history of questionable spending. The Newseum cost nearly twice to build as originally forecast. And Overby isn’t the only one pulling down six-figure paychecks. Freedom Forum Founder Al Neuharth, 84, got paid $225,000 in 2006, plus enjoyed a $200,545 expense account. Foundation officials have not explained what Neuharth did for that money — 10 days after I first asked for details.

Your thoughts, in the comments section, below. Use this link to e-mail feedback, tips, snarky letters, etc. See Tipsters Anonymous Policy in the green sidebar, upper right.

Seriously: Thank you, Gannett Foundation

April 10, 2008

The Idaho Statesman‘s near win of a Pulitzer Prize this week recalls a story about being a gay journalist in Idaho — and a surprising discovery in Gannett’s charitable foundation.

For most of 1992, I kept a huge and painful secret from my colleagues at the Statesman, where I worked as an editor from 1991 to 1996. My domestic partner, Danny Bryant, had moved to Boise with me. But we hid his presence from all but a few because he had AIDS, and in politically conservative Idaho, we feared the worst in people’s reactions. (I was fortunate to remain HIV-negative.)

Danny (left) was 37 when he died on Oct. 12, 1992 — barely 10 months after he had arrived. But it would be another year before I told our story: of taking care of him during the last months, how lonely that was. The Statesman published it one Sunday, in a piece that took up most of three pages. Over the next week, I received nearly 150 letters, cards and phone calls. A Boise State University graduate student adapted the story for a two-act play, which was produced and which I watched. (The actor playing me was pretty good!) A woman called me at my desk, began speaking — then suddenly burst into tears. Her son had died of AIDS, and she had no one to talk to. The Associated Press moved the entire story across the Rocky Mountain wire.

And yet, I was lucky. The National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association had launched two years before Danny died. In pre-Internet Idaho, NLGJA and its annual conventions were a personal and professional lifeline for me. My friend David Tuller reminded me of this when I told him recently that the Gannett Foundation had given money to NLGJA. David is a founder of the group. I asked him to guess how much the foundation gave in 2001-06, based on its public tax returns.

“$1,000,” he said.

“Try $107,000,” I replied.

We were both surprised, and perhaps you are, too. But beyond the obvious (that’s a lot of money!) it’s all the more interesting because it shows foundation officials may have been working at cross purposes with top management on a sensitive issue at the time.

NLGJA’s big cause in newsrooms was winning domestic partner benefits. Gannett was one of the last major media outfits to offer the benefit, starting in January 2002. Privately, some gay employees blamed the delay on a member of the board of directors, suspected of finding the benefit immoral. (In fact, if that person existed, I think it could have been a particular senior executive who left the company in 2003 or 2004.)

I don’t know whether foundation officials were consciously supporting a group they knew was lobbying for a benefit a top executive opposed. Maybe it was all a fluke. But that financial support benefited a group that helped me once, so I’m grateful to the foundation for its past and any future support.

Plenty of you will disagree with me on the foundation’s NLGJA support. Hold your thoughts, though, until I’ve posted on the upcoming Unity: Journalists of Color convention this July — and the six-figure Gannett Foundation support it got in the past.

Can’t wait? Your thoughts, in the comments section, below. Use this link to e-mail feedback, tips, snarky letters, etc. See Tipsters Anonymous Policy in the green sidebar, upper right.

And the Pulitzer Prize (nearly) goes to . . .

April 7, 2008

. . . Dan Popkey and the rest of the Idaho Statesman staff. The former Gannett paper just learned it was among three Pulitzer finalists in breaking news. Whoo-hoo! Go, Dan! The judges cited the Statesman for “tenacious coverage of the twists and turns in the scandal involving the state’s senator, Larry Craig.” (The prize went to The Washington Post, for the Virginia Tech shooting.)

[Image: the main Craig story, Aug. 28, 2007]

Publishers: Booking Spitzer’s no-tell hotel?

March 11, 2008

Faster than you can say Gov. Eliot Spitzer is toast, rooms at the elegant Mayflower Hotel in Washington are filling up for next month, when the Newspaper Association of America holds its annual meeting. I have no idea whether the now-infamous Room 871 (not necessarily shown above!) is still available.

But! The hotel is showing availability for an executive suite bedroom (definitely shown above!) with a private terrace, “overlooking one of the most fashionable avenues in Washington, D.C.” Yours, for only $569 a night!

A story idea: Do you have infamous hotel rooms in your city? (I once wrote about a sex scandal in Boise that ended decades later with a man’s suicide at a roadside hotel.) Use this link to e-mail feedback and tips; see Tipsters Anonymous Policy in the sidebar, upper right. Or leave a note in the comments section, below.

Why I chased Peter Lynch out of that hotel

March 5, 2008
[Target rich: the Great White One]

You know him: Peter Lynch, the Fidelity mutual fund guy who’s got “legendary” bolted to his name. (And now he’s suddenly in trouble.) Lynch taught me a lot about failing CEOs, snoozing boards — and the value in asking pointed questions.

We had our hotel run-in 13 years ago, when I was an investigative reporter at The Idaho Statesman (hi, Dan!), trying to find out why Lynch and his fellow directors hadn’t been doing their job watching over the old Morrison Knudsen Co. MK was a storied engineering and construction outfit that had employed generations of Idahoans. It led construction of the Hoover Dam. It was one of Boise’s marquee employers, with a sterling reputation.

That is, until Bill and Mary Cunningham Agee slid into the CEO’s suite, presiding over a compliant board of directors that included Lynch. Yes: those Agees. Of hankypanky-in-the-1980s-Bendix-corporate suite fame. By 1995 in Boise, unhappy MK employees accused the two of acting like a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde, looting the company for personal gain.

Lynch’s fellow boldface-name directors included Peter Ueberroth, the Los Angeles Olympics impresario, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor. Too late, directors caught on to Agee’s incompetence, and moved to fire him during an emergency board meeting.

I flew to San Francisco for the directors’ showdown with Agee at the swank Campton Place hotel, staking out the second-floor meeting. The Wall Street Journal was there — and, somewhere nearby, that fabulous Diana B. Henriques of The New York Times. (She might have been wearing pearls!)

Lynch left the board room, then found himself trapped inside a small elevator with me, the Journal reporter — and one suddenly wide-eyed hotel guest. During the one-floor trip down, the Journal reporter and I peppered Lynch, demanding to know why he and other directors had been asleep at the switch.

I left the Journal reporter behind when Lynch bolted out the elevator door, sprinting across the lobby toward a purring black Town Car, with tinted windows, curbside. I yelled after him: “Are you going to resign?”

He stopped in his tracks, turned around quickly, and shouted back: “What kind of question is that?” Then he rushed into his limo, without giving me my answer.

So, with that as background: Hi, Gannett board of directors!

Postscript: Last I read, the Agees were leading a cosseted life in Northern California’s wine country. Nice work — if you can get it.

[Image: this morning’s Idaho Statesman, Newseum. The Statesman is now owned by McClatchy, after passing through Knight Ridder on its way out of Gannett in 2005.]

What I think about the Newspaper Guild & Co.

February 27, 2008

I’ve never belonged to the guild, or to any other organized labor group. There were no unions in the newsrooms at The Pine Bluff Commercial, The Arkansas Gazette, The Idaho Statesman, The Courier-Journal or at USA Today — newspapers where I spent my first news career.

But there was a Newspaper Guild chapter at Rhode Island’s biggest daily, The Providence Journal, where my mother worked from 1960 to 1982 as an editor and reporter. I briefly walked a picket line when the guild led the newsroom in an early 1970s strike. I know this mostly because of a photo of me (left), walking the line when I was 15, with absurdly long hair, red suspenders, and looking skinny as a rail.

I don’t know why I was there except that my mother was active in the guild at least during that strike, and wanted to take my picture. I don’t recall the strike ending well for anyone, which gets to the point of this post.

I haven’t seen much recent progress by any labor group working on behalf of Gannett employees. Maybe labor has just gotten that bad, or Gannett has just gotten that good at driving them away. Whatever the cause, it seems clear that traditional employee organizing worked better when the newspaper industry moved slowly.

But that’s over. Technology and speed now rule. That’s why I cranked up Gannett Blog, after leaving USA Today last month. Blogging is another way to organize workers to meet safely, while informing each other as Gannett braces for a restructuring. My role is to be the host, encouraging a lively conversation. (Think of Perle Mesta — with a mustache. Well, maybe not!)

I wish there were more blogs about individual Gannett newspapers. We could link together into a very powerful network. But I understand that many of you are afraid, or simply too tired at the end of an ever-lengthening workday. But I keep hoping.

Use this link to e-mail feedback, tips, snarky letters, etc. See Tipsters Anonymous Policy in the sidebar, upper right. Or leave a note in the comments section, below.

[Image: my original USA Today employee ID badge and press card. It was made on my first day at work: May 1, 2000.]

I don’t mean to beat up managers too much

February 23, 2008

A reader says he wishes I didn’t take what appears to be so much glee in going after management. And I understand his point. After all, I was in management for a full eight years, ultimately rising to become the No. 3 editor at The Idaho Statesman, when that paper was owned by Gannett. And I was a part-time technology news editor at USA Today for most of the nearly eight years I worked there.

But my Statesman experience convinced me I didn’t have a future in management. I didn’t have the heart to ask reporters to take on more work than was reasonable, just because the publisher wouldn’t provide enough bodies. I worried reporters were working hours for which they didn’t get paid — now the subject of allegations Gannett is examining at the Courier-Post in Cherry Hill, N.J.

So, indeed, I am sympathetic to frontline editors in management: metro, business, features, sports, copy editors (hi, Joyce!) and others. But my advocacy will always be for the folks at the very bottom of the corporate food chain: the hourly employees who do the super-heavy lifting, and who have the least power. After all, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable is what it’s all about, right?

[Image: Friday’s USA Today, Newseum]

My close encounter with Sue Clark-Johnson

January 14, 2008

One summer in the mid-1990s — I think it was 1995 — The Idaho Statesman was girding for Corporate’s impending arrival on one of those on-site strafing missions. The CEO and other top brass would take the corporate jet to a group of Gannett papers for what seemed to be one of just two flavors of meetings: You were great, or you were shit. (Someone said those on-sites don’t happen anymore. True?) At the time, John Curley was CEO, and Sue Clark-Johnson I believe was regional publisher for a portfolio of Western state papers.

Then and it appears now, Gannett was divided into a series of corporate duchies with seats at places like Reno and now Phoenix, where publishers were given groups of newspapers and other publishers to manage. (In Boise, there were often worried mutterings about what “Sue’s” latest missive to the publisher might have meant.)

I was the paper’s investigative reporter. Our publisher’s minute-by-minute, 24-hour script landed me at a steakhouse cocktail hour one night and then a 7:30 a.m. hotel breakfast the next day, where Clark-Johnson stood up, proclaimed “we have had good meetings,” and you could feel the pressure in the room ease. She then turned to Gary Watson, president of the Newspaper Division, to answer any questions.

I raised my hand. Question: Was it wise to have so much of the company’s revenue coming from newspapers, rather than other non-paper or digital businesses? This was 1995, when Netscape would go public, igniting the Internet revolution now threatening newspapers. At the time, I was struggling to get Gannett to greenlight The Statesman‘s first website, and hoped Watson would offer encouragement. I recall that he kind of sneered when he replied that, no, the company’s future was newspapers. And that was that.

A postscript: Watson retired in September 2005, when Clark-Johnson took his job.

Use this link to e-mail feedback, tips, snarky letters, etc. See Tipsters Anonymous Policy in the sidebar, upper right. Or leave a note in the comments section, below.

[Image: Sunday’s Statesman. Gannett sold the paper in 2005; it’s now part of McClatchy. The paper reports “the deadly work that more than 100 Idaho citizen-soldiers of the 321st Engineer Battalion, an all-Army Reserve battalion in Boise, did for a year while hunting roadside bombs, the biggest killer of U.S. soldiers in Iraq.”]