Missing the Point, Some Boxes, Some Punctuation and a Letter
Guttman’s nut: In print journalism, the term “nut graf” refers to the paragraph in a story, usually somewhere near the beginning, that tells readers why they should read the article. It explains how the information being conveyed is important or interesting or unusual enough to merit the average person’s attention. At least, that’s the way it’s always been explained to me. But maybe the term has a different meaning for Jeannine Guttman, editor of the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram. In a column published in the July 6 Telegram, she sets out to explain how the recent layoffs at the papers will alter news coverage. Predictably, she claims the loss of 12 newsroom staffers and the closing of four bureaus, while difficult, can be dealt with in a positive manner. Each remaining reporter will be part of one of four vaguely defined teams – “Watchdog, Public Safety, Money & Resources and How We Live” – while also being assigned a municipality in southern Maine to cover. “We think this blueprint will help mute some of the impact,” she wrote, “and set us on a path for future growth in terms of circulation and Web audience.” Even Guttman seemed to realize how ridiculous that statement appears, because she follows it up by admitting “hardened critics” might think that fewer reporters covering the same ground, but producing an improving product sounds “like a fantasy.” Fanciful? No. Impossible would be more accurate. In any case, near the end of her personal fantasy, Guttman claims she’s finally gotten to her point: “The nut graf of this column: This newspaper is sailing through a pretty wicked storm right now. It has cost us some dear colleagues. No one knows when this unprecedented turbulence will end.” That’s the nut graf? That’s last week’s news. Last month’s news. Last year’s news. What readers want to know is how the news-gathering operation will be different in the future. What they were told, in essence is that it wouldn’t be different. They know that’s not true. I wonder if Guttman does.
Boxed out: In a move that seems counterintuitive for a publication seeking to increase readership, the Press Herald is pulling a bunch of its coin-operated boxes off the streets. Late last week, several boxes in downtown Portland were empty except for a notice advising potential patrons to try their neighbor stores if they wanted papers. A call to the circulation department confirmed the boxes with such notices are slated for removal.
A tangled Web: I’m still not convinced the Press Herald is telling us the whole truth about why its Web site was offline for a week. Initially, the company claimed it had shut the site down for maintenance. After several days of attempting to perpetuate this fiction, the paper admitted its site – and those of its sister papers, the Kennebec Journal and the Morning Sentinel – had been hacked, but didn’t explain why it had lied about the cause in the first place. The persistent rumor in online circles is that the hacking was an inside job, which might explain why it’s been so difficult to both fix and admit. Until midday on July 7, the site still wasn’t right. Photos didn’t always open. Headlines were full of weird punctuation. And human errors were slow to be corrected. On July 2, the lead story on the Press Herald’s site carried the headline, “A contribution to evolution.” Clicking on the link produced no mention of anybody from Maine helping out Charles Darwin, let alone debunking intelligent design or creationism. Instead, it opened a story about Maine’s role in America’s war for independence. It was at least three days before somebody changed that last word in the headline to “revolution.”
Web on vacation: All that talk about the Web revolutionizing (or is it evolutionizing?) the delivery of news doesn’t seem to have reached the Biddeford Journal Tribune. The paper didn’t bother to put its Saturday, July 5 paper online, instead telling visitors to its Web site that, “Due to the holiday weekend, the Journal Tribune Online will be updated July 7.” By 1:30 in the afternoon on Monday, July 7, it still hadn’t been.
Reckless disregard: You might think a newspaper that’s just had a reporter seriously injured while engaging it a little participatory journalism would be reluctant to allow any further exploits of that nature, at least for a while. When it comes to the Lewiston Sun Journal, you’d be wrong. Only two weeks after staff writer Rebekah Metzler broke a bone in her back trying out a ride called the Zorb at Lost Valley ski area, regional editor Scott Thistle was at Wildcat Mountain in Jackson, N.H., to risk life and limb on the ZipRider for a Sunday feature.
For 45 seconds, Thistle said he flew through the air “up to 70 feet about (sic) the ground at up to 45 miles an hour.” He noted that operators have “your safety in mind,” but that doesn’t explain the apparent damage done to his editing skills.
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.