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Watching the Olean Times Herald

I spent nearly 22 years working at the Olean Times Herald, the local daily newspaper. I grew up reading the newspaper and always wanted to be its editor. As the saying goes, be careful what you ask for. I ended up working for people who considered stories to be something to fill pages with after the ads were in place. The newspaper no longer was a vital thread in the fabric of the community. It was, in management's words, a "product." For me, it was an intolerable situation.

After four years as editor, I was blessed with the opportunity to teach journalism and composition courses full time on the university level, and I've never looked back.

I still read the paper with an editor's eye, though, and I frequently shake my head in disbelief. I fault the paper's management for these head-shakers. The reporters for the most part are young and green. They need guidance. They tell me they don't get it. The only guidance they get is a mandate to write two by-lined stories a day. That's how you run an assembly line; it's not how you run a newsroom. The result has been pages filled with press releases published verbatim and shallow stories that reporters can grind out quickly. Management seemingly is unaware of how many people see this for what it is. I know, because when I run into people I haven't seen for a while, many of them ask, "What's going on at the Times Herald?"

As a journalism professor, I think this blog should offer journalism criticism, and it occasionally has. But I'm a believer in the power of small-town media, so with that in mind, this blog is going to start watching the OTH with a critical eye.

Lately, I've been sending "attaboy" and "attagirl" emails to individual reporters when they've written a good story. I'm under the impression that they receive no such encouragement, so I'll continue to provide it. Posts on this blog will be limited to the many WTF? items appearing in the paper.

So, with that in mind:

Saturday's top story on page 1 dealt with a warning from state environmental officials about the giant hogweed. The story started:

It's a large, distinctive plant species capable of reproducing rapidly and causing severe burns, permanent scarring and even blindness.

Burns? Scarring? Blindness? Serious stuff. I immediately looked for a photo of this weed so I could recognize it and avoid it, but there wasn't a photo on page 1. But page 1 was crowded with photos, so I expected one to accompany what's called the "jump"—the part of the story that appears on a later page when only part of the story runs on a previous page.

There were no photos on page 2—including none of the giant hogweed. This must be because photographs of things like that are simply unavailable on the web.

As if.

Oh, and by the way: This is what the giant hogweed looks like. It took 10 seconds to find it with a Google search:

(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 4th, 2014 01:44 am (UTC)
Aug. 4th, 2014 04:49 am (UTC)
One of my duties as assistant to the owner of an online newspaper is to handle the press releases we get from various agencies. I save them to my computer, copy and paste them verbatim to a WordPress post form, add a snappy photo from a royalty-free site, and publish them to our newspaper.

Even a brief scan of the releases makes me cringe. I publish them verbatim because (a) it's not my job to fix the mistakes of police department employees who are getting paid a great deal more than I am (b) I don't have unlimited time and (c) if I start fixing their errors, it is no longer a press release; it's my cleaned-up version.

And as soon as I publish it, readers notice. "Hey! It says the victim's identity, but in the second paragraph it identifies him as Robinson!" "Hey! In the first paragraph it says his name is Matthew but in the second paragraph it says his name is Michael!"

This happens multiple times every day. I'm getting to where I just expect it and ignore it.
Aug. 4th, 2014 04:43 pm (UTC)
My problem with using press releases verbatim is that more likely than not, they're filled with "gush"—copy that serves the agency sending the press release. "The festival will feature fun-filled activities that the whole family will enjoy." Well, maybe the activities will suck and everyone will hate them.

Press releases from politicians are the worst with their self-serving crap. Unless someone pushes back on their claims, the stories are nothing but free ads, especially during the campaign season.

I don't know what your online newspaper's editorial policies are, but for me, it's simple: "Question everything." Providing the details of a festival—when, where, etc.—is fine for a newspaper. And it's fine to provide details (sans editorial comment) on features of the festival: The Pulaski Club will serve sausage sandwiches, and the amusements include a ferris wheel, merry-go-round and a tilt-a-whirl. But I draw the line at gush.

Each newspaper, of course, is different, and what I think is right isn't necessarily what your publisher thinks is right. But as I tell my students, "The person who is right on any given occasion is the person recording your grades or the person signing your paycheck."
Aug. 4th, 2014 04:55 pm (UTC)
That kind of thing comes under "Community Announcements" which the owner/publisher handles - her email address is well-known here and she's a public figure, so she gets all of that, for which I am grateful.

I have the task also of linking everything to the Facebook page for our newspaper, so I have to come up with an arresting headline to get people's attention (so hard to draw the eye from Candy Crush and memes). It's difficult to toe the line between diverting and sarcastic. "What's on your schedule for Saturday? Nothing, as usual? Then come on down to the park and be bored while paying through the nose for a burger - but it's going toward a good cause!" Nope, can't say that, though it would be truthful.
Aug. 4th, 2014 10:24 pm (UTC)
I take great relish in taking a chainsaw to press releases. There's nothing better than publishing a 250-word version of a release that was sent as a three-page monster.

Edited at 2014-08-04 10:25 pm (UTC)
Aug. 5th, 2014 01:16 am (UTC)
Sometimes, I think we spend more time editing press releases than the person took to write them in the first place.
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 5th, 2014 04:13 am (UTC)
Rich, from the bylines of yours that I've seen, you're doing good work. I especially liked the story from the fair about the country singer. I could tell it was a story you enjoyed reporting and writing. Your depot fire story and follow-up were both solid. I think potential future employers will be impressed when you show them your portfolio and tell them that almost everything in it was because of your initiative—that you weren't getting a whole lot of guidance from 639 Norton Drive.

Aug. 6th, 2014 12:16 pm (UTC)
Oh, I feel every inch of this post. My company was recently acquired and our new owners expect each editor (because I'm the only paper fortunate enough to have a staff reporter; the rest operate solely on stringers) to write 8-10 bylined stories a week. On top of editing those pesky press releases and the stories our stringers send in. On top of managing our social media. On top of producing video (which we don't have the ability to publish yet. But that's a rant for another day). On top of, I don't know, producing a quality paper. You're absolutely right: It's an assembly line.

You'll love this one: recently, my paper got torn apart in an editors' roundtable because the new owners want solely "happy news" in the paper, and I ran a hit and run and the superintendent investigation front page, above the fold (oops?). "We're not investigative reporters," our publisher told me, when I told him we couldn't ignore things like superintendent scandals, hit and runs or board member disciplinary hearings. "Leave that stuff to the buffalo news and the TV stations." He wants happy headlines, feature-spun stories and oh, no news whatsoever on the front page. "Make people want to pick up the paper," he says. How, without reliable news, is beyond me.

Our paychecks were cut last year, with no promise of reinstatement. We're only supposed to be working 35 hours a week, ostensibly to make up for that cut, but I've got a good 60+ worth of work, especially with aforementioned 8-10 stories. The paper suffers for it, and it makes me wonder if the OTH folks are under the same gun. It makes me fear for the quality of newspapers as a whole, if our management operates that way, 'cross the board.


Aug. 6th, 2014 01:37 pm (UTC)
Lizz, I told a reporter friend at the OTH that they had a thoroughbred on their hands, but they were using him as a plow horse. The same is true of you. I think your new bosses will soon find that the "happy news" strategy won't work. Your readers have come to look for the kind of content you've been providing.

As for the 8-10 bylines you're going to need each week, when you get a press release, call the writer up, get a quotation or two, work them into the story and take a byline. I have a hunch your new owners are too obtuse to pick up on it.
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )

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