Dateline: Mon 27 Jun 2011

Indianapolis Star exec editor Dennis Ryerson's weekly Sunday column typically is meaningless to write about, because it's silly to pimp someone who is pimping both himself and his readers.

He's usually so full of puffery that -- well, what's the point? You don't mock a 4-year-old who says he's the Green Lantern and is going to save the planet, so why waste time challenging Ryerson's pronouncements?

In a word: hiccups. The hiccups did him in this time.

A quick recap. Sunday's hyperbole was more egregious than usual, with Ryerson putting his spin on another round of layoffs, all the while forecasting the paper's glorious future.

He started by reminding readers that The Star  "announced a workforce reduction of 82 positions, 28 of them in our information center (newsroom)" and then incredibly assured that "we'll be around for a long, long time."  (Reduced staff, fewer readers, but somehow...) He promised the usual journalistic rose garden: stronger issues and people coverage, watchdog role, "utility" coverage, your basic bullshit. Words.

Amazingly, he claimed the news operation had not been reorganized since the 1950s (!!!) and implied nothing has been done to meet "the needs of readers served by a vast array of 21st century digital technology." Hence the Star is again reorganizing (I am told all managers have to reapply for jobs, etc.  Dennis makes it sound as if everyone's job is up for grabs except five "strong voices" he singled out -- op-ed writer Dan Carpenter, cartoonist Gary Varvel, and columnists Matt Tully, Erika D. Smith and Bob Kravitz.)

The truth is, newsrooms, even the not-very-progressive Star, were continually evolving over the last 50 plus years, sometimes to the point of mindless distraction, often in a futile effort to figure out what the hell readers really wanted, retain subscribers and attract new readers. Sometimes the wind blew towards strong narrative; sometimes the flavor of the week was community journalism; for a while we were all abut no-shit investigative reporting with teams of reporters deep-throating topics. Sometimes features and magazine-style stories held sway ("make me laugh, make me cry"); we reverted back to a women's section at one point, but new and improved.... To say nothing of the move from Royal typewriters to streamlined computer systems; clackety wire machines to silence; smoking to non-smoking; boring grey Page 1 design with six-column flag heads to a thoughtful, more visual, photo-driven presentation, etc. etc. The evolution included massive design experiments and layers of tweaking at the Star and beyond -- each one seemingly the one that would "fix" everything.

Also, Gannett has done its sorry best to plug into technology, while still not figuring out how to get readers to pay for its thin online content. (We will pay for Indianapolis Business Journal and Wall Street Journal, which should tell Gannett something about its quality issues).

However, the choicest Ryerson doublespeak was reserved for the demolition of the copy desk.

Here's Ryerson's unfortunate take on copy editors, who stand between the reader and inaccuracies, lawsuits, little old lady English teachers, etc:

"We're changing the process of copy editing, using a system already in place at several other good newspapers. Is it better?

"No, and it is inevitable that we'll have some hiccups as we figure it out. But figure it out we must."

Hiccups? Ryerson is referencing the fact that the paper, already an imperfect product, will probably go to a universal desk ultimately (in Iowa? India? Who knows?), Thus one can expect more errors than usual. He told staff last week, "We have lost our second set of eyes." (That was honest).

Hiccup is about as understated as you can get.

In conclusion, Ryerson wrote: "Many people relish painting Star Media as a dying relic. They are flat wrong. Just ask anybody who has appeared recently on our front page."

Instead, how about asking those whose bylines and editing skills will no longer be appearing, because they were canned last week?

My personal take is that Ryerson is about the least thoughtful, least analytical editor I've ever known, but he's certainly gifted at wishful thinking...and hiccups.



Parent [unverified] said:

Ryerson has no degree yet has developed what he thinks is a mastery of PR. If there were a bridge in the desert, he'd try to sell it. A good friend worked at San Jose when Ryerson devastated the union and staff there. He warned me when Ryerson arrived to watch out. How prolific that turned out to be.

I hope Ryerson's up at night for more than a roll in the hay with what will likely be wife No. 5. But I suspect he has no conscience, demonstrated by the way he tosses employees out the door as if they were wives.

2011-06-27 15:44:20

Duke [unverified] said:

Has no one noticed the $0.25 subscription charge for the Sunday TV section. The bright minds at Gannett have been studying cable tv and think that bundling is the answer. How about 50 cents for the funnies and a dime for the crossword puzzle? The possibilities are endless! This is better than the old trick of retroactively charging Sunday prices for the Thanksgiving day advertising monster.

2011-06-27 16:16:16

John Howard [unverified] said:

A while back I pulled out an old copy of the News I had saved, and read through it.

Gasp. There were more than 5 by-lines on a single page that in today's entire newsroom, er, information center.

2011-06-27 16:34:40

John Howard [unverified] said:

I could swear a year or more ago Robert K dimissed this blog as irrelevant and vowed to not return to it.

2011-06-27 16:37:11

ruthholl [Member] said:

Duke, thanks for mentioning that TV charge subscription hike. I know it's been mentioned obliquely in a comment, but it deserves more notice. At least one friend has said she would drop the paper as a result...and she's in her 70s, so she's in that loyal readership category.
You're right, this strategy has many creative options...for poor Gannett.

2011-06-27 16:38:06

ruthholl [Member] said:

Parent, a former Gannett lifer/editor at the Star pointed out to me -- and I think I have posted it here in the past -- that there are two kinds of exec editors: the ones who love the newsroom and work hard to help reporters and other staff be the best possible, and the ones who like to schmooze in the community and win points that way. He said, without rancor (that I could detect) that Ryerson was the latter. He likes the glamor of being a big shot in Indy, but it seems as if everyone in the city has his number. I fail to see how he can win respect among movers/shakers when he can't do his basic job: keep morale going. I know the layoffs were a Gannett strategy, but he shows so little empathy for those who have lost jobs that I have to agree with your assessment. There are serious character issues with the recovering Norwegian...as he introduced himself to us when he first arrived. Norwegian equals cold. That's Ryerson. Yes, he glad hands, but anyone with half a brain can see thru the act.

2011-06-27 17:33:38

Whitebeard [unverified] said:

"clackety wire machines."

Man, Ruth, does that bring back memories. And the sounds made by manual typewriters cranking out copy on beige paper. The smell of the pots of glue on desks for cutting and pasting of copy. That cutting and pasting was a job in and of itself.

The computer age brought great improvements, but made things too quiet and pristine for me.

Yes, I am a dinosaur. My future doesn't look to good at this point, but I can always take comfort in the past.

2011-06-27 17:40:13

news junkie [Member] said:

Hiccups, indeed. I knew I was in trouble when DR and the paper said "information center (newsroom)." It says a lot that the term has to be explained parenthetically. Also, I don't know how he can keep writing that a 'reorganization' means better when that has not been the case in the past with other 'reorganizations.' Can you say information center? Save me.

2011-06-27 19:30:57

Terry [unverified] said:

Ruth, you nailed it with the headliine -- tnx for taking my little idea -- and the entire post is right on.

While I was not part of Tuesday's group, I feel bad for all those let go. And I thought the Star might be done with layoffs, since they say it is making money.

I started editing and writing in high school, and later learned from some of the best in Wisconsin, Chicago and Indianapolis.

It stings to hear copy editing reduced to preventing "hiccups" -- in the words of someone whose title includes editor. (Does DR have a no-edit clause?) Some of my best job memories are of working with writers to make their stories better and helping them to find their voice -- in addition to spelling, grammar and style (maybe those are the hiccups). Looks like no one will have time for substantial changes or the basics.

2011-06-27 19:59:11

Pete [unverified] said:

I think what's ultimately distressing about all of this is that newspapers (and for that matter, all forms of news media print or electronic) are regressing to a 19th Century model where they are openly and explicitly vehicles for the political parties that own them. Before someone chimes in about MSNBC, I would suggest going to the library and looking up microfilm of 1870's era Indianapolis papers (the News and the Sentinel if I recall correctly). It was shocking just how brazenly they were in the pocket of their party of choice. It's amazing anyone knew anything about their local community after reading such tripe. The 20th Century practice of objectivity and real sourcing seems to have vanished once political eliminationism became the norm. Sad, really.

2011-06-27 20:00:02

Croh [unverified] said:

The first meaningless job Ryerson should have cut was his own.

2011-06-27 20:24:03

Tom Greenacres [unverified] said:

DR is the point man for irrelevance. He is a cipher. Bob Early was not, nor was Conner. They spoke for newspapers when newspapers were as important to starting the day as coffee. Mr R has no podium, no voice that anyone will listen to. So, ignore him. He doesn't matter.

Newspapers at one time were as openly slanted as TV news is now. Perhaps the golden age of journalism was the 1930s to 1960s, when attribution and accuracy and balance were, for the most part, important and practiced, and when they were not it was because we understood that ECP hated A. Jacobs Sr and the Kennedys and the Democrats, but that was the Publisher's Option and everybody got it.The Star and News and Times were still chock full of news and opinion and entertainment.

To some degree, the demise of newspapers can be connected to the Dumbing Down of America which can be connected to the Dumbing of Education which can be connected to the notion that everybody gets a prize for participating and nobody is better than anyone else. We are becoming a nation of illiterates because there's no prize for being smarter.

2011-06-27 21:04:08

Miss E. Lanius. [unverified] said:

In an attempt to reach the 82, would you print a reminder that the Hardscrabble Club (retired and ex-Star, News, Times and other media types)meet every Tuesday 10 a. m. to 11:30 a. m. at the Glendale Library.
All departments welcomed.
The TV Week announcement stated "the cost to produce, print and distribute TV Week now exceeds the revenue it generates." The long accepted standard was that advertising would occupy 65 per cent of a paper to be profitable abnd the number of pages was determined by that standard.
A recent Saturday-Sunday-Monday percentages of the sports section was 17, 35 and 15 percent. Does that mean that since "costs exceed revenue" the next announcement might be a 50 cent charge to get sports news?
As it is I understand writeups of high school games will be eliminated with reports consisting of line scores and box scores. That probably eliminates one salary.

2011-06-27 21:41:47

Jason [unverified] said:

What I'm not understanding is he's making it sound like they're doing a good job of implementing the changes.

The IndyStar website is still horribly managed and put together. I get motion sickness every time I leave it open for more than a few seconds. They lag behind all four local news channels in updating content and have an annoying habit of 'retitling' old articles to squeeze an extra few clicks out of their readers. For what little Ryerson is probably expected to do, he hasn't even managed to get it half right.

It's like a print version of drudge report, 90% of their content is culled from AP Reports, other newspapers, freelancers, etc.

2011-06-28 02:30:16

Whitebeard [unverified] said:

I finally got around to reading Ryerson's Sunday column today. Had to make sure I had stocked plenty of Pepto-Bismal in the house first.

I laughed out loud when I saw the headline: "We'll be here for you for a long time".

Couldn't help but wonder if there was some Freudian in that headline, i.e., "I'll be here for you for a long time."

Thing is, the The Star isn't "here" NOW. At least as we used to know it.

Not with many (most) of its best journalists, columnists and copy editors gone long ago and good young journalists now being shown the door in droves.

You also have to wonder where The Star would be profit-wise if not for the recent successful era of the Colts and the soap opera controversies involving the Pacers and Larry Bird, etc.

Anyway, someone please tell Mr. Ryerson that his "damage control" column themes are wearing pretty thin.

2011-06-28 12:32:00

Tell The Truth [Member] said:

Parent: roll in the hay with wife No. 5? Are you serious? Don't folks know? I mean, seriously....

If he's been married four times, then four women have figured him out. 'Nuff said.

I would not raise this personal issue, if it didn't impact his job performance so much. You can't operate in a town like this, in a job like his, and be immune from the party-talk.

When party-talk get sin the way of newsroom decisions, then it enters another arena. He's spent a lot of time worrying about his public image.

At the cost of the newspaper's image and administration. Think about it.

I wish him happiness. We all deserve it. He's probably the most conflicted exec editor this town has ever seen.

Nobody needs that. Least of all his employees.

It all bleeds together, Ruthie.

2011-06-28 13:55:22

Whitebeard [unverified] said:

"If only Dan Carpenter could/would write a column about this social injustice."

Ruth, I just read this comment on another blog article and it sparked a couple of thoughts.

I was a ramblin' man when I was young and worked at several newspapers. They operated on the basis of us filling out time cards like people who worked in factories.

But what was made very clear from the editors/publishers was that we were to fabricate our time cards so they wouldn't have to pay us overtime. I estimate I got screwed out of tens of thousands of dollars due to this unethical, injust practice.

(And, we surely weren't getting wealthy on what we were getting paid while the company made 15-percent profits. The first newspaper job I got after college paid so cheap I had to live in a seedy motel for two years where I shared a community bathroom with a variety of alcoholics and other poor guys "down on their luck").

I remember hearing about a reporter in Bloomington who took the paper to court for this practice. She won some back pay, but then lost her job (one would assume on a revenge motive by management).

Anyhow, when I would win awards and go to the banquets, the boss would always require that I had to go to the boring seminars as well.

The speakers would usually be these swell-headed newspaper bigshots from out-of-state who would talk about the high and mighty role of newspapers in society of being watchdogs, ferreting out injustices, etc. They really made it sound as if journalism was/is religion and they were preachers.

Not that I disagreed with the basic premise. But I'd be thinking about all of the injustices and unethical practices going on in the newspaper where I worked at the time. My thought was, "well, why don't these newspapers investigate themselves!?"

I guess that is your point on what you said about Dan Carpenter. But, like everyone else, he needs a paycheck and he's not going to touch those issues with a ten-foot pole. Probably wouldn't be easy for him to find a job anywhere else in Indy - as a notorious lefty in a state where you're considered a threat to society if your politics aren't to the right of Barry Goldwater.

2011-06-28 14:13:27

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