Thursday, December 18, 2008

Is Pat Dougherty Up to the Task?

Bill Boyarsky at Truth Dig commented yesterday on the ongoing demise of America's daily newspapers:

As we know, the death of the American newspaper is fast approaching.

Specifically, the paper editions of newspapers are dying. Readers and advertisers are migrating to the papers’ Web sites or to other sources of information on the Internet, thus reducing revenue of the print editions. One day the papers will no longer be on my driveway before dawn, and I will be getting all the news from my computer and my iPhone.

Part of Boyarsky's concern is based on the content of a story from the first week in December by Editor & Publisher about recent reports from the credit evaluation group, Fitch Reports:

"Fitch believes more newspapers and newspaper groups will default, be shut down and be liquidated in 2009 and several cities could go without a daily print newspaper by 2010," the Chicago-based credit ratings firm said in a report on the outlook for U.S. media and entertainment.

Fitch is generally pessimistic across the board, assigning negative outlets to nearly all sectors from Yellow Pages to radio and TV and theme parks. But the newspaper industry is the most at risk of defaulting, it says.

"Much of the business risk for the media sector is likely to continue to be concentrated within the newspaper sub-sector," the report says. "Fitch expects newspaper industry revenue growth will be negative for the foreseeable future as both ad pricing and linage will be under pressure within each of the four main components of newspaper companies' revenue streams: circulation and local, classified and national advertising. Newsprint costs could rise, and it could be difficult to offset revenue declines with cost cuts."

Fitch rates the debt of two newspaper companies, The McClatchy Co. and Tribune Co. as junk, with serious possibilities of default. It also assigns a negative outlook to both the companies and the newspaper sector, meaning their credit ratings are likely to deteriorate further.

Last week, Anchorage Daily News' publisher Patrick Dougherty announced the newest round of changes at the paper, opening with this snide comment:

"The first anniversary of the current recession is this month. That's according to recent pronouncements by economists, who always seem to be at their best when predicting the past."

Dougherty could have easily added himself to the category of those who "seem to be at their best when predicting the past."

Dougherty goes on to describe a series of downsizing moves being undergone or planned for the near future at the ADN. They all seem necessary, if the largest, most influential Alaska newspaper is to survive.

I've been highly critical of Dougherty, his hubris and conceit here in the past. I still am. His announcement from last week seems quite humble when compared to his inflated claims from late last year, that, "if we don’t do the story, it may not get done."

Throughout 2008, Alaska bloggers, especially given our meager resources, and the intruding reality that most of us have day jobs outside of journalism, have covered many stories that were not getting done by the ADN, or other traditional media outlets here. When journalists, authors and videographers came from all over the planet to cover Sarah Palin in September and October, they certainly didn't go to Patrick Dougherty to get the kind of quality assistance we showed them time after time.

Frequent commenter at PA, and Blue Oasis contributor, PolarBear, made an interesting comment here, regarding Dougherty and the ADN, in December 2007:

Dougherty is a suit. He arrived at mid-level management in the McClatchy heirarchy by climbing a corporate ladder in competition with other mid-level managers, not a journalism ladder, and not a community ladder. The terms of Dougherty's career have to do with advertising revenue and readership. Now what does it tell you when Dougherty is compelled, without any competition, to reorganize the format of ADN's print and web content? Most likely, Dougherty is getting the McClatchy word about their ratio of revenue-to-staff & fixed costs. Dougherty's thinking is vertical, and it shows.

You, Mr. Munger, own your own business in Alaska, and all that implies. So long as you clearly understand your service and the terms of engagement, you are always going to have the quality advantage over a McClatchy operation and the Doughertys of the world. Heck, that is how the old underdog ADN won the contest with the Times.

You are flirting with that which ADN and the new owners of KTUU will increasingly need - quality content. They do not understand how to get quality content from Alaska without expensive overhead. ADN and AP and Reuters and KTUU will not be your competition - they are going to be your market.

With respect, rather than pounding on Dougherty, perhaps a little thinking about how you could help solve his problem, as a reliable high quality source of real, statewide Alaska news, about real people and real communities would be in order. However you form it, the 'Alaska Progressive' could be a substantial, high quality byline. Darwin rules.

I have to admit, that during 2008 Progressive Alaska no more met PolarBear's hopes than the ADN met those of many of their readers. But something along the lines of what PolarBear mentions did go down. For a while.

As the ADN experimented with and got used to more on-line presence and how that works, between mid-2007 and mid-2008, the articles there, the political blog, and the new Alaska Newsreader began mentioning Alaska political blogs more and more often. But in the second half of 2008, those mentions began declining precipitously, exactly when it was obvious to our expanded readership that we were covering more of the story than Alaska's traditional media was able to.

It was almost as if somebody in the editorial spaces at the ADN just wanted us to go away.

We won't though. The ADN's and the already-defunct Anchorage Times' successors are already cranking out excellent (The Alaska Dispatch) and indifferent (The Alaska Standard) content every day. The Alaska Report is hanging in there.

Dougherty's most desperate, craven survival move in 2008 has undoubtedly been the ADN's decision - I'm certain it was conscious on some upper level there - to get as much play out of Sarah Palin's political ascendancy as humanly possible. The fluff, the lack of follow-ups, the paucity of any in-depth reporting whatsoever on how she has not only become the biggest political laughingstock of the 21st century, but the most divisive new force in right-wing GOP campaigning in years, have been disturbing. Beside those two elements, the fact that one person has become both of those characters is worth a Pulitzer Prize to the first writer to wrap her or his pen around the concept.

Maybe Dougherty's decision to keep fluffing Palin as much as possible - and then some - at the expense of in-depth coverage of her obvious shortcomings have helped keep ad revenue up, thereby saving a few jobs at the ADN for a few more months. I doubt it, though.

And I seriously doubt that Patrick Dougherty is up to the job of saving the Anchorage Daily News.


Maia said...

The decline in mentions of Alaska blogs in the Newsreader is real, and it can be traced precisely to the departure of Kathleen McCoy, who came back from her fellowship at Stanford fired up about new media. She breathed new energy into the ADN while she was back at the paper. Kathleen is an avid reader of lots of Alaska blogs, and was conscientious about incorporating a wide range of issues and perspectives. She also has a great sense of what will interest people, which is why we saw a lot more quirky, offbeat links in the Newsreader when she was doing it. She really had a sense of what that feature could be -- a source for information and ideas that people might not think to look for on their own. Mark Dent is doing it now, and I don't know him, but based on his Newsreader selections, I'd say it's unlikely he shares Kathleen's enthusiasm or curiosity.

CelticDiva said...

That's good to know, Maia. I also think that the ADN folks were quite overwhelmed (as we all were) when the National media started pouring so much attention into Alaska and Palin. They spent most of the time during the campaign trying to cover all the Alaska mentions all over the world.

However, now that it's changed back, their attention to the blogs has not. I'm glad I now have an additional explanation as to why.

(I also agree with Phil that we've annoyed folks over there. Pat Dougherty made me remove an ADN photo of the Wasilla Bible Church fire off of my blog, even though I attributed it to the ADN. He's within his rights, but come ON!)


Philip Munger said...


The precipitous decline in Alaska blog mention at both the Newsreader and the ADN political blog began while Kathleen was still there. I had an opportunity to bring it up with her when we met just after she left the Newsreader, but didn't want to have to deal with keeping one more secret about Dougherty's mismanagement, along with the dozens of others ADN employees have shared with me since late last year.

Unknown said...

McClatchy stock is at $1.05 per share today, off an annual high of $13.31 per share, the result of a much longer downward slide. Whatever it is corporate McClatchy is doing, it is not working. ADN's days are numbered. ADN has become less and less about the fabric of our community, and more and more about pushing printed spam into the face of its readers. There remains little there which gives the reader a daily sense of commonality about being an Alaskan or an Anchoragite.

I still believe that you, Blue Oasis, Raven, Mudflats, Alaska Report, Kodiak Konfidential, and others are close to articulating the online equivalent of what the 'Gammy Bird' was to Killick-Claw in The Shipping News - a medium of news the community cannot do without, indeed a medium without which the community cannot be. With that quality of service, we readers will accept the burden of a reasonable subscription with a smile, and accept the bit of advertising that comes along with it, even approve of those businesses, because they share with us the economic task of keeping all of you writing. A community cannot survive without the news about itself flowing along some common medium, especially in Alaska, where it takes a little extra effort to get by every day.

Unknown said...

I'm a fairly recent but former ADN employee and I have a lengthy view on the operations and revenues coming from the ADN.

Going into 2006, the ADN was in a controlled environment with a strong team of dedicated people until the Knight-Ridder acquisition. From the very beginning the board and corporate managers promised leadership and direction for "new media" and a phased transition leveling down print to online. Ultimately admitting that they had no plan in late 2007.

It seems likely that while the ADN is and continues to be profitable the revenue is being sent out of state (and to India). More work is being handed to fewer people and many are inexperienced.

I'm not able to defend editorial positions except to say that ADN reporters continue to cover a wide range of stories with a great deal of care, accuracy and depth plus some of the best photography anywhere.

Blogging is a valuable tool. It helps continue the story and even improves the focus. But, right now, I have to visit 10 to 20 blogs a day to keep up with what the ADN can provide in one location.