Sun-Sentinel's "Transformative Change"

I am not going to add much to the piece of writing down below, only to say it's an anonymous e-mail from a journalist at the Sun-Sentinel. It involves a meeting held in the building yesterday during which the reporting corps was lectured by Director of Marketing Jeff Levine and Howard Greenberg, the newspaper's executive vice president and general manager. Greenberg is known well in the community as an enthusiastic member of the Broward Chamber of Commerce, Broward Alliance, and the Broward Workshop. I've written about him before. You know what that means? The fire wall between the editorial and business sides has been washed out.

We knew that already, but read the following anyway. It's brilliant, telling of how the newsroom is being flushed down the Orwellian toilet of corporatism.

Today reporters were ushered into a meeting unveiling the Sun-Sentinel’s new restructuring, dubbed Transformative Change. Since the jaw and arm strings on their Earl Maucker doll were apparently frayed from overuse, the marketing folks dispensed with the usual ventriloquism and spoke directly to the assembled troops without cover. Earl did make one joke about dispensing lots of Kool-Aid, thus cementing his bid to be the Jim Jones of 21st Century journalism, before he was politely draped over a nearby chair.

The new editors of the paper, two gentlemen named Jeff Levine, the director of marketing, and Howard Greenberg, the executive general manager vice president of something or other, spoke about the need to make reporters more responsive to readers and advertisers. Actually that’s too mild. “Goddam it: give them what they want!” describes it better.

They likened our current state to the U.S. automobile industry, circa 1980, and urged us all to read a book by a Harvard business guru that the Tribune Co. has hired to implement his 8 Step Plan to Global Greatness. (The book is short, Greenberg said, with big type and pretty pictures. ‘Damn words,’ you could almost hear him say, ‘Always getting in the way.’) Think Steve Carell in one of those monologues on “The Office” and you get the idea. (You could see many reporters staring off in shock at some imaginary camera as these two

blathered on.)

You can see this guy for yourself here:
http://www.johnkotter.com/bio.html

Anyway, the 8 steps involve going on a vision quest, developing a culture of change, and then forming vision teams for yet more vision quests, etc. etc. The purpose of these quests is to come up with ways in which we can better serve the readers and advertisers. To give us some clues as to what we better damn well find on our vision quests, snippets of reader interviews were shown—think of the grainy hidden camera shots you see of convenience store robberies and you get the idea—informing us that predominantly white, overweight people want more stories about local restaurants, water restrictions, gas prices, anti-depressants, pets, vibrator sales and immigration. (Not the actual immigration issue, mind you, just clues to where they can shop and work to avoid immigrants themselves.) I’m selfish, one reader informs us. They want stuff that appeals to that selfishness, we’re told. My personal favorite: “This is depressing,’’ another reader says, probably in reaction to a story a bout homeless crack addicts, dropouts or burn victims. If we’re going to cover that stuff, we need to offer solutions. Readers just don’t have time to get up off their lazy asses and research things themselves. At least not the readers we’re aiming for.

To put it bluntly, our job now is to comfort the comfortable and ignore the afflicted. Unless they’re bothering the comfortable. In that case, we need to tell the comfortable what they can do to avoid the afflicted. You can imagine if this motif had been put into play during the great journalism of the 1960s. Murrow’s “Harvest of Shame,” filmed in Belle Glade, might have been called “Harvest of Plenty: Cheap Sugar You can Find Locally!” if written by the Help Team. Who’d want annoying stories about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Watts Riots, the Cuban Revolution, Haitian boat people, or bothersome sit-ins that’d just embarrass and piss off our advertisers and bore uninvolved readers to tears.

Since Google and Yahoo provide international and national stories about bothersome wars, yet another African famine and policy questions with hard-to-remember acronyms, the Sun-Sentinel is going to shed its image as a stodgy, detailed journal of politics and analysis (as if!). Instead, regular meetings with advertisers and readers will let them guide us to the stories they’re interested in.

The reporters were thoroughly cowed, so nobody pointed out that Google and Yahoo don’t report their own stories, but get them from the very papers going through Transformative Change.

A few thoughts to wrap up:

1. If we’re just another business, why do we deserve special status under the Constitution? If we’re the same as General Electric and Toyota, why does our speech deserve any more status than, say, Auto Nation’s?

2. Is journalism really just like cars and light bulbs? Do readers really know whether or not they should care about the misappropriation of funds at a hospital district, the poor use of taxpayer dollars by FEMA, the sad state of health insurance for the poor, or the drug trade in the Caribbean? Should advertisers really dictate the design and placement of stories, much less sponsor columns? What happens if the next Enron becomes the dominant logo on your paper?

3. Does writing matter anymore? If stories are shorter, nuance and detail obliterated, and graphics dominant, won’t the smartest readers go elsewhere? What does it say that our very currency—words—is regularly debased by the very leaders we’re dependent on for a future? Does information matter when it’s not in service to the paying customer?

4. And what’s the difference between a paper dictated by advertisers and shoppers, and a shopper—the crap that’s distributed for free all over the place.

5. Finally, if I’m just going to become a flak, a mouthpiece for advertisers, shouldn’t I just become a flak? I’ll make more money, the hours will be a lot better, and they’ll be no lingering doubts or conflicts about where my loyalties lie—to my paymaster, and not the public interest.



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