Questions For Earl Maucker

I don't feel the need to comment on this screed that came across the transom today regarding Sun-Sentinel Executive Editor Earl Maucker and his upcoming appearance at the IRE conference in Miami. Other than to say it's damn interesting.

It's comes from one "Titus Groan" (make sure to go to the jump):

Hey Pulp, You may not be aware, but writers attending the IRE conference this weekend in Miami will get a rare look at one of the most daring pioneers in modern journalism. Yes, Earl Maucker will be attending to share the marketing-based, consumer friendly philosophy that has so energized his newsroom and made his name the bane of competitors in South Florida journalism.

You can hear his keen insights into what readers really want, and how journalists too often ignore them. You can listen to him pooh-pooh fancy writing, and the over-emphasis on competition with the Miami Herald or the Palm Beach Post. You can see why an embarrassing scoop by the Herald isn’t a scoop at all in the S-S newsroom, since we’re focused on our customers, not some old-boy nonsense of actually breaking news. Since he’ll be sitting on the panel with the editor of the staid, text-heavy Miami Herald, with its cluttered front, overly long stories, and fancy schmantzy pants emphasis on national and international news, attendees might get to see a “bake-off” between major regional gatekeepers.

Maybe Earl will share how his newspaper has become the Number 1 provider of news in South Florida. Maybe you can ask why they even use “South Florida” in their name since the Sun-Sentinel doesn’t cover the largest county in the region—Miami-Dade. Surely, there will be some insight into why repeated front-page stories about the cost of food and gas are news when you can get that same information driving by your local Hess station.

Now, there’s always a chance that his managing editor, Sharon Rosenhause, will show up to insult, demoralize or otherwise demote people who ask the wrong questions, but I’ve offered up this snappy guide for anyone who might risk getting more than the rote answers we often receive.

1. For several years now, your paper has been going hyper-local, with a special emphasis on consumer advice and recommendations. Can you show any measurable gains in circulation or advertising revenue at the expense of your competitors in South Florida? If readers like it so much, how come you haven’t gotten more readers?

2. Your website, www.sun-sentinel.com, has touted itself as the most popular news website in Florida. Reflecting your philosophy, do you know how many hits you get are for “local” content vs. national celebrity or non-local content? If local is the end-all and the be-all, why isn’t it generating more hits, and why doesn’t the site concentrate exclusively on that?

3. Over the last five years you’ve gone from a five-story front, to a three-story front and soon, to a magaziney one-story dominant front. How many of your readers have asked for this presentation?

4. Is text dead? In one meeting recently, your marketing director Jeff Levine said that readers don’t want

text in stories on the Internet. Your stories have gotten shorter, and fewer, while graphics have grown with alternative text blocks and numbers graphics. Do you think stories clutter a newspaper? Do you foresee a text-free, story-free, Sun-Sentinel in the future?

5. You’ve said, to Editor & Publisher and others, that marketing doesn’t determine your content or run your newsroom. Yet, you’ve changed the entire direction of your paper, and the direction of many stories, based on the results of marketing studies. Why is it such a bad thing if marketing is running the newspaper?

6. You’ve said that too many journalists tend to write for other journalists—can you give examples in your competitors of this lamentable condition?

7. Many in South Florida journalism, and many on your own staff, think that the Sun-Sentinel has traditionally been a dumbed down newspaper, and has grown even more stupid with the advent of “exploding mattress” stories. Yet you often depict long stories, in-depth projects as the product of elitist opinion, and deride “writers’ papers” – papers that try to highlight quality writing. Why?

8. Do you think a newspaper should have any role in raising educational standards through its content? Should it serve to break stories that readers may not be aware of? Should it serve to highlight the best in writing, or should it use writing as a means to sell the products of its advertisers?

9. Now that the paper is going toward even more “edgy” graphics presentations, there’s been a call for edgy, innovative writing. How do you square this with the fact that you’ve often boasted that the Sun-Sentinel isn’t a “writers’” paper?

10. If it’s not a writer’s paper, or if readers know best, why do you and other S-S editors spend a large amount of time traveling to national journalism forums, hiring writing coaches, and sending people off to writing workshops? Wouldn’t that time be better spent “in-county”—talking to and writing with your consumers, your customers? Have any of your marketing studies revealed a need, or a call for good writing?

11. Why didn’t you step down from the Inter American Press Association upon the advent of your local journalism philosophy and your killing off of foreign and national desks at the paper? After all, you no longer cover foreign politics and have boasted that you’re not writing for the citizens of Caracas. So what business do you have telling the citizens of Caracas or Havana what they should expect from their journalists?

12. Your managing editor has described Havana as a suburb of South Florida in citing the reason for having a Havana bureau. What is this based on—the number of Cuban-American readers you have living in your circulation area? If so, then why isn’t Kingston a suburb, or Port-au-Prince, since you have more Jamaicans and Haitians living in Broward and Palm Beach counties than Cubans. And what about the growing Venezuelan population—could it be that Caracas is now a suburb of South Florida?

Titus Groan


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