Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Tribune's Psychosis

A Few Reasons The Tribune Failed

Editors were self-absorbed screwballs


It’s tough being involved with a psycho.

The sideshows are hilarious, memorable and worth the price of the relationship; the highs are manic and delirious, but never as long as they should be; and the lows are morose, seemingly infinite, and just plain debilitating.

The smart thing to do with a nut case is to leave—not even a minimally sane person can long endure—and be grateful you survived the mess.

But the crazy thing is that you never really do leave a disturbed partner. Get word that the source of all that pain and pleasure will soon be dead, and all those wonderful and horrific memories deluge the mind.

I was involved for 13 years with a psychotic cohort. Within a few weeks that partner will be probably be forever gone from this planet, and rather than cheering and popping a few cold ones in celebration, I’m secretly aching for one more shouting match, one more round of bitter accusations and hateful counter-charges, one more mad dance around the ballroom floor, one last dysfunctional fling.

My psycho was The Albuquerque Tribune, this city’s 80-year-old afternoon daily newspaper, which could soon be shutting down forever. Many people probably don’t even know The Trib exists. Almost no one reads it anymore. In 1985 its circulation was a respectable 46,000. Today it’s 9,900.

In the coming days and weeks you’ll hear a lot from former and current Trib staffers about what a great paper it was, what great journalism it did, what noble causes it pursued and what a terrible loss its demise is to Albuquerque and New Mexico. That’s all true, even though journalists are experts at pontificating about their own importance.

What you’ll never hear about in all those self-serving interviews is what an asylum The Trib was, and how, through the efforts of too many self-absorbed, spoiled, elitist brats and whacked out management, the newspaper imploded on itself. So here are a few stories:

“Yodaladyhoo!”

In 1994 that almost became the official cry—the identifying yelp—of every Tribune employee. I know I was tempted to gustily shout it out when called on to ask questions at news conferences and such. Imagine how it would have sounded:

“Yodaladyhoo! Yodaladyhoo! Yodaladyhoo!”

Over the years, Tribune editors bought into every new management scheme—I think, during one five-year period, they attended every management seminar held in North America—and foisted the ideas, especially the most bizarre ones, on us. Every four or five months they reorganized the newsroom and adopted new designs that only alienated longtime readers.

Once, the editors did away with beats—which are the heart of any credible news organization—and put reporters and editors into breaking news and enterprise teams. We were pulled out of the buildings we covered and told to sit in the main office and hunt down news. Well, since you don’t find stories in a newspaper office, we didn’t get any, and the editors couldn’t understand why our circulation continued to fall.

After that failed, we were told to cover the city by “ologies”—phychology, garbgology, sociology and the like. We never did cover neurology, which would have given us valuable insights into why editors came up with such dumb ideas.

Later we were put into teams and told to compete against each other. One “team leader” dragged her “team members” to her Placitas home for meetings where they spent hours telling themselves how smart and important they were, how they would set the agenda for the city, engorging themselves on fresh squeezed juice and planning what next month’s news would be. That team did meetings like no other team, but they rarely got any stories into the paper. That didn’t matter, though, because at that time the editors believed that a reporter’s highest calling was, not to be out working a beat and pounding the pavement looking for stories, but to sit in meetings. I’m surprised that we never did get around to covering the city by shoe size, but I’m sure the idea was on several editors’ minds.

One time we were lined up in the newsroom—right after another management seminar—and breathlessly informed that, henceforth, we would be communicating with each other like dolphins. None of us reporters knew what the editors were talking about, and so we stood there looking and feeling stupid. Finally, some wise guy blurted out, “Eeeeeee! Eeeeeee! Eeeeeee!” We all busted out laughing, and that was the last we ever heard about talking to each other like dolphins.

Most people, when they think about newspapers, envision words on paper—lots of black words. Not The Tribune’s editors and designers. For a two-year period in the 1990s they were obsessed with using “white space” as a design element. That is, they purposely left white spaces all over the paper. That, of course, meant shorter stories and fewer words, but they didn’t care. The twenty-and-thirty-something editors wanted to create art. We figured their secret goal was to put out a paper with no words—just blank pages. They would have succeeded had readers not rebelled and demanded to know what was going on at the nuthouse.

The Trib’s great circulation slide began in 1986 when the editors and the paper’s owners bought into a study to totally redesign the paper. The study was done by a couple of college professors out of Tucson who claimed that readers no longer wanted to read stories about the governments that taxed them and passed laws that affected their lives. Readers, the profs said, wanted more happy stories about happy people.

When The New Tribune was launched that year it was done so with the profs’ crowning recommendation: NO SPORTS SECTION!

We never did find out which readers the profs talked to for their study. It was clear, though, that it wasn’t the six thousand subscribers who canceled the paper within two weeks of The New Tribune’s launch.

The most insane restructuring plan came in 1994 when the genius editors decided that we would no longer be reporters, editors, photographers, writers and designers. No, we were to be YODAS, FREERANGERS, MAESTROES and BIG DUDES! This is not a joke.

Reporters were to be Yodas, while editors were to be Maestroes; they would “maestro” a story through from beginning to end, whatever that meant. Who knows what the Freerangers were supposed to do. And what was the Big Dude’s job?

“The Big Dude,” a memo told us, “lifts the bar.”

They never got around to implementing that reorganization because, while it was in the planning stages, reporters got copies of it and leaked it to the newsroom. As nutty and as politically correct as The Tribune was, everyone who wasn’t an editor realized that this was the pinnacle of insanity.

There are lots of reasons why The Tribune is folding. No one reads afternoon papers any more. In 1975, afternoon daily newspaper circulation peaked at 33 million. Today it’s less than 7 million, and falling. Newspapers themselves are obsolete when it comes to breaking news. But if you want the main reason why the Tribune is going away, just shout it loudly and shout it proudly:

Yodaladyhoo!


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