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8/7/2008

News

THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING NEWSPAPER
Will the Orlando Sentinel survive Sam Zell?

 

Editor's note: This is a corrected version of this story, updated 8/15/2008.

When you picked up your copy of the Orlando Sentinel June 22, you may have noticed the splashy new graphics and truncated articles. You probably thought it was more colorful. You may have wondered why there were so many charts and graphs, or where all the local news went. Maybe you liked it. Maybe it gave you eyestrain. Maybe you never even noticed the changes because, like a growing number of Central Floridians, you don’t read the Sentinel.

Whatever your reaction, what you probably didn’t notice were all the job cuts that came a couple of weeks later. It’s not your fault; the Sentinel barely covered one of the most significant events in its own history. The slashing of 20 percent of the newsroom – 52 jobs – got a few inches of play on the bottom corner of the front page of the business section July 29 and a small item on the website. On top of other cuts and buyouts in the last several years, the recent cuts mean the Sentinel employs one-third fewer editorial employees than it did just a few years ago.

What’s sadly ironic is that the Sentinel is probably still very profitable. Were it not part of a national chain it would likely be doing just fine, thank you very much. Prior to Sam Zell’s highly leveraged purchase of the Sentinel’s parent company, the Tribune Co., in December, the Sentinel was rumored to have the highest profit margin of any paper in the chain (though Tribune never publicly broke down the figures for its smaller properties, including the Sentinel).

But the Sentinel has risen and fallen with Tribune since the company purchased it in 1965. As goes Tribune, so goes the Sentinel.

These days, Tribune is being crushed under the weight of the debt Zell took on to buy it, and the Chicago businessman is trying everything he can think of to get out from under it, from selling off valuable properties like Long Island’s Newsday and the Chicago Cubs to slashing jobs and printing fewer pages in his newspapers.

Even if you don’t read the Sentinel, this matters to you. The Sentinel employs more people paid to keep tabs on Central Florida than any other local media outlet. The paper’s editorial board vets political candidates. Its reporters monitor local governments, business and the environment. Its photographers document local history. Television, radio and other print media take their cues from what the Sentinel prints.

What happens when staff cuts render the paper incapable of reporting on government, politicians, business and life in Central Florida? What happens when the paper loses so much institutional memory it becomes irrelevant? Unfortunately, we may be about to find out.

One-horse town

Conflicting reports point to either December 1875 or June 1876 as the first printing date of the Orange County Reporter, printshop owner Rufus A. Russell’s meager publication that historians agree was the first newspaper in the newly incorporated, sparsely populated village of Orlando. Russell threw a watermelon-growing contest in order to boost readership. It didn’t work.

In 1913, the Daily Sentinel became Orlando’s first morning daily.

When a merger deal soured in 1931 that would have combined the paper, since renamed the Orlando Morning Sentinel, and the Evening Reporter Star under new owner Charles E. Marsh, the two owners of the Star thought that they had been shorted $3,000, so they hired a van and repossessed their printing press in the middle of the night.

Marsh sent in a young Martin Andersen to mitigate the conflict. But it was Andersen who would have the most impact on the paper, and on Orlando, in his 20-year tenure as publisher and owner of both papers from 1945 to 1965.

“I think in the history of journalism, prior to the 1920s or so, that newspapers were in a very open way the mouthpieces for political parties,” says Rick Foglesong, a local historian, political science professor and author of Married to the Mouse, which chronicles Andersen and the Sentinel’s relationship with Disney. “And then the newspapers become businesses and you have businesspeople who run them, but in ways that were more openly involved in the political process than maybe they are now.”

Andersen joined forces with the attorney for – and later president of – the First National Bank of Orlando, Billy Dial. The two power brokers utilized the complementary platforms of finance and media to pressure the state and federal governments into realizing their vision of Orlando as a manufacturing metropolis. Their efforts resulted in both I-4 and the Turnpike being routed through Orlando. What would become the University of Central Florida, Lockheed Martin and the Naval Training Center followed, as did a region-defining transaction between rural landowners and Walt Disney.

“They were – if you used the fishing analogy – they were casting the bait at big road projects to bring a manufacturing industry to town,” Foglesong says. “That’s what they said. They wanted good wages, which is not what they got. So there’s some irony in there that what they got was Walt Disney World.”

On Oct. 21, 1965, Andersen’s paper printed a reporter’s hunch that Disney had been the mystery buyer of thousands of acres of Central Florida real estate. It was a huge coup, but it also brought up questions as to whether or not Andersen knew about the deal before it made it into the pages of his paper, thus putting his business interests before his journalistic ones.

The Andersen era ended in 1965 when he sold the morning and evening newspapers to Chicago’s Tribune Co., ultimately bringing professional standards to what had been widely regarded as a parochial, small-town publication.

“The best quote I got from Billy Dial was [when] he said, ‘There used to be a time when you could walk down Orange Avenue, talk to 10 people, and put over almost anything,’?” says Foglesong. “And he was talking about the ’50s through the mid-’60s.”

Big stories

Andersen retired in 1966, and William Conomos was named editor and publisher. In 1973, the two papers merged into one daily called The Sentinel-Star, and in 1982 that name was changed to The Orlando Sentinel, with a full redesign of the paper.

Chicago managers brought in editors from out of town to beef up the news offerings and transform the Sentinel from a small-town publisher’s soapbox into a serious journalistic endeavor. Jim Clark, a former deputy managing editor who left the Sentinel in 1998 to become the editor and media critic for Orlando magazine, remembers that as the paper’s golden era.

There was editor Jim Squires, who led the paper from 1976 to 1982 and “brought a whole new sense of ‘I want to make this a great paper,’?” recalls Clark. “Nobody had said that before.”

There was David Burgin, who followed Squires and left in 1985. Clark describes him as “a whirlwind. He shook everything up.” Burgin put the logo “The Best Newspaper in Florida” on the front page of the Sentinel, and challenged his journalists to live up to it.

John Van Gieson, who was hired by Squires, recalls a sense of optimism in those days. “There was a feeling of creativity, excitement,” Van Gieson says. “We were moving in the right direction. People appreciated that.”

John Haile took over as the editor in 1985, to mixed reviews. Clark characterizes Haile as “bored being in the newspaper business” and wanting to expand to other ventures, such as Central Florida News 13, the paper’s broadcast partner station until 2003. Another Sentinel employee, who, like all current employees interviewed for this story, asked not to be named for fear of losing his job, says Haile’s tenure marked the beginning of the paper’s decline.

“He put this newspaper in a coma for 15 years,” the employee says. “He was a coward. A perfect day for John Haile was when he didn’t have to take any calls complaining about anything in the Sentinel. Any good journalism done here was done despite John Haile.”

Haile or no, there was plenty of good journalism going at the Sentinel. Jane Healy, the paper’s editorial page editor who retired in July after 35 years, brought in the paper’s first Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 1988. Her five-part series “Florida’s Shame” criticized Orange County’s lack of growth management and destruction of the environment before such complaints were commonplace. (Healy was nominated for a Pulitzer again in 1997 for similar green editorializing.)

The Sentinel came close to glory in 1986 for its reporting on the Challenger disaster, but was scooped by New York Times science writer Philip Boffey. According to then-NASA employee Richard Cook, author of Challenger Revealed: An Insider’s Account of How the Reagan Administration Caused the Greatest Tragedy of the Space Age, Boffey had approached him on Feb. 7 with an offer to tell his story about ignored O-ring failure warnings, the problem that brought down the Challenger. Boffey knew the Sentinel had the O-ring story and was going to publish it Feb. 10, but wanted to break the story first, which he did on Feb. 9. Boffey’s Challenger coverage would go on to win him a Pulitzer in 1987.

In 1993, reporters Jeff Brazil and Steve Berry won a Pulitzer Prize for their investigation of then-Volusia County sheriff Bob Vogel and his unorthodox search-and-seizures along I-95. Vogel was using a drug squad to pull over suspicious vehicles traveling the interstate, and was very successful doing it. But his policing proved racist; 70 percent of 1,000 traffic stops involved blacks or Hispanics, and out of 500 auto searches, 80 percent of the cars were driven by racial minorities. The sheriff’s office pocketed $8 million from seizures of cash from people carrying more than $100.

There was no shortage of resources to help reporters to do their jobs, recalls a former writer. Correspondents were sent to Russia, China and Alaska to chase down stories. Busloads of people from the sports department covered events nationally and internationally. More than a dozen people were routinely sent to cover the Super Bowl. A team of six people was sent to cover both conventions during the 1984 presidential elections.

In 2000, Kathy Waltz became the president, publisher and chief executive officer of the Sentinel, and in late 2000 Tim Franklin signed on as editor, taking over for Haile and providing what the Sentinel source says was a brief respite in the paper’s decline.

“Tim Franklin did manage a brief resurrection,” the source says. “He put the paddle on the body and shocked it back to life.”

Unlike Haile, Franklin relished the paper’s role as a watchdog, the source says, and didn’t gave a damn who he upset doing it: “A perfect day for Tim was when he would get up in the morning and wonder how he would ruin someone’s day.”

Writer John Bersia won a Pulitzer for his “Fleeced in Florida” series in 2000, reported under Haile's tenure, an investigation of the state’s cash-advance businesses that led to legislative regulations. And in 2001, the Sentinel put a team of reporters led by Seminole County writer Gary Taylor on the failing Sanford Housing Authority, suing the Housing Authority and its director, Timothy Hudson, for not disclosing financial records. The stories led to federal authorities raiding the Housing Authority, confiscating documents and taking it over, a process the paper continued to cover through 2006.

Franklin was perhaps best known, and most hated, for leading the charge to get access to autopsy photos of NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt after his fatal crash at the Daytona 500 in 2001. Franklin claimed he had no interest in publishing the photos, but wanted to review them for a story on NASCAR safety. Fans were outraged, but Franklin didn’t back down.

Ultimately the Florida Legislature restricted access to autopsy photos, which up to that point had been considered public record. Franklin left the Sentinel for the Baltimore Sun in January of 2004.

The current editor is Charlotte Hall, who came to Orlando from the Tribune’s Newsday newspaper in Long Island. Hall’s tenure to date has been marked by a slow attrition and almost yearly job cuts and buyouts, which recently went into overdrive when Sam Zell bought Tribune in a heavily leveraged deal that left the company with $12.8 billion in debt. Since Jan. 1, the Sentinel has cut 153 jobs, including 52 from the newsroom.

Hall describes the redesign that debuted June 22, the first in a series of redesigns for Tribune papers, as a way of making the paper more relevant to readers. The idea is to appeal to Internet-savvy readers who want their news quickly. It’s too early to tell if the new Sentinel is a success, she says, but there has an uptick in home-delivery sales.

In the meantime, the redesign is a work in progress, she says. For instance, at first the paper ran three stories on its front page, and people complained about perceived lack of coverage. Now they typically run four. Complaints that the popular “Ticked Off!” column wasn’t running enough resulted in it showing up more often.

Word counts are down, she says, and the amount of space dedicated to news is shrinking. Hall doesn’t see that as a bad thing, necessarily.

“We’re trying to make stories as tight as possible,” she says. “Readers have limited time.”

Her plans are to focus on focus on local and business news, because readers can get national news anywhere.

“That is our strength,” she says. “There is a glut of national news available. Our strength is the ability to cover local news in depth.”

Going soft

While there’s no accurate way to gauge how Sentinel readers have received the redesign, people inside the paper contacted for this story are not ambivalent about it.

“I’m hearing just nothing but negative stuff and that people are thinking about canceling their subscriptions because there’s not the kind of local news, which is really the only reason you [needed to read it],” says one current staffer.

“The front page looks like it was designed by schizophrenic ADD kids who were colorblind,” says another. “A redesign is not going to save the Orlando Sentinel.”

So put the verdict on the Sentinel’s new look down to a matter of taste. Less subjective is the idea that the paper is cutting deeply into its own ability to cover Central Florida and the things that matter to Central Floridians, which is its bread and butter. Job cuts in July included the paper’s longtime restaurant critic, religion writer and most of the Tallahassee bureau. A 30-year veteran investigative reporter, Jim Leusner, recently took a severance package and left the paper.

“It’s disheartening to see so many good journalists leave the paper,” says a source. “It’s hard to see how we can continue to produce hard-hitting journalism at the same level.”

There are still good journalists at the paper, people who wake up in the morning with the desire to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, to use a shopworn cliché. The question is whether or not they can do that any longer while employed at a Tribune newspaper.

The consensus from sources in and around the Sentinel newsroom is not encouraging. Says one former Sentinel writer, “Every time ownership changes there’s a lot of trepidation. I do get the sense [that this time] it’s far and away, 10 times worse. I don’t get the sense there’s much respect for Zell.”

Zell earned a lot of enemies when he visited the Sentinel Jan. 31 to give employees a pep talk. When photographer Sara Fajardo asked him a question about softening news coverage, Zell replied with a rambling sermon touching on journalistic arrogance and the importance of giving readers what they want, even if what they want is stories about puppies instead of long investigative pieces. He capped the rant with a barely audible “fuck you” directed at Fajardo.

The new boss and his new managers are rather proud of their lack of newspaper experience, says a Sentinel source. “I think they’ve got the impression that no one’s really looked at newspapers before and how to make them interesting. They are just sort of coming fresh to the conversation and thinking, ‘Oh, wow, there’s tons of stuff we need to try!’ You know, when a lot of it’s been tried before; there’s a reason why it’s been backed away from.”

At the moment the Sentinel has only one reporter in Washington, D.C., and one in Tallahassee. The two reporters who handled the bulk of the 2004 presidential campaign, John Kennedy and Tammy Lytle, were both let go in July. That, predicts a source, will have a noticeable impact on coverage this fall.

“[The presidential campaign] is going to be wire jobs unless [the candidates] come to Orlando.”

Staff at local bureaus has also been cut, and some bureaus have been closed. The Seminole County bureau, for example, once had more than 20 employees. Now only two journalists cover the area.

“I think we are still covering those communities, but in a very shallow sense,” says a Sentinel employee.

Thumbing through the pages of the paper itself is another way to get a sense of where the Sentinel is focusing its still-considerable resources. How many stories are locally produced and how many came off the wire? How much space is devoted to editorial content, and how much is given over to advertising? What types of local stories make the cut: fluffy feature pieces that rarely upset readers or advertisers, or harder news that reveals information someone would rather keep quiet?

A comparison between the Sentinel of a year ago and the Sentinel of today, though hardly conclusive, points to a paper going soft.

While events dictate the news cycle – in July 2007, for example, the Orange County Commission was nearing a vote to approve the city’s $1.8 billion venues plan, and there is nothing comparably significant going on this year – it’s no stretch to say that July 2007 editions of the paper saw more of an emphasis on hard news.

On July 16, 2007, for instance, the Sentinel’s front page featured stories on Florida schools’ FCAT grades, violence in Pakistan and global warming in Antarctica, and a feature on hotels trying to attract younger visitors with new perks. The front page of the July 14, 2008, paper, by contrast, led with a story about the many and wonderful amenities of the Orlando Magic’s new arena. The story looked a little sketchy, situated as it was next to an advertisement for the Magic on the bottom of the front page. (Ads on the front page of the paper are a recent change.)

Neither the number of stories, the editorial-to-advertising ratio nor the percentage of locally produced material has changed dramatically between this year and last in the A section, at least so far; this comparison was done before the Sentinel cut its newsroom staff. But the front section largely deals with world events and big local stories.

A better measure of the Sentinel’s commitment to the community is found in its local and business coverage, and it’s there that readers will find the biggest changes.

In mid-July a year ago, lead stories in the local section (called “Local & State” or “Local In-Depth,” depending on the day of the week) dealt with the new Magic arena, the city budget and a trailer park that was evicting residents. This year, on July 17, the local front page featured University of Central Florida students making gliders, a fun fact in the section header telling you how many plastic triangles there are in Epcot’s Spaceship Earth (11,324, if you’re curious) and a short article about a woman turning 107 years old. Inside the section that same day, a story about fundraising in a local congressional race appeared in charticle form.

On July 18 of this year, the lead local story was about people who ride roller coasters a lot. A less pleasant story on the possibility of bombs being buried in Azalea Park was buried inside. Other than crime news and regional effluvia, that was the only news in the section that day.

Changes in the paper’s business coverage are even more apparent. Clark, the former deputy managing editor who went on to edit Orlando magazine, recalls that in the 1980s the paper’s business desk jumped from three reporters to 20 almost overnight. In July, that same desk was a target of the newsroom layoffs. “The business section has become a disaster,” Clark says. “Those are the people buying the ads. It’s become kind of like a features section.”

A year ago, the paper’s Monday editions featured CFB, an insert devoted exclusively to local business news. On July 16, 2007, the CFB was 28 pages, almost 11 of which were ads. The stories were largely sycophantic – an uncritical report on how Cameron Kuhn’s layoffs weren’t the harbinger of future problems, for example, an insight that didn’t prove accurate – but the stories were there, often reported in greater depth than stories in the larger paper. A CFB cover story on the then-raging personal-injury protection insurance debate is an example.

On July 17 and July 18, 2008, the business section was six pages long and light on actual business news. There was a column on CSX pitching itself as a green company, stories on closing Starbucks, and regurgitations of press releases from homebuilders’ groups and Disney.

Local news and business news should be the paper’s strengths, says Clark. “I think they need to make an effort to reconnect to the community. … I think they need to get back to local news. That’s their bread and butter. They should have a monopoly on local news.”

Do something, anything

Anyone who has lived in Orlando long enough knows that politicians around here never die; they just get reappointed. The good-ol’-boy system is alive and well, and it’s the job of the newspaper to point that out. (It’s the job of the voters to do something about it, but whether Orlando is politically apathetic because of its lackluster daily or the daily is lackluster because of the city’s political apathy is a chicken-and-egg conundrum that may never be solved. Quipped one staffer: “You can just see corrupt politicians and greedy business types just sort of cheer and raise their fists in the air every time one of these layoffs gets announced.”)

Maria Padilla, who spent eight years at the Sentinel and left in 2005 after a stint on the editorial board, says that’s one of the things about a diminished Sentinel that concerns her the most.

“Orlando is just like a country club,” Padilla says. “People keep recycling in public office.”

Though the Sentinel was never able to cover Central Florida in its entirety, she notes, it did once have enough journalists to bring some light into dark corners. “It’s not a perfect paper, even when it was fully staffed,” she says. “But if you do bring in the sunshine, the cockroaches scatter.”

While on the editorial board, Padilla often did her own reporting, because there wasn’t enough information in the paper’s own pages to craft a solid editorial, she says.

“People used to tell me all the time, ‘I haven’t seen a Sentinel reporter for a long time.’ I was shocked by that.”

Those who follow newspapers, either for a living or as an avocation, often give the Sentinel props for trying something – anything – to slow the decades-long slide in newspaper readership.

“They’ve redesigned their print edition, and I give them a lot of credit for doing something new and trying when a lot of papers aren’t trying,” says Andy Dehnart, an English and communications staff member at Stetson University. “But I’m not entirely convinced they will be successful. They’re cutting editorial people, and that is a concern. That’s the only way they’re getting people to want to read their stuff.”

The Sentinel never was and likely never will be the first place people turn to for national news, Dehnart says. Television news has carved out a strong niche with sensational reporting on crime and mayhem, long ago abandoning investigative pieces for “gotcha” journalism. What’s left is comprehensive, in-depth reporting on local public life, a niche the Sentinel is carving itself right out of, he says.

“I’ve never felt that their local coverage was extremely strong. There’s a lot of emphasis on national stuff.”

And don’t get him started on the paper’s website. “The problem is that the website is sucking so much it’s hard to find what they do well,” he says. “I think they put their resources in redesigning in the wrong thing. They should do their website; they have a terrible, shitty website. If you want the younger generation, the web is the way to do that. You need that if you want to attract new people.”

Rick Kenney, an assistant journalism professor at the University of Central Florida, says that investigative reporting still retains the highest value and esteem within communities, as evidenced by the importance of Pulitzer Prizes awarded in that category. A new online publication, New York-based Pro Publica (www.propublica.org), was founded last year to fill the gap that has been created by newspapers around the country firing expensive investigative reporters. Headed by former Wall Street Journal managing editor Paul Steiger, Pro Publica already purports to have more investigative journalists on staff than any American newspaper.

But these days newspapers often find investigative reporting to be an unaffordable luxury, since reporters who immerse themselves in research-intensive reporting churn out fewer column inches. Kenney puts the Sentinel among the papers that have chosen easy-to-digest news over substantive reporting.

“It’s lazy reporting; it’s stenography, in a way,” he says. “You don’t have to go back that many years to see that [the paper] was trying to report on issues more broadly and deeply than they are going to be able to do. … It won’t get better. I think they’ll be a less adequate watchdog, for sure.”

David Porter, another Sentinel editorial board alum, says it’s the loss of institutional memory inherent in deep staff cuts that concerns him. There are few people left at the paper who have been around long enough to remember when Lake Eola Park was a haven for drug users and transients, not a place where you’d feel safe jogging, he says. There are few people left who recall when there was nothing between State Road 436 and Titusville.

“You need that perspective to know where this community is going,” Porter says.

Though his contributions to the Amazing Shrinking Orlando Sentinel blog (see sidebar) are often acerbic, Porter doesn’t think himself nothing but a gripe. In fact, he still holds out hope that Sam Zell’s guess about the future of newspapers proves correct. After all, he says, Zell is a rich guy, and he didn’t get that way by being stupid.

“I pray they know something I don’t know,” Porter says.

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