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May 25, 2005

The Old Grey Lady – Part Two

Tom McLaughlin

In yesterday’s piece I pointed to one of the major problem areas I see with The Frederick News-Post. Despite enormous growth in population in Frederick County over the past 20 years, the circulation of this venerable “Old Lady” has decreased by 5,000 since October 2002 according to the press run figures. Things must change before that trend can be reversed.

The editorial policy of the paper is easily called into question. Many people perceive the paper as a product of the old Frederick County. They feel the paper caters to the establishment and not the emerging and changing dynamics of the new.

Its political posture is perceived as a product of the opinions of a small select group who travel in a narrow circle. The negative publicity that continues to be published about the mayor of the City of Frederick is a prime example. Reporting is slanted against her because it reflects the attitudes of this small group.

Another example is Republican State Sen. Alex Mooney. The articles that appear in the Hagerstown paper (he also represents part of Washington County) versus the Frederick paper are startling. One would think, after reading both papers as I have, that the senator has a split personality.

Articles reported by the Associated Press from Annapolis never seem to appear in the News Post, while they are printed in the Hagerstown media. The News Post needs to hire an ombudsman to make sure the reporting on political issues is fair and unbiased. The attitude of the publisher that is passed to the editor and other managers are the major contributors to the atmosphere that pervades the News Post. Every effort was made to secure an appointment with Myron Randall, editor, publisher and owner of the publication, to discuss these issues. Whereas one who is part of the system can get through to him in a second, everyone else is effectively barred through non-responsive e-mails, or just plain avoidance. My attempts ended after a four-month effort when he told me that I only wanted a job. He told me to contact the personnel office which I did, with a laugh, and was told they weren’t hiring anyone.

The major tenet of the conservatives is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it;” or “no change at any cost.” This is a fine political philosophy for many people. But, the newspaper is broken and needs to be changed before it is sold on the auction block to be purchased by a chain that will fire the entire newsroom. Witness The Salisbury Times.

Myron Randall needs to remove himself from the throne and become more involved outside his inner circle. He should realize he is the owner of a second-rate – soon to become third-rate – newspaper. He needs to step in and improve the news division.

The current trend of huge pictures covering the front page illustrates the lack of reporting on local issues.

One also wonders why he did not use Frederick and Maryland lenders for the financing of the new office and printing facilities. I have a feeling the knowledgeable bankers agree with me about where the News Post is - and where it is heading. The ridiculous picture of Mr. Randall shaking hands with a Japanese salesman so he won’t have to reveal the price of the press, when the make and model is available for all to see on the Internet, is telling. Why did he need to hide the price of the press? And why go all the way to Japan and not buy American?

It seems the newspaper might be in a financial condition that the Randall Family would rather not discuss. Mr. Randall needs to quit listening to the minions who surround him and open his mind to the ideas of others.

He can do this in various ways. The first would be an exit interview with every employee. He should listen more to what they don’t say than what they do say. He could also improve morale by walking to the newsroom and congratulate the employees from time to time.

There have been many excellent investigative pieces – the one about the water pipeline to the Potomac comes quickly to mind – that need to be recognized. An occasional “Where we are heading” or “we are proud of our staff” piece written by him would also be a great morale booster. I have been in the newsroom at production time with both Dave Elliot, the managing editor, and Nancy Luse, the assistant managing editor. The positions should be reversed, but that is my personal opinion. There is a whirlwind of activity with reporters typing away, editors editing – I guess that’s what they do – telephones ringing, people running around and a general state of organized chaos. At least I think it is organized.

Mr. Elliott and Ms. Luse simply do not have the time to manage a huge diverse staff and put out a daily newspaper at the same time. Something must be done in that area. Mr. Randall obviously has a great problem in filling key positions.

The primary reason they can’t find good people is that they don’t pay enough. The days of hiring managers only to have them trained and working and then moving on to another newspaper, like the reporters, must stop. The only way Mr. Randall can hire good people is to pay them. Mr. Elliott and Ms. Luse are simply too busy trying to get a daily paper out to boost morale, train and cultivate the staff required. One of the major reasons people are moving to Frederick County is the excellent school system. The hard working teachers have elevated this county to one of the best in Maryland and surely on the East Coast.

Yet, the paper does not have a section devoted to education. A reporter should be assigned to cover the schools, produce a weekly education page and report on a different school each week. A column rehashing old education news does not cut it. An education section will increase circulation because parents want to read about their kids and their schools. A bright and shining star of the newspaper is the “72 Hours” section. Most people do not want to drive down 270 on the weekend. This very popular pull out provides reviews of restaurants, articles on local bands, nightspots, films and a cacophony of other announcements for weekend activities.

The concise movie reviews, locations and times of films time and locations, advertisements for various functions are greatly coveted. It is the best part of the newspaper and should be expanded with assigned reporters and more pages.

Tomorrow: My Personal Travails!

Yellow Cab
The Morning News Express with Bob Miller
The Covert Letter

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