Vic Feuerherd's adult son, Chris, offered some words of wisdom, as offspring are wont to do: "Well, you're getting out of a dying business. Get on with your life."
Feuerherd, 56, hopes to do that. He's not sure what the future holds, but doubts he'll remain in his chosen profession: newspaper reporter.
The news media in general - and frontline workers in particular - are caught in the crosshairs of current economic trends. Local newspapers and broadcast outlets have been cutting staff, including icons like Tim Morrissey and Glen Gardner at WTDY. Indeed, experience has become a liability, as longer tenure means higher pay. (Joke du jour: Q. What does a newsroom manager say when a top reporter announces plans to leave? A. "Good!")
Feuerherd is one of five Wisconsin State Journal staffers let go two weeks ago in a new round of bloodletting at Capital Newspapers, which also owns and publishes The Capital Times. Pat Reardon, a veteran copy editor, also was axed [Correction: Reardon accepted a buyout.], and the paper does not plan to fill the considerable void left by the voluntary departure of Andy Hall (see "Watchdog," 1/23/09).
A talented sportswriter who has more Brewer in him than Bernie, Feuerherd was summoned to a meeting with John Smalley, the State Journal's new editor, on Jan. 19, Martin Luther King Day. He thought it would be a getting-acquainted talk. But then Smalley announced plans to "do this" in the human resources director's office.
"I went into a state of shock," recalls Feuerherd, grasping his predicament. The 21-year State Journal veteran had wondered if this day might come. He remembers thinking, "This is the day it's happening to me."
Feuerherd has "no magic solutions" to the trends causing hurt in many newsrooms. But he wonders if management decisions to shed experienced staff, cut back on content and shift emphasis to the Internet aren't making matters worse. "The industry as a whole seems to do a really good job of shooting itself in the foot."
Smalley confirms his paper has trimmed five fulltime-equivalent positions, cutting its overall staff to 80; in December 2007, an Isthmus article placed it at "about 90." Are additional cuts on the way?
"I sure hope not," says Smalley. "There's nothing pending that I know about."
Across the hall at The Capital Times, the bleeding has been more extreme. The paper lost about a third of its staff, from 60 to 40, when it ceased daily print publication last April. Recently, it asked for five or six more people to fall on their swords for the common good.
Reporter Anita Weier, who's worked for The Capital Times almost 14 years, winning a national award for state government reporting, accepted the buyout, which pays two weeks of severance for each year of service. Tamira Madsen, a former sports writer who began ably covering education last year, was shown the door, as was a graphic designer.
And two sports writers - Dennis Punzel and Dennis Semrau - went from full- to part-time, amid rumors of a merger of the two papers' sports staffs. Smalley calls this "an overstatement" but confirms the push toward greater collaboration between the two staffs. "We're trying not to duplicate each others' work."
Things are truly tough all over. Last week, the Iowa-based Lee Enterprises, half-owner of Capital Newspapers, announced it was freezing the salaries of its top execs at 2008 levels, as well as suspending bonuses and contributions (usually stock) to long-term incentive plans.
That means, for instance, that Lee CEO Mary Junck will have to mac-and-cheese it on her annual $850,000 salary. Doesn't that just make you want to cry?
Lies, damn lies and ad reps
When they give out awards for being stupid, as they really should, Michelle Matts deserves top honors. The account executive for Entercom Madison, which owns a trio of Madison radio stations (WOLX, CharlieFM and Triple M), recently sent a prospective client a note touting the advantages of radio advertising.
Mats got just about everything wrong but the spelling of her name. Watchdog misspelled it just now, for good measure.
"Newspaper advertising in the Madison market is not beneficial for local companies," she asserted. "Capitol Newspaper recently stopped producing print format of their newspaper! Entercom reaches thousands more people daily than the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper!" And so on.
First of all, the company is called Capital Newspapers, and it did not stop "producing print format of their newspaper"; while the Cap Times went from six days a week to two weeklies, it still appears in print, even if nitwits like Matts don't read it.
And Entercom's three stations have a combined 13.1 market share in the last Arbitron rating; that means an estimated 13.1% of area radio listeners here are tuning in one of those stations. Arbitron reckons that the Madison metro area has 477,300 people age 12 or older. If every one of them were listening, which they aren't, that would total 62,500 people. (Entercom, without explanation, claims a listenership of 137,800 in its promotional materials.)
Cap News circulation guy Phil Stoddard says the State Journal has an average paid circulation of 103,000 during the week and 136,000 on Sunday, for estimated readership totals in excess of 185,000 and 275,000 respectively. (Isthmus' circulation stands at about 60,000, with an estimated readership of 150,000.)
Matts did not return a phone message. Probably too busy lying about the competition.
The government giveth, taketh away, giveth back
Late last year, officials at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development conducted a review of Dane County programs. They found that two (of more than two dozen) HUD-funded county activities - a neighborhood Joining Forces for Families team and an elderly home rehab program - did not meet eligibility standards. In mid-December, the county paid back a total of $243,250.
But wait. The feds are going to give the money back.
"This wasn't a negative," says Lynn Green, the county's Human Services director. She calls it a "fairly routine audit that just picked up a few issues."
The probe began with an anonymous complaint to HUD, alleging multiple irregularities, most of which were not substantiated. Green says the problems occurred between 2004 and 2007, when the programs were managed by county planning staff. Human Services took over in January 2008.
At issue was whether the HUD funding went to expand county programs, as required, rather than replace existing funds. Green says the county was "unable to demonstrate" that it met this rule and thus had to repay.
But HUD, she adds, "has recycled the money for us to expand in 2009." It will be additional revenue that the county can use in an appropriate way. In other words, says Green, "We're getting a second chance." Good deal, that.
County GOP head out of closet!
The chairman of the Dane County Republicans has apparently conquered his fear about being publicly identified as a member of the party of Lincoln. In the past, efforts were made to hide his identity, to avoid the persecution he believed would ensue, due to the sheer wickedness of local liberals ("Dane County's Secret GOP Chair," 11/14/08).
But the Jan. 28 issue of the Badger Herald blows the lid off, with a story that quotes and even photographs the chairman, Mike Herl, who was elected to the post last May.
"I'm selfish as heck," the paper says Herl opined at a meeting of campus GOPers. "I want to keep as much of the money I make as possible, and I know I'm not going to be able to do it with the idiots that keep getting elected in."
Thanks for sharing, Mike. Good luck with your agenda.