Tim Evans, my friend and former colleague at the Indianapolis Star, had a wonderful run with a series of human interest stories on "the Broom Guy," Jim Richter, a 78-year-old blind man who got chased away from selling his trademark brooms at post office stations on the Northside.
To paraphrase Bill Murray in the movie "Ghostbusters," ("Nobody steps on a church in my town,") -- "Nobody screws with the Broom Guy in Indy." OK, the Northside, but what the heck.
As stories go, the "Broom Guy" saga (8 articles, by my count, plus a letter to the editor), has all the elements we love: little guy vs. big, bad government, the justified outrage of readers, who supported Richter by rushing to his various street corner locations to buy his brooms, the intervention of several political power brokers on behalf of Richter, and the final triumph: the return of Richter to the post offices, after the authories backed off and acknowledged they were overzealous.
I know I am perverse, but I personally relished the part of this news cycle when, pretty early on, Evans revealed that the postal service's action was based on alleged complaints from patrons that Richter cussed at them. Richter denied that, although he allowed that he does sometimes use "coarse language". But he's deeply spiritual, a Baptist. Welcome to Indiana, everyone. (And the cussing 'thing' was discounted ultimately, when attorney Gordon Durnil and Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma said they seriously doubted that it was true; they know the Broom Guy and he represents an excellent work ethic, salt of the earth, etc.)
Nonetheless, the cussing angle was an especially vivid touch because typically, reporters are faced with having to keep "the best part" or "the juicy part," out of print or broadcast for fear of offending someone, or worse. Evans kept it real, and that's why we all related.
On the other side of the print street, the Indianapolis Business Journal's John Russell (formerly an investigative reporter at the Star) had a great scoop with the news that a leading transplant surgeon is bagging his job at Indiana University Health and taking his skills to University of Alabama.
Dr. Joseph Tector blasted IU Health, as quoted by Russell: the IU system wants its doctors "to function as robots" and merely chase profits, putting money ahead of research and science.
Russell wrote: "Tector said he decided to leave IU Health after concluding the institution had changed its focus from one of pre-eminence to one of control and profit.'"
That's a powerful charge, and if true, it confirms anecdotal evidence, and some reporting in the past, that IU Health is in a cycle of failing in its caregiver mission. Or, at least, that something is radically wrong.
Both important stories, both delivered by top-notch reporters. Apples and organges? Sure. Or more like cherries and cheese.
As for the reporting with the potential for the most impact for our city, I'll be looking for follow-ups on the IU Health crisis. Based on what I've read and heard, "crisis" at IU Health is not too strong a word. But maybe I'm wrong. Prove it.
Incidentally, Russell is on the medical news beat at IBJ. The stellar J.K. Wall, who had that job for several years, has moved to Eli Lilly in communcations.
Final thought: Nothing beats the newspaper model, fragile tho it may be, for solid, important, interesting information.
Karen Ferguson Fuson, publisher of the Indianapolis Star, as well as other Gannett products, is to be credited for her transperency with staff re: the continual struggle to not lose more readers/subscribers.
The Star, like other newspapers, targets three audiences: old-school delivery subscriptions; desktop readers; and mobile app readers.
It's no news flash that print readers are bailing, but the numbers are shocking.
Ferguson Fuson sends out a "Happy Monday!" email to staff each week. It's mostly in-house rah-rah stuff, but at the end is where the action is. The heading is: "Below are our weekly indicators that show our performance against key leading indicators of our business."
For the week of May 11, Ferguson's (not yet Fuson) email noted "PERMANENT STOPS: 1,805. (Stops were above budget by 2.8 percent toward the 2015 stop goal of 64,000."
For the week of May 18, Ferguson noted, "PERMANENT STOPS: 919 (Stops were below budget by 5.3 percent towrd the 2015 stop goal of 64,000."
June 22's email records, "PERMANENT STOPS: 1,023 (Stops were above budget by 8 percent toward the 2015 stop goal of 64,000)."
Assuming we are reading this correctly -- and I am getting assistance -- this means that on the weeks cited, the Star lost 1,805 readers/subscribers in one week, 919 another, and 1,023 in another. Permanent stops has always meant just as it sounds: a subscriber calls the paper and tells them to stop delivery. Permanently.
It also appears the Star is projecting a total loss of 64,000 readers in 2015. That is an amazing hemorrhage.
Now, whether some of those readers will be drawn back with various offers is open to question, but it seems doubtful. The newspaper habit is not one the majority of Americans have any longer.
However, the folks at Gannett are in there pitching: one strategy is to offer a discount for readers who live in a less-than zip code; more affluent readers, based on zip code, pay more.
But it's a losing game.
A colleague speculates that, starting in 2016, the Star will produce a print newspaper for delivery three days a week. I would guess Friday, Saturday and Sunday, or Thursday, Friday and Sunday.
Eventually the Star will provide a print paper only on Sunday.
Meanwhile, desktop views and mobile views are a mixed bag. In the June 22 email, mobile views were 2,574,154, down 29 percent from the previous week.
However, mobile views spiked a bit to 3,030,230 for the week of May 18, a gain of 12 percent with overall gain of 45 perdent yoy (year over year), which is positive.
Desktop views seem to be similiarly jumpy -- up one week by 14 percent, down earlier by 13 percent.
We all know the future is online. The question is: can Gannett figure out how to draw and maintain those readers?
The issue, again, is that the paper no longer has a big enough staff (or committed editors) to feed the monster. The web page should be continuously updated, especially during the hours of 7-10 p.m. when mobile usage is at its peak.
But when Gannett chooses to produce a newspaper with a skeleton staff, it's hard to get fresh stories and updates.
The problem at the Indianapolis Star is not with the reporting staff, stretched thin tho it is.
It's a top-down issue: executive editor Jeff Taylor is not a newspaperman, in heart, mind or spirit. Thus his expectations for producing news stories are low, and the staff knows it.
During the last reorganization, most reporters at the paper were deemed projects or investigative reporters. Nobody is a general assignment reporter anymore, altho there is a small breaking news team which concentrates on police and crime.
No wonder the paper seems thin when it comes to breaking, hard news.
Here's an anecdote that illustrates the source of the problem.
Gannett likes to play games, and one game at the old building (307 N. Penn) was to gather staff together with the five or six leadership team members on display, perched on chairs on a stage. Staff members were fed a sentence or two about a team leader, then got to guess which person it applied to. Can you imagine this happening in a real newsroom?
Here was one hint: 'His professor in college tried to dissuade him from going into news, telling him instead he should pursue a career in public relations, because he just did not have what it takes to be a newsman.'
No surprise. The mystery man with the bent to PR is Taylor. God help us that anyone in management found this amusing enough to share with reporters. But then, truth to power.
No surprise that Taylor does not expect much from anyone, including Alvie Lindsay, a leadership team dude who is responsible for investigative projects and business reporting (however, with only one biz reporter left, as noted in yesterday's blog post, there's precious little to direct).
The newsroom atmosphere is so sluggish -- and morale is so low among reporters -- that a recent news story was slugged "Another lame weather story."
Meanwhile, the numbers continue to slide for Gannett, both in print/paper readers and digital hints. More on that in an upcoming post, thanks to emails from publisher Karen Crotchfelt Ferguson Fuson. At least, someone at IndyStar got what she wanted (a new husband, again).
Two Indianapolis Star staff members are moving on.
Award-winning investigative reporter and business writer John Russell is taking a job with the Chicago Tribune. His departure from the biz desk leaves longtime reporter Jeff Swiatek as the only Star journalist covering the city's business community.
Jeff Herman, formerly copy desk chief (until the Indy desk was dissolved a year ago), and now an IndyStar digital-print producer, will move to Austin, Texas, as web editor for a dot.com. His downsizing a year ago cooincided with the elimination of the watchdog copy desk to vet reporters' work.
Smart moves on behalf of Herman and Russell; bad news for the Indianapolis Star, which continues to bleed talent, cut salaries and lay off employees.
Russell and Herman are careerists -- guys who put their jobs first, or mighty high on the hierarchy. They both have the moxie and skill to climb the ladder of success.
Gannett does not reward such people. So, they leave.
Russell distinguished himself by digging deep into stories, such as his series deconstructing the construction of Central Library and, last winter, a series how the profit motives in the pet-medicine industry produce shortcomings.
Herman is a solid and creative chief copy editor who saw the writing on the wall a year ago, with the dissolution of the desk.
More in an upcoming post on what is wrong with Gannett. For starters, consider this: Publisher Karen Ferguson, nee Crotchfelt, is now overseeing operations of the Gannett papers in all of Indiana, as well as Louisville, Cincinnati and most recently Phoenix. It's all about the digital, digital, digital -- and that is not going well.
Congratulations to Russell and Herman.
Time for some good news.
The alleged perps who assaulted Butler-Tarkington resident Skip in the parking lot of CVS at 56th and Illinois have been caught in Virginia.
Here is what Skip's son Brett posted on Facebook: The names of the two suspects are "Amanda Marie Wallace,...(and) Bobby Ray Darnell, Jr of Gate City, VA. Bobby is currently in the hospital attempting to take his life when cornered by the cops. Amanda is in the Scott Co, VA jail with $5,000 bond... "
I spoke with Skip this morning and he provided more details:
Wallace and Darnell are allegedly meth dealers and meth makers who traveled back and forth between Indianapolis (where her family lives in Mars Hill) and Virginia, Darnell's home.
According to what Amanda Marie Wallace told the sheriffs in Gate City, Va., their vehicle broke down in Indianapolis. So they went to CVS to prey on an innocent person and get a new car. That's where they found Skip, a senior citizen who was driving his 2001 Toyota Avalon and picking up boxes outside of CVS to help a friend move.
While the man asked Skip (no last name, please), if he wanted help, which he declined, the woman came up behind him and hit him hard in the back of the head with a hammer. This was daylight, people....around 5 p.m. or so. Skip had to have 15 staples to close the wound.
"They still had the hammer with blood on it," Skip says.
This case was broken by excellent police and good neighbor work -- Detective Marshall Hoskins of IMPD and sheriff's deputies in Virginia.
Wallace and Darnell were living in a trailer park in or near Gate City, Va. A neighbor noticed that the Toyota Avalon they drove had out-of-state license plates (from Indiana) and notified police.
Deputies came to the home and knocked on the door for 15-20 minutes. Finally Darnell opened up and allegedly said "You're not taking me alive." He brandished a knife. Sheriff's deputies tasered him, There was a scuffle, and Darnell stabbed the knife into his chest. He was taken into custody and hospitalized.
Skip was a bit worried that the $5,000 bond was too low --- "if they are meth dealers they can easily raise that money," he said -- but warrants have been issued today for the pair to be extradited to Indiana. Skip says Amanda Wallace confessed her role in the crime.
Skip is happy to get his vehicle back at some point; he did not settle with insurance with the hope of recovering it. "It was bequeated me by my mom, so it has sentimental value," he said. Deputies in Virginia told him the car was in good shape.
As for CVS, still no sign of "no loitering" signs outside that bench. This company is not a very good neighbor. Don't blame the employees at the store; blame corporate.
But for now, I'm pleased with how this is unfolding. Best to Skip and his family. Thanks to the police for good work and the alert neighbor who blew the whistle. More like this.
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