Monday, July 27, 2009

The Comatose Newspaper...

"Oh, sweet morning. Is your head not right? Did you hear my warning? This is the time of times..." - Badly Drawn Boy, The Time of Times

By Patrick Alcatraz

McALLEN, Texas - It's no big mystery: they call it shrinking the product while growing the bottom line. Fast food businesses know the concept well. That is why the patty in a Whataburger is not what it was 10-15 years ago. So, when you reach for the daily newspaper in any of your local racks, what you are getting is a thinner version of the same product you got for a quarter not that long ago. The McAllen Monitor is going through a weird time, lashings seemingly brought on by a slumping economy and the widespread belief that, well, American newspapers are dying. Is The Monitor dying? Only its owners in Southern California know enough to be able to say with some credibility. Rumors and scuttlebutt abound that Freedom Communications, owner of The Monitor, the Valley Morning Star in downrange Harlingen, and The Herald in poverty stricken Brownsville, is said to be in deep debt. Some clues have surfaced about where the company is headed and what that means to its many individual properties.

The Monitor is so skimpy on Mondays it carries no Editorials/Opinion Page. Today, it ironically featured a lengthy column written by its managing editor, my friend Henry Miller, recounting his battle against the annoying bulge. Miller writes he once weighed more than 300 pounds. The irony is that there was a time when The Monitor also weighed-in with more pages and, yeah, more news. Its recent losses have mirrored Miller's weight loss, so much so that many in town believe the newspaper not known for anything in particular will soon go tabloid and become a three-days-a-week newspaper - as did its sister paper in Mesa, Arizona earlier this year. It's all about cutting costs, or one would think. The Monitor, serving a local population of more than 100,000 humans, can't seem to get past reporting on meetings, chasing handy crime reports, and offering an occasional feature story that actually interests its fading readership. Nobody I know knows exactly where The Monitor is in its deathbed, or in its fight to survive.

Among the things I notice about it is its writing staff, not exactly a group of interesting people. Reporter Jeremy Roebuck seems to have a handle on what makes for a well-written, meaningful tale. But there is little after Roebuck. I suspect he feels like major leaguer Albert Pujols would feel if he played for the lowly Edinburg Roadrunners. That Sports Page is woeful. It begins with the sports editor and the sportswriters. The Monitor's sports-types just don't cut it. It is pedestrian reporting at its worst. There is something weird about publishing game coverage of UT-PA sports written by a UT-PA employee (Hell-o, Jim McKone Days), or with having employees of the area semi-pro teams write game reports. That is the mark of a smalltown newspaper, better suited for the hellholes of far West Texas.

Today, The Monitor published a story about small businesses and how they are battling the sluggish economy. Yes, that is a timely story. It is the story of all of us, absolutely.

But what about a story on what's going on at The Monitor? This newspaper works its revenue quota and then transfers large amounts of money to its corporate offices in Irvine, California. It has been doing that forever. Perhaps it's time for The Monitor to level with its readers. Will it? Not likely.

Newspapers have a long, long history of slapping readers with bad news related to their operation on the morning they are ready to do it, and not before. But something's up with The Monitor and the other Freedom dailies in the Rio Grande Valley. The three individuals shown above, Publisher M. Olaf Frandsen (in dark suit), mustachioed Editor Steve Fagan, and Managing Editor Henry Miller (goatee), have the info.

Just don't expect them to share it with you anytime soon...

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