Monday, October 30, 2006

Lake Avenue Confidential

Once again, The Saratogian has lost its city beat reporter, meaning what is arguably the paper’s most important slot is now vacant. Less than three months after Chris Diakopoulos left for greener pastures, the editors on Lake Avenue are again short handed with a gap at what is arguably the paper’s lead beat: covering City Hall.

While the aforementioned reporter apparently to take what is likely a more lucrative job at Palio Communications down the street, there is no real understanding why his replacement, Matthew Rabin, a summer import from the newly established Saratoga News who abruptly disappeared from the position after less than two months on the job.

There’s little reason in publicly vetting why Rabin or any reporter left The Saratogian, as employment there is often a quick stop for journalists and public relations flack on their way to making more money. However, what is to be noted is that this paper has seen five reporters shifted in and out of a complicated and crucial beat that is now vacant for all intents and purposes.

What is also worth mentioning is that the average duration for the city beat position is hovering just below 11 months, which isn’t very much time a reporter to cultivate the sources necessary for sensible and meaningful journalism. In comparison, both the Times Union’s and the Daily Gazette’s Spa City reporters can measure their stay at their papers respective Saratoga bureaus in terms of years if not decades; this fact often shows in the depth of their reporting.

Now, some people would argue that The Saratogian is a small market newspaper, with far fewer resources at their disposal to create and maintain a staff of decent reporters. But given the more than credible stories relayed by former employees of the Journal Register Company –The Saratogian’s corporate overlord –it seems like this organization is more obsessed with shoving dollars in their pockets than bringing news to the door step. And given the earnings report released this month, it doesn't appear they'll be shoveling any more cash toward generating news.

One former reporter who left in disgust last year said The Saratogian was hiring college-educated reporters for what amounted to roughly $300 per week after taxes, which is less than the average clerk at Stewart’s takes home after 40 hours. Keep in mind, this salary includes no health insurance, no vacation time for the first year, no anything other than three C-notes at the end of the week. There’s a chance this has changed, but not a likely one.

So if the reporters aren't making any money, then where the hell is it going?

Perhaps one could look to Barbara Lombardo, the recalcitrant managing editor who’s rapidly approaching three decades manning the helm of a ship that just seems to take on more water every year. If there’s one reason the flimsy Saratogian is the way it is today, it’s got a lot to do with Lombardo, the person in charge of hiring reporters and keeping them on the straight and narrow.

From all accounts about Lombardo’s performance in the news room, she’s a nine-to-five absentee editor more concerned about her afternoon hair appointment than ensuring that the day’s news gets to the printing press. This is especially the case when a veteran reporter is bringing home a 400-word story about a kindergartener getting her head caught in a plywood cut-out of Daphne from the Scooby Doo gang. Meanwhile, the competition wrote about the demolition project and impending construction of a 123-room hotel located just across the street from The Saratogian’s main office.

As both Saratoga Springs and Saratoga County continue to grow exponentially, the supposed hometown newspaper remains the same: inept, undermanned and outdated. And much of this void has to do with the person sitting at the top of the pile, none other than Lombardo herself, who should do local journalism a favor and retire, so an editor with both vision and fire can revitalize this flailing publication.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've long thought that Lombardo was an idiot. Reading her editorials makes me throw up in my mouth a little bit.

3:28 PM  
Blogger devtob said...

As long as the legendary Journal Register cheapskates own The Saratogian, it will get ever cheaper and worse.

As it has since the day Gannett, no spendthrift chain, sold out.

And they will never hire "an editor with both vision and fire."

Sooner or later, Journal Register will be forced to sell the husk of The Saratogian, but, given today's newspaper climate, the new owner will likely be little better.

5:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you're being a bit hard on Lombardo. True, the paper is very light on actual meaningful news, but that's largely a product of the corporate culture, trickle-down from JRC. It's also surely partly a remnant from their former city editor, who was notorious for pushing aside ideas for interesting stories in favor of drivel (see the front-page story some time back about police shooting a raccoon on Broadway). But I suppose Lombardo's probably mostly given up on making a real newspaper, something of real daily-paper caliber, because she knows she'll never have the resources -- she'll never be able to pay enough to get good reporters or keep them, and she'll never be able to give them overtime if they need it to work on something investigative (or at least newsy), and she'll always have corporate breathing down her neck, wondering why there aren't enough biddy basketball scores in the paper or why the school honor rolls don't get more space, pushing its freebie weekly mentality.

As for Lombardo flitting in and out of the newsroom, it's true that she's in and out a lot, always running off to pick up her kid or run an errand, but she's there when she has to be, even if it means pulling night shifts in the perpetually-shorthanded newsroom (keep an eye on the classifieds -- there's always at least 1 or 2 openings at any given time).

As for the reporters' pay, you're about right, and the rest of the staff, even up to the section editor level, don't fare much better. There is health insurance, though, and vacation time after you've been there a year.

Meanwhile, I have to wonder who your sources are -- and who those five city reporters are, because I've lost track of the names, there've been so many in the past few years. The only beat that hasn't seen constant turnover is the county beat -- Jim Kinney may very well die at the same desk.

8:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rabin left for a legal mag in the city. He's from down there and from what I heard wanted to go back home.

8:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The city/local government beat is by far the most important beat on any newspaper, because it literally acts as the watchdog of government for the local citizens. It reports what large development will destroy a landscape before it happens, or what sort of scandal lurks behind the government offices.

A city reporter must cover all the meetings, know all the schedules, the officials, be in city hall everyday. The Saratogian stands in the way of that. Not because of Barbara Lombardo's complacency alone, but moreso because the direct connection the reporters, i.e. Connie Jenkins, the city editor, has no real passion for journalism in general. She sits there like a lump on a log, never checking into the city hall herself, never actually talking to any sources. For whatever reason, she is scared of Lombardo, and that in turn hurts the paper. She is supposed to act as a great mentor, manager to the reporters below her and instead never supports any of them. A great newsroom would allow its staff to grow into something great, but indeed there is no vision at all to make that happen.

It's no surprise another reporter has left, just as another reporter leaves a paper everyday. The question is: how could one go about starting up a great paper in a community like Saratoga Springs? One must open a family-owned newspaper and have editors that believe strongly in the purpose of journalism in a democracy: to educate and inform the public, so they become smarter. The people at the top need to care deeply about people.

1:13 PM  
Blogger Horatio Alger said...

True, I am a bit hard on Lombardo. It's also true that the removal of former city editor Connie Jenkins was a big step forward for that newsroom. Yet, with any paper in any market, the final say in any newsroom falls directly on the shoulders of the managing editor. You can make the argument that some publishers get their fingers into the news content. But generally, it's up to the editor to choose the direction and breadth of a newspaper. And in Lombardo's case, it's quite apparent that she no longer cares to invest the time and effort into producing a quality paper that adequately covers the city, much less the county. Frankly, I'd say she's more interested in collecting a paycheck. However, as an outsider, I could be wrong about this assessment.

Ideally, The Saratogian would revert to either local or private ownership, where the corporate heads wouldn't be hamstringing the paper's budget to streamline profits -- obviously I won't hold my breath on that happening. In the mean time, the paper could benefit from, a fresh perspective, maybe from someone who's willing to put both the time and energy into bringing the best out of the staff; perhaps Betsy DeMars -Jenkins' replacement -is that new face. Again, I'm not holding my breath.

As for the city reporters, here's the breakdown: Larry Ferchaw manned the post from November 2001 until May 2003. Christine Margiotta took over for him the following July and stayed until taking a job at the Post Star in May 2004. Her successor was Alicia Ruddy, who wrote with the paper until March 2005. Chris Diakopoulos took her place until July. Then there was Rabin, whose by-line vanished last month.

7:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interestingly, Lombardo didn't actually have the guts to get rid of Jenkins, incompetent as she was -- after many years of thinking about it and hemming and hawing (and Jenkins sucking up at just the right moments to get back in her favor), Lombardo took the indirect route, creating a job that didn't exist to bring back DeMars, who she must've known Jenkins hated (and for good reason, seeing as she was a threat to her job). Once DeMars came back, Jenkins snapped and quit.

Meanwhile, don't put too much stock in DeMars -- she's not a new face, just a former news editor who was dumb enough to go back.

9:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe there is no real hope for The Saratogian unless it is privately funded. JRC is one of the worst newspaper companies to work for, as it is stingy with pay, health benefits and mileage. But those ad revenues keep going up each year!

I should know -- I was a city reporter for The Saratogian and loved every minute of it. However, living on $19,000 per year on my own was an impossible feat.

But at the time, I was content to do it because I was young. I had a good grasp of the city beat and had a good reputation among my sources.

However, a huge reason why I left was named Connie Jenkins. While nice and sweet as a person, she was abyssmal as an editor. I don't know how many times she "corrected" info in my articles, only to find out from me the next day that she'd actually INSERTED ERRORS. But I was the one who looked like the dumb one. She did it to everyone there and it made me wonder if it was on purpose or if she really was that out of touch and careless with a community she's lived in for more than eight years. Kind of sad when you're the one telling her what's going on after being there only six months.

We had a great team there when I was there, but for some reason people were too afraid to let Connie go and as a result we all eventually bolted for greener pastures, except for Jim.

11:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I too was once a reporter at the Saratogian. Loved the city. Loved the newspaper business in principle. Hated JRC. Hated Connie Jenkins more. Even with the constraints of JRC, good journalism could be had, but Connie kept it at bay, often for her own petty obsessions (sex offenders and the messy yard man, just to name two). Someone suggested a story on track workers and she said they don't speak English, so why bother. Barbara Lombardo wouldn't stand up to Jenkins, but it can't be said that she wasn't in the office. She was always on call and always trying (though not always able) to help pull the paper out of whatever its crisis-of-the-day was.

11:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rabin was terrible, good riddance

12:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I disagree with Anon. Rabin was the best thing to ever happen to the Saratogian. His trend pieces were truly something special.

3:37 PM  

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