Media Watch

Lee finally turns a profit

Lee Enterprises, the publishing outlet that owns the Arizona Daily Star, hasn't enjoyed a quarterly earnings number in the black since 2010, but the company's latest figures indicated more money is coming in than going out.

"Lee continues to drive digital revenue and audiences at an accelerating pace," said CEO Mary Junck in a press release. "Our rapid digital growth, along with our many print and new digital initiatives, positions us especially well, we believe, for a strong 2015. Our successful introduction of full access subscriptions also continues to heighten our optimism, as our unmatched local news gives us a powerful advantage in every market."

Much of the change also had to do with Lee's continued cost cutting. The publishing company reduced its budget by another 2.4 percent, a number that increases to 3.7 percent when not taking into account the costs of the subscription-based paywalls across its news products, which includes the online subscription model at the Arizona Daily Star.

"Since 2007 we have reduced cash costs by more than 37 percent, totaling $297 million," said Junck in the press release. "Additionally, we achieved our sixth consecutive year of strong and stable adjusted EBITDA and unlevered free cash flow and returned to profitability for the first year since 2010."

Even though that seems positive, Lee still has more than its share of issues. Digital advertising continued its upward trend. Digital now makes up more than 18 percent of the company's advertising, however, when combined with continued decreases in print advertising, overall advertising revenue still decreased by 3.4 percent from the same quarter a year ago.

So how does Lee continue to negate that downtick?

"Compensation decreased 1.3 percent, with the average number of full-time equivalent employees down 3.3 percent. Newsprint and ink expense decreased 12.3%, primarily the result of a reduction in newsprint volume of 10.7 percent," the press release said.

Translation. Lee continues to cut back on staff. As for newsprint and ink expenses, for those who still get a paper version of the Daily Star, just take a look at the paltry Monday and Tuesday editions, and that speaks for itself.

On a side note entirely unrelated to Lee's quarterly financials, the Arizona Daily Star website still sucks.

The Newsroom shuts down

I'm saddened by the recent conclusion of the shortened six-episode third and final season of The Newsroom, which wrapped last week on HBO. Not because it was good television, but because it's rare a series—even a series created and written by Aaron Sorkin—could be this annoying.

Not that anyone actually bothered to watch, but for the few who did this show deserved a prize wheel. Take your random spin and guess what will develop in the next scene.

Every other wheel cog is occupied by "Aaron Sorkin is smarter than you." He will divulge this knowledge by virtue of numerous rambling dialogue sequences, from characters who are all manifestations of a deep comprehension only bestowed to you by a privileged few. Or the privileged one.

Other cogs on the wheel include, "Which character will be the most ingratiating?" This became a game unto itself. In this instance, will it be upstart reporter Maggie Jordan, website/social media expert Neal Sampat, perhaps one of the two names Sorkin plucked from the Stan Lee random generator of alliteration: executive producer McKenzie McHale or financial expert Sloan Sabbath, or everybody's ideal northeastern, acoustic guitar playing Harlequin romance figure, Jim Harper?

There's a cog for the Harlequin component as well. For all the deep, moral compass blathering and ethical dilemma chatter about how real journalism should conduct itself on a higher plain, The Newsroom had a remarkable ability to mock the likes of gossip-related outlets while drifting into uninspired scenes centered around insipid interoffice romances. The Newsroom gang didn't have much success in its ratings battles against fictional competition, but it sure would have made e-harmony proud.

Another cog on the wheel: when will Sorkin defend his superiority through a speech about how being Ivy League shouldn't be shameful? Bonus points for how, such as the sequence in the jail cell with star anchor Will McAvoy where his cellmate has disdain for elitist snoots. Of course, said cellmate beat up women, so that makes elitist snoots good.

Which brings us to the next cog: Will McAvoy is Republican. How do we know this? Because as part of Sorkin's ability to create deep characters over the course of his 25-episode opus, he gave McAvoy great lines like, "I'm Republican," and "I'm from Nebraska." This was enough balance in a show that often laughably attempted to stand on the pedestal of objectivity.

Which seemed a bit hard to buy when another cog, figuring out a way to incorporate one's liberal agenda, would weave its way into the tapestry.

Not that creating a program with a specific agenda is a big deal. Entertainment is entertainment, and if it's good say what you want. But for me it will remain the greatest takeaway from the show, and from Sorkin's television work.

Sorkin didn't break innovative ground or provide us with unique insight on the deterioration of traditional journalism in the midst of instantaneous social media outlets and massive corporate interests, but he provided unintentional commentary on the current state of political polarization.

This is the guy who created The West Wing, a successful program launched in 1999 that focused on the inner workings of a democratic President and his staff. Yet The West Wing, which had every opportunity to lean hard left, consistently presented both sides of a political argument, and as a result delivered a product infinitely more balanced than a program about a television newsroom that purported objectivity, but delivered anything but.

If you want to see just how divisive the verbal masturbation of political dialogue has become, and in a relatively short period of time, compare those two programs. And then feel free to watch a lot more of The West Wing. It's much better TV.

Unless you like make believe prize wheels.

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