Monday, February 15, 2010
Newspaper too thin? Why not sue.
Keith Hempstead, a lawyer in Durham, N.C., did that in 2008 when he sued The News & Observer, alleging the Raleigh daily had breached its contract with him as a subscriber when it cut staff and pages soon after he renewed.
He later dropped the suit, but not before making headlines for his approach, which he said all along was designed to get the attention of an industry relentlessly cinching its belt.
Indeed, the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism that same year underscored his quality concerns in a study titled "The Changing Newsroom: What Is Being Gained and What Is Being Lost in America's Daily Newspapers."
Now a complaint about cutbacks and quality has surfaced again, this time brought in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Georgia by a pair of subscribers in the case of Morris Publishing Group LLC. The two sought to make their point by gaining standing in the Chapter 11 case, whose reorganization plan is headed toward expected approval this week.
But the pair, Judith Seraphin and Ed Slavin, was turned back when a judge ruled they could not intervene as subscribers, readers or third-party interests in the case. (See the decision here by typing Morris Publishing into the search box.)
Morris, publisher of 13 daily newspapers in the South and Midwest, filed for bankruptcy protection last month. At the time, one of its lawyers said he expected the case "will be one of the fastest newspaper reorganizations in U.S. history."
But Seraphin and Slavin, who describe themselves as "local community activists" and "longtime readers and subscribers" to Morris' St. Augustine Record in Florida, asked to be let into the case last week, at the deadline for objections to the reorganization plan.
According to court documents, the pair says they are "horrified" at a perceived drop in the quality and quantity of news in the paper. And since Morris foresees no change in operations under the reorganization plan, other than relief of long-standing debt related to acquisitions in the 1990s, they predict disaster: that its smaller papers will head into "a death spiral of declining interest in newspapers" due to inadequate resources to report the news.
The judge, however, ruled that only the bondholders affected by the rejiggering of debt in the Morris case should have a say in the reorganization. And he said the pair's claims of lost quality and quantity in the Morris papers aren't relevant to "the purpose of this Chapter 11 case, which is to give the debtors the breathing space necessary to accomplish their financial rehabilitation."
Late Friday, it was reported that Seraphin and Slavin asked the court to reconsider.
No matter the outcome, it's heartening to see subscribers like Hempstead, Seraphin and Slavin -- anyone other than affected journalists -- show interest in the industry and what the ever-continuing belt-tightening is doing to the country's newspapers.