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Bill Straub: It's now clear that the once-great, once-proud Courier-Journal has lost its way

WASHINGTON – Be forewarned. As Margo Channing once advised, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.’’ So leave us proceed.

The Courier-Journal of Louisville, once one of this nation’s great newspapers, is an embarrassment. It is a canard. It is a shame wrapped in a humiliation inside an abomination. Canaries and parakeets are on strike and won’t use it. It is worthless, witless and not worth hewing a single tree to print it on.

In summation, it stinks.

Under the direction of the Bingham family too many years ago, the C-J was nationally recognized as one of the foremost newspapers not just in the U.S. but in the world. An argument could be made that at one time, given that it was ranked alongside the likes of the New York Times and the Washington Post, both of which featured larger circulations and more accessible resources, the Courier-Journal was, pound-for-pound as they say in the fight game, the best.

It featured great reporters such as Bill Greider, John Ed Pearce, Ed Ryan, Dick Wilson, Livingston Taylor, Al Cross and just too many more to name. It broke barriers – Carol Sutton was the first woman to assume the managing editor duties of a major metropolitan newspaper. Even the sports section under Dave Kindred wasn’t that bad.

And it took on the major issues without fear or favor. It battled the coal industry, made life hell for governor after governor and fought for better education in a state that all too often fails to take the subject seriously enough. It was a statewide paper, sticking its nose into affairs from Paducah to Pikeville.

It was an invaluable institution. The winner of 10 Pulitzer Prizes.

Looking at it now brings comparisons to watching Willie Mays’ attempts to play centerfield for the New York Mets in the early 1970s, beyond even the twilight of his career. More than anything else, it’s sad.  

The Courier-Journal is now no better than the Cincinnati Enquirer, which is about as damning a statement as any individual could possibly make about an alleged newspaper. The Lexington Herald-Leader, a paper that has its faults nonetheless has surpassed the CJ in both quality and influence. More’s the pity.

The slide began as these things often begin – the Courier-Journal was purchased by Gannett in 1986, which is something like the Louvre handing over the “Mona Lisa’’ to Sam’s Service and Lube Shop in Dunellen, New Jersey, to hang next to the girlie calendar on the back wall.

Gannett kept its grimy meat hooks off the prized property for a bit, giving hope to maintaining the paper as, in the words of Robert Worth Bingham, “a public trust’’ to “render the greatest public service.’’ Fat chance. Gannett was simply biding its time before attempting to transform it into a cash cow. Before long the state bureaus, the paper’s backbone, were gone. The staff in the Frankfort Bureau was cut back, saved only by the presence of Bureau Chief Tom Loftus (a personal friend, it should be noted).

It lost reporters like Cross — who likely knew the names of every county clerk in the commonwealth’s 120 counties – robbing the paper of significant institutional knowledge. It scrapped the copy desk, sending stories to some off-campus site where those editing the stories knew little about Kentucky and, even more critically, didn’t care to learn.

All of this was done, of course, with the usual assurances – won’t affect quality, do more with less, yada yada yada. In reality, it’s a disgrace.

Now the coup de grace. At a time when Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, has assumed the leadership of a majority in the upper chamber, making him perhaps the second most powerful figure in the nation’s capital, and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, has all-but-declared he’s running for president in 2016, the C-J has decided to close its Washington, D.C., bureau, forfeiting a talented reporter, Jim Carroll in the process.

Closing the D.C. Bureau results in a public loss much greater than just coverage of politics. Coal continues to be a major issue as the Obama administration addresses global climate change while Kentucky lawmakers seek to tighten the reins on the Environmental Protection Agency. Obamacare, which has proved beneficial to the commonwealth, remains under attack. Carroll knew about these issues and many others. Soon he’ll be nothing but a memory.

Oh, and the paper essentially fired what remains of its editorial staff.

In a memo that can only be described as dopey, Executive Editor Neil Budde declared that the C-J was establishing a new, revolutionary beat system. Rather than simply assign folks to these new beats, members of the editorial staff must apply for a position or find themselves out on the street.

And what are some of these new beats? Many are just old beats with different, New Age titles. The Frankfort Bureau, for instance, is now “Government Watchdog — Statehouse Watchdog,’’ the same thing in more words, perhaps bespeaking the paper’s lack of copyeditors.

And then there are things like Louisville Life – Sit, Sip and Relax – The Lifestyle of Bourbon, Beer and Bars, a beat that apparently is more important to the powers-that-be than keeping an eye on the shenanigans in Washington that have an impact on one-and-all. And then there is Sports – Digital Buzz, whatever in the world that means.

And there are all sorts of folks they’re calling “coaches,’’ like the paper is a volleyball team. There’s a Communities and Writing coach, a Content Coach whose job, apparently, is to stand around kibitzing. And something called an Engagement Editor, who it appears is not good enough to coach.


Here’s one example, just to give a taste:

LVL Reporter I, II or III – Louisville Life – Outdoor Adventure and Entertainment: Young achievers and young families are looking for outdoor and active activities, and Louisville is positioning itself to be an outdoor recreation mecca. This reporter will help readers on their quest to discover unique places, quirky events, cool gear and cutting-edge technology that helps them live an active lifestyle. This reporter will be the go-to resource for family friendly fun and will write stories and produce videos that specifically cater to young families and young achievers. The reporter also will keep readers in the know about things to do and entertainment.

This job, and many of the others listed as a new beat, is intended to generate what has come to be known as “click bait,’’ which Wikipedia accurately describes as “a pejorative term describing web content that is aimed at generating online advertising revenue, especially at the expense of quality or accuracy, relying on sensational headlines to attract click-throughs and to encourage forwarding of the material over online social networks.

So that’s your once proud Courier-Journal of Louisville, the proud lady at Sixth and Broadway. No copyeditors. No state bureaus. No Washington Bureau, reduced Frankfort Bureau. But, thank God, there’s a “sit, sip and relax’’ reporter.

To say it has lost its way is like saying the Donner Party lost its way.

Now THAT’S what I call media criticism.


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Washington correspondent Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. He currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

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