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Albany Herald moving forward as news leader

Opinion Column

John Hetzler

John Hetzler

Some days, you can really empathize with a guy like Mark Twain.

In a note in 1897, Twain included the comment that "the report of my death is an exaggeration."

In Twain's case, his cousin's serious illness had been twisted into a premature obituary by some who were inexcusably reckless with rumor and unencumbered with truth.

At The Herald, we felt a little of that ourselves in recent days.

As we reported -- and newspapers, unlike other media, do this, even when it's about themselves -- The Herald made a hard business decision that resulted in the moving of our printing to Tallahassee, Fla. Twenty-six people are losing jobs with The Herald in this transition. Those are facts.

What are not facts are inexcusable, reckless comments unencumbered with truth by a media competitor who thought this would be an ideal time to feign sympathy while making a grab for a business advantage.

One of the things I did once we had broken the news first to those whose jobs were affected and second to our Herald family was to personally contact each of the news organizations who operate in metro Albany -- our TV partner WFXL, WSWG and WALB -- and let them know what was happening. Their reporters did their jobs, some I thought better than others, but the reports were objective.

Then earlier this week, I received an email of a commentary by WALB Station Manager Jim Wilcox that was apparently broadcast on his station. I say apparently because I didn't see it and know few people who did. The email, however, has been making the circles around town.

In it, Wilcox speaks of newspapers in past tense and claims there will be a "void" in local reporting that his crew will be more than happy to fill. You could almost hear Taps being played softly in the background.

My first reaction was to ignore it, but in the past that has proven to be a bad decision by our industry. Thinking that a lie is too obvious to find traction, we've attempted to take the high road. Unfortunately, that only encourages bigger lies to come later.

Take, for instance, Wilcox's "example" -- the Monday Herald. Monday newspapers, since daily newspapers began publishing, never have been moneymakers. Instead, they have been maintained as a service to readers. Holding up Monday's paper as an example of the viability of our business would be like pointing to Channel 10's holiday newscasts ... except that WALB news usually runs "special programming" in place of its newscasts on holidays, we can only assume because in their world making money trumps providing service to their viewers.

Or, take Wilcox's assertion of Channel 10 as a news "leader." In addition to providing much more depth, The Herald has routinely beaten WALB and, since we began focusing heavily on our website, albanyherald.com, a few years ago, our news team has consistently scooped WALB with online breaking news as well, beating them at their own game. Nowhere has this been clearer than in recent reports on the school system in which WALB has continually been playing catch-up. The fact is, if you sign up for our news alerts, you'll see that we're extremely competitive in getting news you want quickly delivered to your computer, tablet or smartphone. Somehow that escaped a mention in Jim's commentary.

And that commentary -- make no mistake about it -- was aimed at luring advertisers to WALB. That's because when it comes to advertising, our business partners' messages get into the hands of readers -- readers who are the lifeblood of businesses in our metro area -- and to the eyes of the ever-increasing number of visitors to our website. Their advertising messages are not lost as background noise on TVs left unwatched for trips to the fridge, nor are they lost in the shuffle as remotes and other technology empower viewers to scan other channels.

Don't get me wrong. We compete with all media and expect to face objections from advertisers, especially those who are well-coached by our competitors. For example it is a common TV sales technique to compare TV viewers with our circulation, a completely bogus comparison. When readers are compared to viewers in our five-county metro area, we win -- every time, hands down. It is also common for TV, especially WALB, to compare viewers in a 20-county market to our five counties. It may sound impressive on the surface, however, the last time I checked, most retailers don't expect to get a new customer who drives 60 miles unless it is for a truly one-of-a-kind item or service.

The fact is that TV viewership is down dramatically. The difference is you won't hear WALB report that because Wilcox focuses on perception, not reality, and that type of reporting isn't good for business. Just look at Pizza Hut's latest gimmick -- offering free pizzas for life to anyone who will ask the presidential candidates during what should be serious political debates a frivolous question -- whether they prefer pepperoni over sausage. The Associated Press, in reporting the story, noted the reason for this gimmick: Pizza Hut marketers, like others, are stooping to these sorts of tactics because they are searching for new ways to engage TV audiences who are growing increasingly resistant to traditional TV commercials.

As it turns out, the only real void in Wilcox's commentary was the one between opinion and fact. We made a decision that will improve our company's viability and the quality of the product we bring to your home or business every day of the year. The Herald has been the news leader in our area for more than 120 years now, evolving as innovations such as radio, TV and now the Internet came into play. We will continue to do the things that will enable us to bring the best possible news and advertising product to your home, business, computer, tablet or smartphone.

Even on holidays.

Email Publisher John Hetzler at john.hetzler@albanyherald.com.