'Enquirer'-Kentucky Relationship Strained by Rocky Coverage

Covering or writing about a community are very different. One requires being embedded; the other is what reporters do when they parachute in and too-often rely on the usual suspects.

The Enquirer’s latest flight from Northern Kentucky leaves execs and journalists trying to persuade Kentuckians that retreat is just advancing in a different direction. 

All of this recalls an Enquirer publisher who found unexpected problems after he took the job. 

So he asked employees for help. 

That publisher, Harry Whipple, expected a handful of volunteers; he got almost 200, none of whom knew what they were volunteering for. We became the Venture project. 

At gatherings on company time, every table included at least one person from every department. Many of us were strangers to each other.

Each table was to research an assigned task and recommend a plan or solution. None of this was busy work. Tasks addressed problems the new publisher had to solve. Our team had to assess how the Enquirer could re-enter the growing Kentucky market and the likelihood of success. 

With good reason, Kentuckians treated the Enquirer with contempt; the paper would alternately turn hot and cold on their concerns, lives and interests. About the only Kentucky content in the Kentucky Enquirer was the name.

Kenton, Campbell and booming Boone Counties were Kentucky Post country, affection and loyalty earned by decades of local reporting, photography and commentaries. 

General antipathy to the Kentucky Enquirer was the biggest hurdle that our team identified. Kentuckians didn’t believe the Enquirer would stay if we came. Nothing short of a massive re-entry with staff and coverage would be persuasive enough to win a foothold. After that, it would take solid journalism to turn initial positive responses into subscriptions and ads. 

Drawing data from inside and outside the paper, we prepared a detailed plan for coverage, ad sales and circulation, right down to the cost of newsprint for additional papers we hoped to sell. 

But when we reported to the publisher and his committee of senior execs, we cautioned that unless promotion, advertising and circulation busted their butts in unaccustomed vigor and succeeded, a better paper would lose money. 

Our plan went on the shelf. It was too costly and iffy for the moment. Northern Kentucky coverage remained anemic although it still was marketed as a Kentucky edition. 

Then priorities changed. Publishing a hearty Kentucky edition looked viable. Elements of our Venture team plan were evident when the Enquirer returned seriously to Northern Kentucky. 

For years, the Kentucky Enquirer journalists have produced a credible local product from an accessible Kentucky office. When the Kentucky Post died as a daily printed paper, Kentucky Enquirer coverage was up to the task. 

Now, from all signals, the Enquirer is pulling out again. My CityBeat colleagues provided some of the details in August while I was pursuing elusive Canadian pike. 

It won’t matter whether a token Northern Kentucky office is retained; reporters, photographers and editors are being moved to 312 Elm St. as the paper consolidates staff at the expense of once-valued bureaus.

If there is any good news in this, a lot of talented, productive people survived the Kentucky staff cuts and move across the river. However, for the moment, put aside whether they can cover Northern Kentucky from Cincinnati. It’s been tried and it’s always failed. 

Covering or writing about a community are very different. One requires being embedded; the other is what reporters do when they parachute in and too-often rely on the usual suspects.  

Watching Northern Kentucky from Cincinnati isn’t the same as being in the Commonwealth, going to meetings, drinking coffee, schmoozing cops, judges, politicians, developers, merchants and neighborhood characters. 

Kentucky editor Steve

Wilson, who lost his job, told CityBeat that the Enquirer wasn’t backing away from its commitment to Northern Kentucky, but added,

“Clearly, all things being equal, you want to have reporters based in the area they’re covering.” 

Now, instead of coverage, remaining readers will get a thin gruel of what officials, spokesmen and other media manipulators provide time-stressed and Cincinnati-based reporters.

Rather than gritty daily coverage telling residents what they need to know about public policy and officials, education, crime, hunger, drugs, economic development or decline, Kentuckians will get one-off splashy special efforts with breast-beating “Exclusive” or “Watchdog” logos. 

Bad as that is, another threat arises from absorbing former Kentucky journalists into the Cincinnati newsroom. There won’t be a Kentucky editor to protect “Kentucky” reporters and photographers from Cincinnati editors who want to use them on other stories. 

In management speak, that’s optimal allocation of assets. In a positive sense, it can mean putting James Pilcher on Cincinnati’s pension mess, but for Northern Kentuckians, it means, “you’re screwed.” 

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN : [email protected]

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