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    Published on: May 31, 2013

    by Kevin Coupe

    Advertising Age reports that the Chicago Sun Times has done something almost unthinkable for a newspaper - it has fired all its photographers.

    The paper says that it will now only hire photographers on a freelance basis, and will require its reporters to take pictures when they cover stories.

    The goal of the move, the company says, is to reduce head count and expenses and restructure the company as the digital revolution affects how people consume news.

    I have a couple of thoughts about this.

    One is that it is yet another example of how the world is changing in some fundamental ways, and how businesses are having to change the way they do business in order to cope with competition, much of it from non-traditional sources, and changing economic realities.

    But I also think it is an example of a business not understanding a core value - which is the importance, to a newspaper, of a really good picture that actually can be worth a thousand words. That's what great photographers do ... and what most newspaper reports can't do, either because they don't have a particularly good eye (I would be a terrific example of this), or because they are so busy talking to people and listening to answers that they are not focusing on the optics.

    And shouldn't.

    Maybe newspapers like the Sun Times simply cannot afford to keep photographers on staff anymore. There are a lot of businesses out there that are having to make do with less, or having to reorganize themselves in unfamiliar ways because of tectonic shifts in how they do business.

    But I think that the Sun Times is doing more than just cutting costs. I think it is handing the Chicago Tribune and all other competitive papers an enormous potential advantage ... and giving up on one of the distinguishing characteristics that can make a newspaper great. Or just worth reading.
    KC's View:

    Published on: May 31, 2013

    The Washington Post this morning reports that Japan yesterday has suspended all imports of US wheat after a field in Oregon was been found to be growing gene-altered wheat that was never approved by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

    Japan is the largest importer of US wheat.

    The strain of GM wheat has been traced back to one that was tested from 1998 to 2005 by Monsanto, which then withdrew its application for its approval and now says it has no idea how the field of GM wheat got there.

    "In addition to Japan’s action," the Post writes, "the European Union, which imports more than 1 million tons of U.S. wheat a year, said that it was following developments 'to ensure E.U. zero-tolerance policy is implemented'."
    KC's View:
    There have been two stories this week that struck me as having food safety implications.

    One is the Monsanto rogue wheat story, and the other is the $7.1 acquisition of Smithfield Foods by China's Shuanghui International Holdings Limited , which has been implicated in the sale of tainted food in China, a problem that has gotten a lot of publicity there.

    Which made me think. Who is least trustworthy? Chinese food companies? Or Monsanto?

    This Japan thing is just the beginning. I suspect we'll see a lot more reaction, little of it positive for the US.

    Published on: May 31, 2013

    The Financial Times reports this morning that Procter & Gamble, having just returned AG Lafley to the president/CEO job after the sudden resignation of his successor, Bob McDonald, now "is planning a management reshuffle that will create four big new jobs for executives expected to be in the running to lead the company" when Lafley leaves again.

    According to the story, "Lafley, who chose Mr McDonald as his successor in 2009, will focus on developing a new generation of leaders who will be able to take over the company, said other people familiar with P&G.

    "Analysts expect Mr Lafley – who was chief executive from 2000 to 2009 – to be back in the job for between one and three years."
    KC's View:
    One of the points made in the story is that the board felt that McDonald had not created a succession plan, and if there was enough bench strength at the company to provide a successor, had not groomed executives so that they were ready to take over. Which is exactly what it seemed like when Lafley was asked to return.

    BTW ... One of the fears that always exists when these competitions are created is that whoever eventually gets the big chair, the rest of the competitors soon will leave to run other companies. But that fear is not enough to avoid creating clear lines of succession.

    Besides, it doesn't always work out. That's what Jack Welch did at GE, but out of that system came guys like Robert Nardelli and Larry Johnston, who did pretty good jobs of screwing up Home Depot and Albertsons once they left GE.

    Some people are good within one system, but not elsewhere, and not capable of bringing their preferred system elsewhere.

    Published on: May 31, 2013

    Bloomberg reports that a nonprofit policy think tank called the Bipartisan Policy Center is pulling together a meeting of retailers (including Walmart and Gap) and trade associations (including the National Retail Federation) that is designed to "develop a plan to improve fire and safety regulation in Bangladesh factories."

    According to the story, "The working group will release a plan by early July, it said. The talks are co-chaired by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and former U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe.

    "The retailers and industry groups requested that the center convene the discussions and Mitchell and Snowe act as independent moderators, according to the statement. The first discussion was held yesterday in New York, and future talks will be held in New York and Washington."

    The story notes that "Wal-Mart and other retailers have been discussing an agreement intended to improve labor conditions in Bangladesh since the April 24 collapse of the Rana Plaza factory -- the worst industrial incident in the country’s history. The accident killed at least 1,127 and followed a series of deadly fires there that already had prompted activists to push Western retailers to take more responsibility for work conditions in that country."

    Not everybody is impressed: "This scheme was cooked up primarily by Wal-Mart and Gap, two corporations with a track record of putting workers’ lives at risk in the pursuit of cheap apparel,” Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a Washington-based labor-rights monitoring group, said today in a statement.
    KC's View:
    I won't argue the "track record of putting workers’ lives at risk in the pursuit of cheap apparel" position. But I do think - or at least hope - that the recent rash of problems in foreign factories is forcing these companies to change the way they do business. Because they cannot afford to be constantly pilloried for ignoring reality just because it is on the other side of the planet, because these days nothing is all that far way.

    Published on: May 31, 2013

    About a month ago, Kmart got some attention with a YouTube video that used the fast uttering of the phrase "ship my pants" to make a serious point about its ability to ship products to customers, but it did so in an irreverent way that caught viewers by surprise - especially because Kmart is not exactly known for its sense of humor.

    Well, now it is at it again, with a video called "Big Gas Savings," that already has gotten some 4.8 million views on YouTube, and you can see it by clicking the picture at left.

    KC's View:
    The question is whether Kmart was smart to go back to the well again so soon.

    I'm sure the impulse was almost irresistible ... especially because getting good reviews is such an unfamiliar feeling. I'm also not sure that this new commercial works as well, though that may be because the element of surprise has been lost.

    But credit Kmart for taking a shot.

    Published on: May 31, 2013

    The Associated Press reports that McDonald's CEO Don Thompson, still smarting from the highly publicized nutritional criticisms that he received at a shareholders meeting from a nine-year-old girl, told an analysts meeting this week that he has lost 20 pounds in the past year, but has not abandoned his habit of eating at McDonald's every day.

    He lost the weight, he said, by getting a lot of exercise.

    The story notes that the comments also came after he was quoted as saying that McDonald's would continue to focus on burgers and chicken, and that salads would never be a big part of the company's strategy.
    KC's View:
    Good for him. Betcha the corporate gym at McDonald's headquarters, and maybe a private trainer, had to be of some help in that.

    As for me, if I ate McDonald's every day, I wouldn't be worried about losing or gaining weight. I'd be worried about my sanity.

    Published on: May 31, 2013

    We've often written here about the young generation (sometimes referred to as "kids today"), as smart as it seems to be, occasionally lacks what many of would think of as basic life skills.

    Great example of this today in a very funny piece in the Wall Street Journal, and you can read it here. It is, I think, laugh-out-loud funny.

    And if you can't get through the firewall, try ReadWrite.com, where the story originally appeared. You can check it out here.
    KC's View:

    Published on: May 31, 2013

    • The Sacramento Bee reports that the California state Senate has defeated a bill that would have banned plastic grocery bags throughout the state. Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima), the story says, argued that the bill "would be good for the environment, reduce litter and help local governments that now deal with cleaning them up. Many senators said the bill would promote good habits among Californians, who would get used to carrying their own reusable shopping bags.

    "But several of Padilla's Democratic colleagues opposed the measure, saying it would cut jobs for constituents who work in Los Angeles-area bag factories and would hurt consumers who re-use their plastic bags for garbage, dog waste and other household needs. Republicans also opposed it, saying the Legislature had more important things to work on."
    KC's View:

    Published on: May 31, 2013

    • The Rev, Andrew Greeley, an outspoken Catholic priest who also was a sociologist, intellectual, teacher, writer and even a novelist who wrote a book that at the time was described as having "erotic passages," died Wednesday. He was 85.

    Greeley was famed for being pugnacious and even dismissive of Catholic leadership, once describing US bishops as "mitred pinheads," and famously said, "I don't believe in the bishops or the pope or my fellow priests. I believe in God." And while he remained a committed Catholic, he also was highly critical of how the Catholic hierarchy handled the multitude of clergy sex abuse scandals, and of the official Catholic position on contraception.
    KC's View:

    Published on: May 31, 2013

    Wow.

    Last night, the New York Mets defeated the New York Yankees 3-1.

    It was the fourth win in a row over the overachieving Yankees for the underachieving Mets, as they won the first three games in the home-and-home series 2-1, 2-1 and 9-4.

    Amazing.
    KC's View:
    At the end of the season, I'm sure the Yankees will be better positioned for the playoffs than the Mets. It just always seems to work out that way. But for a few evenings this week, it has been fun to be a Mets fan. It's been fun to watch terrific pitching, clutch hitting, and generally error-free baseball played by the guys from Queens...

    Published on: May 31, 2013

    One of the great reading pleasures of the past few years has been my discovery of Ace Atkins, one of the best crime writers working today. As previously noted in this space, Atkins has been getting a lot more attention recently, and deservedly so, since he was named by the Robert B. Parker estate to continue the Spenser series of novels about the iconic Boston private detective. (The most recent of his Spenserian efforts was "Wonderland," which came out earlier this month and was reviewed here.)

    It is important, though, to pay attention to the series of novels that Atkins is writing concurrently with Spenser, featuring Quinn Colson, a former Army Ranger who has become sheriff of Tibbehah County in Mississippi. I've written here that the Colson novels are so evocative of the American south that you can almost taste the grit and grits, and his newest, "The Broken Places" (Putnam, $26.95), is also his best yet.

    It is high praise to say that "The Broken Places" is reminiscent of the novels of Elmore Leonard, and yet every bit an original work, pulling at several plot strings and using some disparate and colorful characters to paint a world in which the bad guys are quirky and colorful, the good guys are stoic and ironic, and they come together quite literally in the middle of a tornado. (I don't want to say too much about the plot. I hate it when reviewers do that. Suffice it to say that from page one, it drives forward relentlessly, with no dull moments to be found.)

    And let me say something about the tornado. Obviously, we've had a vivid real-life example recently of what a tornado can do to a community. I've never been in one, but I have to say that Atkins is at his best when he describes the storm that sweeps down on the community where Colson and the bad guys are facing off - the language is at once powerful and metaphorical. "The Broken Places" is not so much about good and evil as it is about innocence and guilt, and it gets under the skin of its characters in a way that is both insightful and entertaining. Everybody is a little bit guilty about something, and nobody is completely innocent.

    "The Broken Places" is the third in the series, and the final pages make clear that there will be a fourth. That's good news. Hopefully, there will be plenty more, because this is a work of considerable skill from a growing talent.

    (Yes, this is the same Ace Atkins that I interviewed for my Forbes.com column. If you haven't read it yet and you're interested, you can access it here.)




    I wish I could tell you about a new movie that I've seen, but I can't. We may be in the middle of the summer movie season, but last weekend I couldn't find anything nearby that I actually wanted to watch. No desire to see Hangover 3 or Fast & Furious 6. Mrs. Content Guy doesn't want to see The Great Gatsby (and I'm not sure I blame her). And there wasn't anything else around that caught my fancy.

    And so, the other night, I was flipping around the TV and found that The Right Stuff was just beginning ... and I watched the whole three hours, becoming convinced yet again that Philip Kaufman's treatment of the Tom Wolfe book is one of the great American movies, managing to be not just a terrific recounting of the early days of the US space program, but also an examination of what American heroism really means, vs. how it sometimes is portrayed in the media. It is beautiful to look at, dramatic and funny, filled with terrific performances, and with an absolutely rousing soundtrack. If for some reason you've never seen it, you should.

    And then, a few nights later, Bullitt was on ... and I got caught up in that after coming in just few minutes after it started. (I can watch the car chase scene from Bullitt over and over, but I have no desire to spend 10 seconds watching the chase scenes in any of the Fast & Furious movies.) Plus, Steve McQueen is just so cool, and it is such a shame that he died at age 50 33 years ago. (Can it really be that long?)

    (Don't even get me started on how I found myself this week laughing out loud at The Road to Hong Kong, starring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby ... I may be completely losing it.)

    I'm a little worried that I'm turning into one of those old guys who is going to start whining about how good things used to be.

    But I gotta tell you ... they don't make 'em like that anymore.




    That's it for this week. Have a great weekend, and I'll see you Monday.

    Slàinte!
    KC's View: