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REFLECTIONS: On the Newspaper Business

Posted Jun 19 2009 4:15pm

[ AND THE WINNER IS: If I had my way (and more money), I would send Dr. Robert Butler's book, The Longevity Revolution, to everyone who asked and to every member of Congress too.

Alas, that is not possible. The winner of the single copy I have available, the fifteenth person to send an email, is - DRUM ROLL - Alan Stewart who lives in Hong Kong. Alan, it will be on its way to you today or tomorrow. - Ronni]

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman ( bio ) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.

I figure my 55 years as a reporter, correspondent and columnist for just three newspaper organizations qualify me to put in my two bucks on the future of the business. And I do believe, in spite of the obituaries, that newspapers, the kind you hold in your hand or spread out on the table or floor, will survive and even prosper.

Maybe I’ve told you this before, but it’s worth repeating: when television was coming of age, many newspapers so feared it that they would not accept or publish the programming schedules. Now, whether you know it or not, television, especially the news programs, depend on newspapers and newspaper reporters.

Writers and producers for CNN or MSBC or the network news shows would not know what the news is without first consulting the morning papers. And they would not know what to think without reading the major columnists. This is not to say these papers and columnists get things right. But we’ll get to that.

First, here is a systemic problem that did not exist through much of my career: The public ownership of newspapers. For example, I worked for a number of years for what was then, Knight Newspapers, which later merged with the Ridder Newspapers and became Knight-Ridder, one of the largest American chains that included The Detroit Free Press, The Charlotte Observer, The Miami Herald and the flagship >e,>Akron Beacon-Journal , among others. The Philadelphia Inquirer was added.

But when I was a Washington correspondent, the Knight papers, the Inquirer and the Ridder papers in Minnesota had been family owned. The Ridders were conservative; Walter Annenberg, who owned the Inquirer was so imperious, he banned from his paper news of one of Philadelphia’s teams. And he was a great friend of Ronald Reagan.

Jack Knight, on the other hand, was feisty and liberal-minded and my favorite publisher because he was among the first to editorialize against the Vietnam War for which he won a Pulitzer Prize. He had never forgotten the death of his son in World War II.

The point I am making is that these papers, often reflecting their owners and often not, were independent citizens. They were the personification, for good or ill, of A.J. Liebling’s observation that freedom of the press belongs to the person who owns one. Then came what a former editor of mine, Davis “Buzz” Merritt, called Knightfall, which was the title of his book.

That’s when Knight-Ridder Newspapers and most others went public, offering stock on the New York Stock Exchange. Others have followed: The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, the McClatchy papers – all of which had been family owned and run.

Let me confess that I led the campaign at Knight-Ridder’s Washington bureau to get an early crack for us peons to buy the stock. And many of my colleagues and I made good money on that stock over the years.

What none of us realized is that as Merritt put it, the brand of relatively independent, reporter-editor oriented, public-service journalism would be undermined by a focus on profit margin and stock price.

One of the dozens of editors who left Knight-Ridder in disgust or buyouts told Merritt, “I became an editor because I wanted to do journalism, but now it’s about the bottom line.” That is to say, it’s about Wall Street’s bottom line. It wasn’t good enough for newspapers to be profitable, they had to increase profit margins; they could not allow earnings to drop in any quarter or the stock would drop. Wall Street analysts, said one writer, focused not on the quality of the paper or its content or the coverage of important events, but on “the quality of a newspaper company’s financial reports.”

David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, creator of HBO’s The Wire and Homicide, recently told a Senate committee hearing on the future of journalism:

“My industry butchered itself and we did so at the behest of Wall Street and the same unfettered free market logic that has proved so disastrous...The original sin of American news papering lies, indeed, in going to Wall Street in the first place. When locally-based, family-owner newspaper like the Sun were consolidated into publicly-owned newspaper chains. An essential trust between journalism and the communities served was betrayed.”

He noted angrily, that the Baltimore Sun was eliminating its afternoon edition and trimming nearly 100 editors and reporters when the paper was achieving 37 percent profits. Indeed, at Knight-Ridder and Newsday, editors were told the papers had to return at least ten percent on investment. When it didn’t, Knight Ridder was dismembered by Wall Street raiders and sold to McClatchy, which sold off its unionized papers. The House that Jack Knight built was gone and so was its talent.

When The Los Angeles Times owned The Baltimore Sun, it also owned Newsday, which had expanded into New York City. But the CEO of Times-Mirror Corp. a former cereal company executive, closed it to drive up the price of the company’s stock for the spoiled heirs of the former owners.

It worked for a while, but the Times-Mirror sold itself and its holdings to the once-family owned (Chicago) Tribune, and real estate player and publisher wannabe, Sam Zell, who sold Newsday to Cablevision, which owns Madison Square Garden and the New York Knicks. It earned $1.9 billion last year, up $200 million from the earlier year. But it continues to shrink Newsday ’s content and staff rather than build it. And the once proud Sun, of H.L. Mencken, which once sent correspondents across the world, is but a shadow of a newspaper. Its staff is down from 400 to 150 and it is dying. Who suffers? Baltimore.

As one result of what’s happening to newspapers, the best and most experience reporters, editors and writers have left, or were forced into buyouts (as I was) and the recession only hastened the exodus. One day these newspapers will want the talent they lost. But my colleagues left daily journalism to retire or teach or blog.

Simon has no love for even the most successful blogs. He told the Senate committee, “The day I run into a Huffington Post reporter at a Baltimore zoning board hearing is the day I will be confident that we have actually reached some sort of balance” with online journalism. If not a newspaper, who will cover the cop shop, the schools, the courts? Who is to keep public officials honest?

I despair when I think of the great reporters and writers I’ve worked for and with who have left newspapers to teach or, in one case, raise bees. Maybe I’m being unfair, but I don’t think that some kid in his or her twenties, who is great at texting or twittering, should be my newspaper’s authority on finance, the Middle East or the wars this country is fighting.

Only a few reporters saw the reasons for Iraq war as lies. There is no short-cut to experience. Indeed, the rise of the good, aggressive blogs, websites critical of journalism like Media Matters testify to the shortcomings of mainstream, corporate journalism where newspapers worry about the bottom line more than the story and young reporters worry more about their careers.

And yet, when this recession ends we’ll see more clearly, there is no substitute for a newspaper with solid reporters and editors to watch over your town or the country or its relations with the rest of the world, where newspapers are flourishing. No online service can keep watch over a city councilman, a member of Congress or a president the way an honest, aggressive newspaper can.

In sports we look to newspapers to tell us what we saw when our favorite team won. We want to know how and why, as well as whom, what and when. Television can’t or won’t analyze or critique the new production of King Lear or the pianist we heard.

The best newspapers in each city will survive because there is no real substitute for a certain segment of the population, mostly older people - and most everyone will grow older. I read the other day that newspapers like The New Orleans Times-Picayune has a steady readership of 50.4 percent of the adult population, or 85 percent, if you include the reach of the web; The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 41.6 percent and 65 percent; Indianapolis Star, 40 percent and 77.8 percent.

We have become a nation divided between readers and watchers. The watchers prefer television and computer games and the top of the news, if any news at all. The readers are a smaller but more wealthy and influential group, people who are active in community affairs, who support the arts and help run the town. They will continue to be the core readers of newspapers for they understand their lives and their fortunes depend on the depth of knowledge only a daily newspaper is equipped to provide – if it will.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Frank M. Calabria: Playing Monster and Hunting Mosquitoes.

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