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American Journalism Review
<i>State of The American Newspaper</i><br>Endangered Species  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   June 1998

State of The American Newspaper
Endangered Species   

As the newspaper industry consolidates, the ranks of independent newspapers are thinning. Something special is being lost.

By James V. Risser
A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, James V. Risser is retired director of Stanford's Knight Fellowships. He lives in San Francisco.      

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A week before Thanksgiving, nearly 200 friends of Howard H "Tim" Hays gathered in a nostalgic mood at the Regency Club in Los Angeles. They were there to toast a distinguished journalism career and to ponder the demise of yet another independent, family-owned newspaper. Not demise in the sense of "stop the presses," but rather a shift in ownership of the type that has become the industry norm.

Since Truman's first term, Hays had built the fortunes and reputation of his southern California daily, the Riverside Press-Enterprise--built it into a powerful, profitable and respected paper. But now Hays was 80 years old, and he had succumbed to the inevitable: He was selling his beloved Press-Enterprise to the A.H. Belo Corp. of Dallas, Texas.

Tim Hays was packing it in.

Sure, he'd hoped his sons or relatives would carry on, but none wanted to. He explored giving or selling the paper to Stanford University, his alma mater; family members agreed they weren't after the last dollar. He toyed with the idea of selling to a public-spirited non-journalist who would agree in writing to grant editorial independence. He even looked into employee ownership. But economics, tax laws and assorted other difficulties frustrated all these efforts.

So Hays--a quiet man, never one to trumpet his considerable accomplishments--was both pleased and wistful at the center of that evening's homage, as he and his wife, Susie, greeted guests in the posh top-floor club overlooking the palmy Westwood neighborhood. The dinner and testimonial had been arranged by the leaders of California's newspaper industry, but true to Hays' common touch the guest list embraced Riverside friends, neighbors and longtime subscribers.

After the roasted veal chop and Chilean sea bass, two titans of the business rose to pay tribute. Don Graham, the usually low-key publisher of the Washington Post, spoke effusively about how Hays had given Riverside "a wonderful, wonderful newspaper" and was "one of the great principled editors of his generation." Hays, he said, was "as sincere a friend of the reading public in his business policies as he was in his editorship." A half-century ago he led the way in publishing zoned editions to serve readers in nearby towns. He kept subscription costs down. And so as southern California grew, so did the Press-Enterprise--from a circulation of 18,000 when Hays started there in 1946 to 167,000 today.

Then the decorous Lou Boccardi, president of the Associated Press, took the podium. He extolled Hays' dedication to quality journalism and press freedom, including his willingness to spend the paper's resources (in other words, his own money) to fight passionately for "First Amendment values" in the pages of his paper, and in court. On two occasions Hays took cases involving press access to criminal proceedings all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. He won both.

Tim Hays also began a local news council. He sponsored an annual public lecture by a nationally prominent journalist, a series now in its 33rd year. Hundreds of journalists around the country treasured the little lecture reprint booklets that Hays mailed to them each year. He gave away millions of dollars to favorite charities and causes. He was president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. He served on the Pulitzer Prize Board. The Press-Enterprise won the coveted public service Pulitzer, in 1968, for exposing the corrupt court handling of property and estates of a California Native American tribe.

In short, Hays exemplified what a determined and principled newspaper proprietor can be. Yet at the close of his half-century at the Press-Enterprise, he had no choice but to sell to a corporate suitor.

Even then Hays was the faithful steward: He picked the best chain he could find. Indeed, no one at the dinner bad-mouthed Belo, which has turned its Dallas Morning News flagship into one of the finest papers in the country. Burl Osborne, publisher of the Dallas paper, was even among the guests.

But it was Don Graham who made the point: When Tim Hays began at the Press-Enterprise shortly after World War II, three-fourths of America's daily newspapers were family-owned. Now, Graham said, owners of independent papers were "fewer than whooping cranes."

Depending somewhat on how you define independent papers, their number is now down to about 300, out of 1,504 dailies in the United States. Most of these are small. Only 15 independents have circulations exceeding 100,000. Twenty-five have 50,000 to 100,000 subscribers. More than half have fewer than 10,000.

It's a given in the newspaper business that this vanishing act is lamentable. One reason why is that once upon a time virtually all newspapers were independents--we mourn what we were. There's also an undeniable romance about them, in part because historically they've been platforms for our very own renegades, characters and cranks, and still are. Only at an independent does a committed publisher advertise for "full Gospel" Christians to fill newsroom openings, as happened recently at the Daily Times in Farmington, New Mexico. Only at an independent paper like the Manchester Union Leader does a Nackey S. Loeb try to bend New Hampshire to her will with front page pronouncements. Only at an independent paper like the St. Petersburg Times does a Nelson Poynter decide to donate the whole shebang to charity. ("I've never met my grandchildren," Poynter once said. "I may not like them.")

Of course, a newspaper under independent ownership is not, by definition, a wonderful newspaper. The full range in quality exists at independents just as it does at group-owned papers. An independent can be good, or not so good.

Which is to say, it can emulate Tim Hays and spend more money on staff, thus producing a richer news product. It can ponder the problems of the community from the perspective of longtime inhabitants, instead of editors or publishers waiting for that next promotion to the next town. It can gulp hard in bad times and settle for lower profits, not worrying that corporate headquarters will want costs cut to appease stockholders.

On the other hand, it can fritter away the journalistic opportunities that an independent franchise affords. Its connection to the community and to advertisers can be too close for vigorous journalism. It can take a quality-be-damned attitude and turn the paper into a cash cow for the owners, or into a commercial for their ideology. It can pay poverty wages and recycle pencils.

Or, it can be really bad.

In Tennessee some time ago, the owner of a small independent was looking for a new publisher. When one prospect asked to examine the books, the owner told him that wasn't possible; he could see the numbers if he took the job. "We're doing a respectable business," the owner admitted, "but we'd like to be doing even better." The man signed on, looked at the books--and blanched. The paper was already making a 38 percent profit.

In theory, then, when an independent falls to a corporation, its quality may plummet or improve, depending on who owned it and who buys it. Some get worse, a few get better, and most get homogenized.

But what about the country's remaining independents? How are they faring today? How well are they meeting their own aspirations, not to mention ours? Visits to six of them, and a close, sustained reading of their news columns, provide insight into the industry's own endangered species, and a chance to see what's actually different about papers that remain free of corporate tethers. The six are of varying sizes, varying editorial philosophies, and certainly varying quality.

Alabama's Anniston Star exhibits a combination of worldliness and strong leadership all too rare in a small newspaper. Oklahoma City's Daily Oklahoman, a good corporate citizen, nonetheless shortchanges its readers. Eugene, Oregon's Register-Guard is a true family operation, in the best sense of that now-quaint notion. The Tribune-Review has made Pittsburgh a two-paper town again, and it actually has more going for it than owner Richard Mellon Scaife's conspiracy theories. The venerable St. Petersburg Times may be the best independent newspaper in America. And the brand-new Palo Alto Daily News, an experiment playing itself out on the gold-paved streets of Silicon Valley, covers the news with zest, a sense of humor, plenty of gaps and..well, take one--it's free.

Nestled in hilly woodlands in the eastern part of Alabama, midway between the state's metropolis, Birmingham, and booming Atlanta, the town of Anniston rose from the rubble of the Civil War in the 1870s. Samuel Noble, a Confederate munitions maker, and Daniel Tyler, a northern military man with money, bought land, laid out a city and started up the Woodstock Iron Works. Anniston is a compression of "Annie's Ton"--ton for iron ore, Annie for Tyler's daughter-in-law.

The founders' inspiration was Atlanta newspaperman Henry W. Grady, the New South advocate who argued that a combination of southern know-how and northern capital could put the devastated region back on its feet. When the company town opened to the public in 1883, it was Noble who decided it needed a newspaper. But legend credits Grady with naming it. Sitting on Noble's front porch, watching the explosive glow of the foundry's furnace, Grady supposedly declared that the paper should be called..the Hot Blast.

A weekly at first, then a daily, the Hot Blast was bought in the 1890s by Dr. Thomas W. Ayers, a physician who owned a competing Anniston paper. But at the turn of the century he sold the paper and went off to China as a Baptist missionary. A son, Harry M. Ayers, later returned to Anniston, bought the Hot Blast in 1910, and two years later acquired the Evening Star. He merged the two and picked a new, more dignified-sounding name, the Anniston Star. That was 86 years ago, and the name change--"I kind of wished he hadn't"--seems about the only regret that Ayers' son, H. Brandt Ayers, has about his family's decades of newspapering.

Ayers and his wife, Josephine, have done well in Anniston. They live in a large, striking contemporary house, which they built at 1 Booger Hollow, on a hilltop overlooking town. They have a vacation home in North Carolina and they travel, but they're deeply involved in civic and cultural affairs back home. Josephine Ayers, for instance, started the prestigious Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Anniston (which later relocated to Montgomery). "We are rooted here," says Ayers, the Star's chairman and publisher. "It's the one patch of Earth that we care the most about in the world. Everywhere I go, I see ghosts."

On the table in his comfortable study is a copy of Richard N. Rosenfeld's book "American Aurora," about a radical Philadelphia newspaper of the late 18th century. Above the fireplace hangs a large and stern portrait of Ayers' father, Col. Harry Ayers, reminding the son daily of his heritage and mission. The colonel was "a Democrat and a Wilson supporter," he says. "Grandfather had been a Bryan man, and my father was always for the Democrats--including being an Al Smith man, which was kind of tough to be in this part of the world."

Courtly and proud, Ayers is an engaging storyteller with a hearty laugh--a small-town Southerner with a patina of sophistication. He graduated from the University of Alabama in 1959, worked at the Raleigh Times, and then went to Washington for the Times and other southern papers served by the Bascom Timmons Bureau. When his father's health started to decline, Ayers reluctantly abandoned the glamour of Kennedy-era Washington and returned to Anniston in 1963, where he has been ever since, save for a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard and a fellowship at the former Gannett Center for Media Studies.

Everyone in Anniston calls him Brandy, and few doubt his and the newspaper's commitment to good government, to the economic development of the town and to social equality. Ayers' few detractors think his real interests these days lie outside Anniston--they cite his connections to Washington and to Democratic politicians (he was an unofficial but frequent adviser to Jimmy Carter), his travels, his commentaries on National Public Radio, his membership on the Council on Foreign Relations--and that he affects aristocratic airs. That feeling is fed by the signed column he writes on Sundays, commenting on national and world affairs and sometimes alluding to friends in high places, as when he wrote in January about attending a New Year's Eve party at the home of former Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee.

Yet the column provides Anniston with a worldly view of politics and culture that it would otherwise not get, just as Ayers himself brings a touch of elegance to a somewhat gritty town. He's not unlike a benevolent baron, using his 30,000-circulation newspaper to inform, educate and guide the town's citizens, hoping to help them "solve their problems and realize their visions." He carries on the tone of social tolerance that has characterized the Star through much of its history, and he uses the paper to monitor local and state government, scolding them when need be. And in an age when newspapers are under pressure from competitors and supposed reader disinterest in traditional news, Ayers still believes that journalism is the answer.

So he spends more money on his paper than do many owners. A news staff of 45 is one indication. That's about one and a half times the rule of thumb that calls for one editorial staffer for every 1,000 subscribers. But the breadth and sophistication of the Star's local coverage is likewise unusual. Ayers is obviously willing (though the paper's profit figures aren't made public) to settle for earnings well below the 20 percent or more expected of papers owned by public companies, and he has said as much.

The Star also has a healthy newshole. Ed Fowler, vice president for operations, has worked for chains where the aim was 60 percent advertising, but the Star, he says, averages 48 percent. "That puts a big obligation on me to justify the use of that newshole," says Executive Editor Chris Waddle, noting that the paper has an op-ed page, two pages of comics, a Sunday comment section and a book page--features often missing in smaller papers.

"This company's profitability demands are much less than other papers I've worked for," Fowler adds. "Our ad rates are almost one-third less than comparable competitors, and we don't try to maximize profitability. Our owners look more at getting a fair rate of return. That attitude is one of the reasons I'm here." Subscription costs are also low--$10.75 a month for seven-day delivery. Fowler says circulation slid from a peak of about 34,000 in 1990 to about 29,000, leveled off there, and now shows signs of rising. Since Labor Day--when the paper switched to morning publication, began pagination and added new features--street sales have increased 12 percent.

While Waddle and Fowler handle the editorial and business details, Ayers gently steers the Star's general course from a large first-floor office only steps from where the locals place ads or buy back copies. His office walls are lined with political and journalistic mementos. Among these is a photograph of a meeting he had with Gov. George Wallace. No admirer of the Star's liberalism, Wallace inscribed the photo, "No big problems we can't settle--that is if you see it my way."

Today Ayers' own assessment of the paper is that "we know local news is our franchise, and we're doing a good job on that. Sports is a strength, but we may be overdoing it. The A section is too weak in national and international coverage."

An examination of the paper over several weeks supports that critique. The weekday front section is often just eight pages, and since it contains some of the better local stories as well as the editorial page, the space for national and world news is scant. On the other hand, the paper carries more non-local news, and a richer mix of it, than other papers its size. The stories tend toward the solid and contextual. Though young staffers come and go, veterans like education writer Judy Johnson cover important topics with skill and insight. Business coverage is strong and, as Fred Burger, a former business editor, says, "Covering business in a small town can often be difficult."

The paper trains young journalists from Ivy League schools and then dispatches them to larger papers and sometimes illustrious careers. One of the best-known alums is Rick Bragg, now covering the South for the New York Times. Born in nearby Possum Trot, Bragg got his start in Anniston--actually, at the company's weekly in Jacksonville--while still in college. He got the job after another student turned it down because he would make more money at the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise. Bragg became a general assignment reporter for the Star and went on to win a Pulitzer for the Times in feature writing in 1996.

But at the heart of the Star is a cadre of longtime staffers who never left. One of these is Cody Hall, who has worked there almost 50 years in jobs from reporter to editor in chief. Now in semi-retirement as the paper's book editor, Hall dates "the modern Star" from when Brandy came home in 1963, raised the salary floor and started recruiting nationally. "It's been mostly fun," says Hall, now 74. "All these years, nobody has told me, 'Don't print this story.' In a small town, with all the pressures from advertisers and other people, that's amazing."

Joe Distelheim, who was executive editor from 1990 to 1994, says the paper's strength is its "tradition of wanting to do good journalism and big journalism. Some days its reputation exceeds its performance, but it has real flashes. It turns out big socko stories." He recalls that during his tenure, one report that stirred the community showed that local churches treated people with AIDS shabbily. Another package evaluated judges who were frequently reversed on appeal. "They continue to do big-picture things," says Distelheim, who left to edit the bigger Huntsville Times, a Newhouse paper. "Brandy is a pretty hands-off publisher, not interested in the details but seeing a mission for the paper, a kind of Don Quixote role." There was no formal budget, and "considerable resources for a paper its size," though Distelheim also remembers that the paper sometimes paid "skinflint" salaries.

Waddle and Fowler both tout the advantages of independent ownership but admit there are downsides. One is a reluctance to change. Another is an inability to keep up with technology, either because of cost or lack of expertise. They say the Star's computer system is "clunky" and inadequate. Staffers grouse that only two slow terminals are available to access e-mail and the Internet.

As at any newspaper, staff morale rises and falls, and some staffers from bigger cities see the Star as somewhat parochial. Most, though, are proud of the paper's independence. A longtime features writer, Sue Vondracek, says the paper "has been fearless. People will ask Brandy not to put something in the paper, but he doesn't go along." When advertisers threatened to pull ads over her stories, she says, the paper "never buckled, never."

Anniston being where it is, race has long been an issue, and the Star has, for the most part, been a positive force over the years--though Brandy Ayers readily acknowledges that his father, while taking a stand against the worst evils of segregation, "never got past separate-but-equal." Indeed, to this day some veteran journalists recall how the elder Ayers scandalized the 1956 ASNE convention with a rambling discourse on the races ("The consuming desire of every Negro is to possess a white woman").

Still, the Star has tried to lead the community toward racial tolerance. In the early '60s, a Freedom Rider bus was burned in Anniston. Around the same time, Brandy Ayers helped organize an effort to find those guilty of the random killing of a black man, and he got 300 Anniston residents to endorse a Star ad opposing violence. A reward offer led to the arrest of the killer, who was convicted by an all-white jury. "A racial murder has to outrage you," Ayers says. "You have to get involved; you have to stick the paper's neck way the hell out." In the '70s he helped bring blacks and whites together in a Committee of Unified Leadership to calm tensions in the schools, professionalize the police department and work for other reforms. "I doubt," Ayers says quietly, "that a manager from a corporate newspaper somewhere would have involved himself so deeply."

Roosevelt Parker, a lifelong resident and the president of the local NAACP, gives the paper credit. "Anniston race relations aren't as good as they could be, but the Star tries to promote them," he says. Nonetheless, Parker faults the paper for "not bringing all issues to the forefront for fear they will cause unrest," contending, for instance, that it's not adequately covering drugs, which he says are "destroying the community." And he says the Star was hard on the director of a community action agency, an African American, when he was accused of misdeeds, and more tolerant of another official, who is white, in similar circumstances. "Overall they do a pretty good job; I'd grade them a B-plus," says Parker, adding that "the white establishment sometimes comes down hard on the Star because they think it's too liberal on race relations."

Cleophus Thomas Jr., who writes reviews for Cody Hall's book page, is an attorney, a University of Alabama trustee and an African American. He assesses the Star as "progressive" and a paper to which "young people of ability are attracted," but not as liberal as its reputation. "I don't know that there's something warm and fuzzy about the Star that wouldn't exist if it was owned by Rupert Murdoch or Gannett," he says. Thomas says some blacks regard the paper as "authoritarian and repressive" and believe it "hounded" the last mayor, David Dethrage, from office. Dethrage, who is white, sometimes allied himself with two African Americans on the City Council. The main issue on which the Star opposed him was his attempt to dismiss the city manager.

Executive Editor Waddle, who says Dethrage behaved like a "pharaoh" and was out of his league as mayor, wrote a series of editorials attacking Dethrage, who ultimately spurned Waddle's compromise proposal on the city manager dispute. Dethrage says the paper was "biased against me and my administration. The paper wants a government they can control, and they have a monopoly on the news." The current mayor, Gene Stedham, is a fan of the Star. "They do an excellent job covering the council and city issues," he says. "They can make or break a politician. They probably elected me as mayor, frankly."

Ayers yearns somewhat for the days when the paper could cover the civil rights movement as a "moral crusade involving a great sweep of history." The movement has evolved, he believes, "into classic interest-group politics, with structures, agendas and bureaucracies." When the Star, "the classical friend of the black man," criticized a black anti-poverty leader for buying a stretch limousine with public funds, "I suddenly found myself the hero of the rednecks," Ayers says, "a very odd sensation."

Today the biggest local issues are, as in most places, economic. The dislocation that may result from the closing of nearby Fort McClellan has been the hottest topic. There's also, in Ayers' words, "the fact that 7 percent of the nation's obsolete chemical weapons are sitting there at the Anniston Army Depot, and we must rid the community of them." Waddle has taken on the weapons issue, traveling to military bases in Utah and editorializing for incineration of the chemical stockpiles as the least dangerous way to dispose of them.

Because of efforts like this, Anniston owes the paper more than it may realize. "I'm not really sure that most people here appreciate what they have in the Star," says Scott Barksdale, director of the Spirit of Anniston Main Street Program, which is working to rehabilitate downtown and to lure new business. "They will tackle any issue, they're not affected by advertiser pressure, and they don't avoid anything. They say in editorials when a problem is being mishandled or ignored. I've seen too many examples of other kinds of newspapers in small cities."

At Ayers' behest, Waddle is taking on a larger role at the paper. A Texas native, he went to college in Alabama and came to Anniston in 1982 from the Kansas City Times. Before he became executive editor, Waddle ran the editorial page, mindful of the admonition from Col. Ayers that still appears at the top of the page: "It is the duty of a newspaper to become the attorney for the most defenseless among its subscribers." Now he runs the news operation from a small office whose entire back wall is covered with a National Geographic map of the world. He is generally admired for his talents as an editor and for his commitment to the paper--though some regard him as an arbitrary manager, and there are whispers about his second-guessing subordinates. Clearly, though, Waddle has been anointed to carry on the paper's traditions: Early this year, when Ayers changed his title from editor and publisher to chairman and publisher, he named Waddle vice president for news.

When Ayers, who is 63, leaves the scene, there are no immediate heirs willing or capable of taking over. But he and his wife, their daughter and their relatives have agreed the paper should remain independent. They have set up what they hope will be a self-perpetuating board to keep the paper out of corporate hands.

When "Alabama's largest home-owned newspaper," as the front page slogan reads, switched to morning publication last year, Ayers wrote a front page letter declaring, "We're not for sale--not for $50 million, not for $100 million." He went on to remind readers: "On Dec. 18, 1985--the date Dad would have been 100 years old--I promised him that, here on the front page. The promise still holds, Dad."

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