Journalism Without Profit Margins  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   October/November 2004

Journalism Without Profit Margins   

In an era of concentration, conglomeration and commercialization of news, a small band of news outlets takes a radically different approach. The journalists at these noncommercial outposts definitely seem happier. But is the journalism better?

By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     


Senior producer Michael Mosettig is running through his lineup for tonight's "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" when a colleague darts into his office and exclaims, "They've just beheaded a hostage."

Mosettig doesn't lunge for the phone to deploy reporters or scramble crews for sensational reaction shots. Instead, he thinks a moment and then asks, "What can we say about that?"

Five hours later, Mosettig will watch approvingly from the back of the control room as "The NewsHour" devotes more than six minutes to analyzing the story (three times the amount of coverage of the "NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw," by comparison), forgoing the shots of the hostage's weeping relatives that run on the commercial networks.

It is a typical response at "The NewsHour," which prizes depth and analysis over pizazz. And it illustrates a theme found repeatedly in an AJR examination of an array of noncommercial news outlets. In an era of concentration, conglomeration and commercialization of news, a few holdouts steer their own eccentric courses, typically more civic-minded and serious, and they take pride above all else in working toward ideals that are mostly their own, not prescribed by corporate bosses, focus groups or advertisers.

Says "NewsHour" senior correspondent Gwen Ifill, who has experience at NBC, the New York Times and the Washington Post: "We don't have to break things up for ads. We don't have to have people fighting with each other. We just cover the news."

Whether they work at large, visible operations (such as "The NewsHour" on PBS or the St. Petersburg Times) or in smaller niches (Pacifica Radio or the Day in New London, Connecticut), whether they have abundant resources (NPR, recent recipient of a $225 million bequest) or almost none (Ms. Magazine, once a glossy commercial monthly, now a quarterly on a shoestring), whether they're supported by foundations, listeners or complex trusts, Ifill and others at less-commercial media savor their liberation from a marketplace mentality.

They shy away from criticizing their commercial counterparts, where most of them began, and they acknowledge that such news organizations often do outstanding reporting. But they treasure the opportunity to present journalism to their standards, albeit with often limited resources and firepower.

Beyond journalists' feelings lies the more vital matter of the public interest. What, if any, special content or services does the public gain from the relatively few noncommercial news operations? What advantages do these media have over their for-profit cousins?

The broadest answer seems to be that readers and viewers gain streams of information vetted by journalists more attuned to public service than to circulation, ratings or the bottom line. Less-commercial media can think more in terms of social responsibility, with less oppression from short-term profit demands.

In content, that often leads to more coverage of foreign affairs, the economy and government, to less fluff and celebrity stalking, and to extra tolerance for controversy and alternative views. The journalism may or may not be superior to that produced elsewhere, but it comes from newspeople who are aiming high and relishing their independence.

Bill Marimow became one of NPR's two managing editors in May after 34 years working for newspapers, most recently as editor of the Baltimore Sun. "At NPR," Marimow says, "what I've seen is a real attempt to cover national and foreign news in a way that is illuminating, that serves the public, and that represents a long-term commitment to the public-service mandate."

Only a handful of mainstream newspapers follow the relatively noncommercial model, but two that do, the St. Petersburg Times and New London's Day, seem to have larger newsholes (perhaps in the area of 10 percent) than papers of similar size, more local news and art, greater insulation from economic downturns, and stronger focus on long-term goals.

"Here, our staffing levels and overall newshole..didn't suffer nearly as much during the recent newspaper recession as those with higher profit pressures," says Neil Brown, St. Petersburg's executive editor.

Outside the mainstream, other types of media can follow their own less-conventional avenues. It isn't so much that their journalism is better than the commercial brand. But it is theirs to choose and present, whether it is the feminist voice of foundation-owned Ms., the conservative tilt of the Unification Church-affiliated Washington Times, the "bless all mankind" spirit of the Christian Science Monitor or the "progressive" agenda of listener-supported Pacifica Radio.

"We're in no way beholden to anybody," boasts Patrick Burke, news editor of Pacifica station KPFK in Los Angeles. "We have the liberty to be cutting edge with style and language--to test the boundaries of news. If you've got your facts right, you can go after any company. There's no limit on who to talk trash about."

That feeling of independence resounds.

Joe Smyth's company carries the concept into its name: Independent Newspapers Inc. For more than a decade, its papers (mostly weeklies but including the daily Delaware State News in Dover) have been owned by a nonprofit holding company.

"Our purpose is journalistic service, pure and simple," says Smyth, the CEO. "We don't have any owners to whom dividends must be paid or who could profit by selling us to the highest bidder."

But independence has its downsides: often fewer resources compared with income-generating media; the temptation of complacency or self-indulgence; the loss of competitive edge; potential aloofness from readers and viewers.

But the less-commercial path clearly appeals to those who travel it, and it seems to energize a devotion to what Lance Johnson, managing editor of the Day in New London, calls "pure journalism."

"I know what our playing field is like," says "NewsHour" anchor and Executive Editor Jim Lehrer, "and it is unencumbered by any outside pressures. Anybody who cannot say that doesn't have it as good as I do."

It was a murder that upset even hard-boiled police. As desperate officers pounded on a locked apartment door one morning, a 10-year-old girl was being stabbed to death on the other side, her screams audible, her assailant inches away but unreachable.

For the Day, a 42,000-circulation daily, it was the kind of hard local news the paper thrives on. Six reporters provided blanket first- and second-day coverage. Stripped across page one the third day was a banner story quoting anonymous sources on a shocking angle: The fire department had refused to give police a master key that would have opened the apartment door.

Inside the newsroom, Managing Editor Johnson kept pressing for answers and details, for what he calls "concentrated immediate coverage of high quality when people want to read it." Editors and reporters huddled frequently in Johnson's cramped office, debating when to depend on anonymous sources and whether to allow an after-the-fact off-the-record claim. Late one night, editors joined a battery of reporters feverishly working the phones to locate a key source.

Tim Cotter, assistant managing editor for local news, unhesitatingly assigned one reporter after another to the story. If other small papers did that, he says, "they wouldn't have enough reporters to get the rest of the paper out." But the Day "generally has enough bodies to get the job done."

To police reporter Andrew Ryan, a 28-year-old with two years on the job, it was a typical sprint. "They have become more and more willing to throw resources at a big story when it happens," Ryan says proudly of his editors. "For a paper our size, we have a large staff and better resources and more money to do things."

The resources exist thanks to the Day's unusual ownership model. Under a plan conceived in the 1930s, the paper is owned by a charitable trust. The newspaper company has just a few minor stockholders to pay (the trust owns 99.9 percent of the stock), and it can't be sold unless it loses money for two consecutive years. Profits are either reinvested in the paper or distributed through the trust, at the rate of several hundred thousand dollars a year, to social and civic organizations in the coverage area.

"It is a Knight and Day difference," quips Editor and Publisher Gary Farrugia, who came to the Day three years ago after 18 years with Knight Ridder's Philadelphia newspapers. "We are not driven by an ever-growing profit margin directive. There are neither Wall Street corporate shareholders directing us nor family members. All the decisions the paper makes are to benefit itself and the community."

The paper accepts what Johnson calls "single-digit profits" and Farrugia labels "a fraction--less than half, often a third--of what newspapers owned by corporations are getting."

The result seems to be more resources than are typical for a 42,000-circulation paper: about 70 news and editorial-page staffers, for example, compared with a national average of about 57 for similar-size papers, according to Inland Press Association research. Then there are starting salaries in the mid- $30,000 range and a payroll Johnson labels "probably at least 40 percent higher than the average paper our size," as well as a generous newshole. One staff member tells of leaving a supervisory position at a comparable paper to take a line job in New London, still enjoying a pay increase from $43,000 to $48,000.

But the Day's managers also concede they don't live in paradise. The paper must make a profit to stay independent, and economic woes have hit Connecticut hard. The Day lived without a local business writer for most of the past two years, lost a handful of positions through an early retirement program, cut the newshole by 5 percent and, in an especially unpopular move, began charging for obituaries beyond the basic information. "We had to make some decisions," Johnson says. "Do we want to get several hundred thousands of income, or do we want to cut positions?"

Even so, says Farrugia, when the paper missed its budget "pretty severely" last year, the governing board "gave us profit forgiveness" rather than forcing further cuts.

Another tricky area involves covering community groups that receive tens of thousands of dollars from the paper's trust. The paper's managers say the balance is workable. "On our end there are no sacred cows," says Johnson.

But staff members acknowledge the awkwardness. "The readership has a tremendous sense of ownership of this paper," says Features Editor Elissa Bass, "sometimes to the point it's a real pain. Because of the trust, the Day has a strong financial stake in some nonprofit organizations around here. We have an obligation to cover that stuff. We review a ton of stuff [performances by groups that receive money from the trust], and if it stinks, we say it stinks. But we're expected to cover it."

Reporters say they feel free to tackle tough stories. Writer Kate Moran remembers attending a crowded funeral for a prominent city figure at which one staffer whispered to a colleague that at some time or other "we've offended everyone in this room."

"The best part," stresses AME Cotter, "is that all the decisions are made in this building, and if I disagree with the decision, I can talk to the person who made it. If we were chain-owned, that person might be in New Jersey or somewhere."

This refrain reverberates through the newsroom, a pride in journalistic independence combined with a conviction that it gives readers a better paper.

Cotter ticks off places he has sent reporters--South Carolina, Washington, even to Normandy with a returning veteran. This spring the paper sent two reporters, a columnist and a photographer to cover the University of Connecticut's men's and women's basketball champions in New Orleans and San Antonio.

In a significant commitment, military reporter Bob Hamilton was embedded on the USS Providence for three weeks last year. "The attitude was, 'Let's go for it,'" says Hamilton, a longtimer like many at the paper. "My sense is that nothing is off-limits, and whatever we need to do, we'll do it."

Several staffers who came to New London from elsewhere make stark comparisons with their previous papers. "It seems that the outside influences on the news decisions are very, very rare here," says designer Jill Blanchette, who joined the paper two years ago after working at a chain-owned paper. "The ad director, the publisher are not in the room very often. Those people practically had desks [in the newsroom] at my old paper."

Reporter Claire Bessette also arrived from a chain paper, where she had experienced "a lot of corporate direction--mostly bad. Here it's just news. That's the big difference."

In many tangible ways, the Day feels like any other newspaper. It certainly doesn't throw away its money on plush surroundings. Johnson presides from a small cluttered office looking out onto roof exhaust fans. There's a football in the corner, a Calvin and Hobbes panel on the wall.

A half-dozen editors crowd into the office each morning to brainstorm the next day's paper and deal with the usual newsroom emergencies. One morning, for instance, a reporter has had an accident headed for work on I-95 (it turns out to be minor), and with one photographer on vacation and another calling in sick, there's a bit of a crisis getting the assignments covered.

Afternoon budget conferences take place at pushed-together tables in the paper's snack room, where editors must almost shout to be heard over the rumble of vending machines. As the ritual blend of irreverence and serious talk takes place, you get the impression that newspeople behave pretty much the same whether they work at a chain giant or a trust-owned independent. "Journalists are sort of an odd bunch, and you find that no matter where you go," agrees Johnson. "Newsrooms have a lot of similarities, the type of people they attract, the general training they receive, the way we go about our jobs."

But he maintains that the Day is nonetheless distinct. "When a paper has to think twice about how it plays the news because of its bottom line, that's when you get in trouble. And we don't do that," says Johnson, who has been managing editor since 1986. "Everybody knows they are here at a special place. It's one of those jobs where you never really feel like you're coming to work."

Rosalie Stemer, a newsroom coach with experience at the San Francisco Chronicle and New York Times, has visited the Day on and off since 1999. "I've coached at papers with circulation as low as 12,000 and as large as the Boston Globe, and the Day stands out," she says. "The Day is really unique in how it relates to the community. People there are very proud of what they do... There seems to be a shared ethic and enthusiasm among everybody on the staff to make their copy as good as it can be."

For better or worse, there are not many places with similar ownership structures. Besides the Day and the Delaware State News, they include Manchester, New Hampshire's Union Leader, owned by the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications; the Champaign, Illinois, News-Gazette, controlled by a local foundation; and Alabama's Anniston Star, working its way toward foundation ownership.

Don't expect the roster to grow dramatically. Veteran newspaper analyst and AJR columnist John Morton explains that, while noncommercialism has its appeal, "I don't think this is going to sweep through the newspaper industry. The lure of getting a high price for your property is going to make that unlikely."

Probably the best known such operation is the St. Petersburg Times, which since owner Nelson Poynter's 1978 death has been owned by the nonprofit Poynter Institute.

Executive Editor Neil Brown, who came to St. Petersburg after eight-and-a-half years at Knight Ridder's Miami Herald, uses almost the same words as Lance Johnson to describe the difference. "There is a sense that you have landed someplace special," Brown says.

Brown says the paper can hire even when it has no openings ("I'm 12 people over right now and I still have my job") or "put diversity at the top of the agenda without worrying whether it fits into some corporate strategy in some other town." The 335,000-circulation paper has an editorial staff of 390, which is high for a paper of its size.

During one downturn, Brown says, the Times "did pinch newshole like everybody else, but not as much. We actually used the phrase, 'We'll take less profit.' We make a profit. We wish we made more. But it doesn't become the defining point around here."

Philip Gailey, the paper's editorial page editor and a member of its board, says it isn't unheard of for the Times to "drop our profit margin down to the single digits if we think we need to invest more money in printing technology or new bureaus. We've done it. It's not a hypothetical."

What do readers get? Gailey, Brown and others mention increased local news coverage, a larger newshole, more investigative projects and enterprise, a greater willingness to take on advertisers or special interests. I worked at the paper briefly in the 1970s and have visited its newsroom many times, and there's little question journalists there exude a special sense of purpose.

Anne Hull, a St. Petersburg Times writer for 15 years before joining the Washington Post four years ago, remembers the paper as "less of a bureaucracy, more of a journalistic enterprise."

"Every top editor there has ink on his hands," Hull says. "There's no corporate power a plane ride away. It's a place people scratch and claw to get to. You know that every quarter there are not going to be [profit] figures released and the anxiety that results from all that."

Across Tampa Bay sits Times competitor Gil Thelen, publisher and president of the Tampa Tribune, both envious and appreciative.

Competing with St. Petersburg, says Thelen, is "extremely challenging because they can relentlessly execute their plan no matter what the economic climate is." But competition has its advantages. Two years ago, Thelen says, the Media General-owned paper took "a profit stepback" in order to invest in eight new staffers and two pages of news-hole to cover a county contested by both the St. Petersburg and Tampa papers.

"Another huge advantage for them is the image-making machine of the Poynter Institute. They have been very, very effective at telling a purer-than-driven-snow story about themselves. It gives them a very large recruiting edge," Thelen says. The edge is magnified, he adds, because St. Petersburg can offer about 10 percent more money than Tampa for prime job candidates.

"They are a formidable competitor doing a lot of things very well," Thelen concludes. "We welcome their challenge. They make us better."

You don't necessarily associate Ms. magazine with the tony boutiques and salons surrounding it, but here the magazine sits, in its stately South Beverly Drive home that once housed the Beverly Hills Bridge Club.

Staff members appreciate the Beverly Hills irony ("we're not of it but we enjoy it," says one editor) but they also know why the magazine moved here from New York three years ago: money and survival. Now owned by the Feminist Majority Foundation, whose offices it thriftily shares, Ms. is a trimmed-down quarterly published by a skeleton staff of four full-time editors and lots of part-timers and contributors.

It may be a long way from its zenith as the revolutionary iconic voice of an insurgent women's movement, edited by Gloria Steinem and prominent on every newsstand. But it lives on, liberated by its newest owners to press forward with its mission. "We're editorially free," says Managing Editor Michel Cicero. "We can publish things other people can't."

Editorial freedom is the watchword for specialized media such as Ms., one of numerous magazines and a few broadcast outlets that, under noncommercial owners, follow the bliss of their own creative spirits. It's hard to make direct comparisons to other media, since niche outlets are by definition specialized. But because they don't seek to serve entire communities, as newspapers such as St. Petersburg or New London must, they can be iconoclastic and irreverent, off-center and opinionated, without kowtowing to advertisers or marketplace fads.

"The lines are blurring at many publications," says Cicero. "But when we put something on our cover, it's what we want to be on the cover." Adds Senior Editor Michele Kort, "We choose the advertisers rather than the advertisers choosing us. We're not trying to write anything that draws in the ads."

Since its founding in 1971, Ms. has lived through almost every ownership model, from the for-profit, ad-supported mainstream to totally ad-free noncommercialism. Today, with a circulation of just over 100,000, it accepts ads again, although selectively, mostly for issues and activities consistent with its feminist vision. Staff members hope the magazine will grow and eventually return to bimonthly frequency.

And while appreciating their relative independence, they are fiercely practical about what it costs. Asked how her magazine differs most from more commercial publications, for instance, Cicero replies quickly, "They have more money than we have."

The magazine works with fewer perks and a lower budget than it had in New York, where there were more than 20 staffers. Cicero laughs as she recalls how shocked some cover story subjects are when they learn Ms. can't pay for hair stylists or other expected amenities.

Appearing only four times a year has its costs. Early this spring, editors were considering devoting a cover photo to Judy Dean, wife of then Democratic frontrunner Howard Dean. By the time the issue appeared in the summer, they were glad to have chosen otherwise.

Then there's the foundation connection. For one thing, it means the magazine can't make election endorsements or even appear to. One idea that Ms. spiked, for instance, was a look at prominent female candidates; lawyers thought it might "make us a target," Kort says. Editors also deal with what she calls "constraints within the organization," sometimes traveling across the hall to check out themes with the owning foundation.

Still, Ms. editors say they accept such tradeoffs for the satisfaction of pursuing a vital mission and offering coverage hard to find elsewhere. Cicero points, for instance, to an article critical of drug advertising that ran last year, something a magazine dependent on ads might avoid.

And Ms. has a stature that attracts eminent writers regardless of pay or perks. For example, the Associated Press' Martha Mendoza, who shared the 2000 Pulitzer for investigative reporting, came to the magazine with her riveting personal account of abortion. "I love feeling not constrained by anything other than your own good taste," says Kort.

Ms. Research Director Camille Hahn freelances for commercial magazines that are "all about the ads and selling that to the readers." But at Ms., "we all feel really strongly about this magazine. I freelanced for the silly local magazine, but I don't care about it. I care about this."

A few miles across town, in a decidedly less glamorous setting at a listener-supported Pacifica radio station, KPFK News Editor Patrick Burke makes the same point about doing news his own way.

"I don't think I would want to do news radio if I didn't have the freedom to do what I do now," Burke says. "I believe in the cause. I don't think it would be worth it to trade a higher salary for advertising and commercial pressures."

KPFK operates out of a low-slung building in a strip of dry cleaners, bike shops and neighborhood cafés just off Ventura Boulevard in North Hollywood. Burke, one full-time reporter, a half-timer and a stable of volunteers produce a half-hour newscast at 12:30 p.m. and an hour-long show at 6 p.m. each weekday.

Like the editors at Ms., he admits "we could use a little bit more money." On the day I visit, Burke is trying to figure out who will anchor the next day's news and coping with the fact that his only reporter is at the dentist.

But the 6 p.m. newscast he produces that night is substantive as well as different. Featuring staff reports as well as those from the Pacifica affiliate Free Speech Radio News, the ad-free program opens with a 30-minute block of international news. The lead looks at how Brazil and China are challenging major nations' trade policies. Stories follow on unrest in rural Peru, economic recovery in Argentina and flooding in Haiti. While the Los Angeles ABC affiliate is broadcasting a segment on a local shooting, KPFK is examining mistreatment of refugees in Thailand and Africa.

At 6:30, KPFK turns to its business and labor report, featuring union concerns about the sale of Boeing plants in the Midwest and criticism of Wal-Mart's use of government subsidies.

Local news comes next. Burke himself covers a rally by janitors at local hospitals who are seeking higher salaries and better health benefits. Another segment spotlights a new center for homeless teenagers and tells listeners how to volunteer.

The broadcast clearly reflects what Burke calls Pacifica's "commitment to represent voices that aren't otherwise heard--implicitly progressive-agenda type stories."

So his station pays priority attention to Iraq-related rallies ("Pacifica is a reference to peace, so it's inherently an antiwar-type operation"), labor concerns and issues such as homelessness and immigration.

Burke says he aims for a generally straight approach but doesn't mind an editorial jab or two. When the Abu Ghraib prison scandal broke, for instance, he decided to term it a "humiliation, torture, homicide and possible rape scandal."

"That seemed more accurate than calling it an abuse scandal," Burke says slyly. "I try not to have too much commentary within the news items. But we definitely have our context."

Overall, he believes, the station can often ignore the news everyone else is covering and offer listeners something entirely different.

"If I see something is getting massive exposure elsewhere, I'll push it down on the agenda or maybe leave it out," Burke says. "I don't want to be redundant."

On the air live, "The News- Hour with Jim Lehrer" is proceeding in its customary oh-so-serious way, but in the control room things are getting a little snarky.

Moans break out when a segment on competitive colleges shows a kid being rejected because his grades slipped one semester in 10th grade. When an admissions officer is asked what will get an applicant in, a control room technician snorts, "His dad's gotta build them a new gym."

But the loudest whoops erupt when an on-air guest refers to a State Department report as "squirrelly."

"Squirrelly" is about as wild as it gets at the Arlington, Virginia-based "NewsHour."

It is a serious news program produced by serious newspeople who generally feel insulated from ratings and marketing strains (see "No Frills. No Bells. No Whistles," October 2001). But even they worry about attracting viewers and fending off the dreaded B-for-boring label. "There's no point in doing this if nobody is watching," says senior producer Kathleen McCleery. "There are those of us who do want to pep up the show."

"We want as large an audience as possible, and we want this program to be as interesting as possible," agrees Executive Producer Lester Crystal, a 21-year "NewsHour" veteran who once headed NBC News. "But our income is not dependent on the ratings as much as the commercial operations are."

Terence Smith, "The NewsHour's" media correspondent, joined the show after 13 years at CBS. He says ratings and resource issues dominated meetings at his former network. "The editorial meetings weren't editorial at all. They never had time to talk about how to cover the news. From the day I came here, the talk was about the news, what's in the news, what ought to be on the show."

Smith's producer Anne Davenport, with her own experience at CBS and ABC, says the PBS show, unlike commercial networks, can ignore "the appeasement factor" and think instead of audience needs.

Perhaps the firmest of all is the boss himself, Lehrer, who has been with the program since it premiered as a half-hour newscast in 1975 (it expanded to an hour in 1983). "Somebody might call us old-fashioned, and that's fine. I'm not the least bit concerned about that," Lehrer says. "Our mission is to tell the folks what is happening that we think is important, and take two or three of those things and flesh them out. They aren't going to get the sports results, the weather, the O.J. Simpson-type stories. They're going to get a lot of international news and economic news and stuff that is our stock in trade. And they're not going to get any showboating."

Evidence suggests "The NewsHour" has a relatively small but loyal following. A survey this spring by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 5 percent of the public watched regularly, compared with 16 to 17 percent for each of the three network evening news shows. The program attracts just under 3 million viewers a night.

"The NewsHour" audience skews older (6 percent to 8 percent of people over 50 watch regularly compared with 2 percent of those under 30), well educated and well off. It got higher marks than any other outlet for international news coverage and second highest, behind C-SPAN, for Washington news. It also showed greater reach among moderate viewers (44 percent of its audience) than any other medium.

The program can seem cautious, even overly deferential to those in power, but Lehrer professes no worries that public television will one day decide the program needs a jump start, in the way that NPR dumped longtime "Morning Edition" host Bob Edwards earlier this year. "It may be blind stupidity on my part, but I don't feel that happening," he says. "The people out in the country really understand what we are doing."

What they are doing, Executive Producer Crystal says, "is depth and balance. People come to us for explanation and understanding."

In fact, the show could be called "The AnalysisHour." It doesn't chase breaking news and depends on clients and vendors for much of its video. "The NewsHour" generally opens with a six-to-eight-minute news summary, then switches to three or four "focus segments," each exploring a single story through interviews, panels, commentaries or news-documentary packages.

"The NewsHour" unapologetically zeroes in on government and public affairs, matters that senior correspondent Ray Suarez calls "as vital as oxygen to a functioning democracy." Suarez warms to the point like a keynote speaker: "You can't shy away from budget wrangles that involve the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, the formulas that underlie Medicare reform, block grants to the states. These are the building blocks, the beams and floorboards of our common life. Somebody has to explain it. Just because it is visually lousy doesn't mean you don't explain Medicare cards to senior citizens... You gotta do it. The you-gotta-do-it philosophy underlies a lot around here."

What "The NewsHour" doesn't do, Suarez acknowledges, is "pull out all the stops and spend money like crazy." Senior producer McCleery, for instance, remembers a time when she worked for NBC and producers weren't happy with a setup shot of a doctor walking into his office. So a crew flew from Washington to Florida to reshoot one scene, about seven seconds' worth. "That won't happen at 'The NewsHour,'" she laughs.

"We are in effect trading resources for time," Crystal explains. "We have more time to do the story, but fewer resources on the ground."

Like colleagues at other noncommercial operations, "NewsHour" staff members constantly mention their autonomy. "I could be making more money working elsewhere," Suarez says, "but I wouldn't be a happy guy, and I wouldn't work out of the conviction that I would be allowed to do the best work I am capable of."

What matters most in the end, according to senior correspondent Gwen Ifill, is that programs such as "The NewsHour" give viewers extra choices. "They don't have to like it. They may think it is too long. But it gives them the option, and it is not what commercial broadcasting can do."

A similar feeling prevails across the Potomac in Washington, D.C., at National Public Radio, where autonomy is also prized--and journalists enjoy even more resources. (See "Quicker and Deeper?" June/July.)

After receiving an estimated $225 million in bequests from the late philanthropist Joan Kroc, NPR in June announced a three-year, $15 million plan to add 45 reporters, editors and producers and open new bureaus at home and overseas.

Managing Editor Bill Marimow says the gift allows NPR "to really put its money where its ideals are." Here, Marimow says, "the editors can make decisions based solely on what they think is interesting, important or relevant," reflecting a long-term commitment "that is not as subject to economic vicissitudes as a for-profit corporation is."

Scott Simon, host of NPR's "Weekend Edition Saturday," jokes that Kroc is "a perfect underwriter--somebody prosperous, generous and who can't pick up the phone." But Simon also maintains that he has always felt independent at NPR. "I've never had an underwriter pick up the phone and apply any pressure, and I can confidently say it would have no effect if it happened," he says.

"We do have some conventional pressures that others would recognize," he adds. "Some of the material is influenced by the tastes of the audience. We want to keep the audience expanding. We want to keep as many people as possible listening."

My own observation, based on years of working in, visiting and studying news operations, is that noncommercial journalists have no monopoly on commitment or quality. Large media corporations have the resources and clout for in-depth coverage, investigations and enterprise. No matter who pays their salaries, journalists tend by tribal habit to be aggressive, competitive and mindful of public service.

Yet in visiting less-commercial newsrooms and interviewing their journalists, I was struck by the palpable sense of relief and liberation, the exhilaration of professional autonomy.

When journalists feel in control, audiences gain something extra and special: news, analysis and opinion tailored to community and civic needs by professionals who care deeply.

Bob Steele, a media ethics specialist at the Poynter Institute, says less-commercial newsrooms often breed "a culture that allows decisions to go a different way." Editors at papers like St. Petersburg, Steele says, "often have more independence in making decisions at the local level, in terms of executing a mission, commitment of resources, and values balancing. It doesn't guarantee it, but when you answer to people in the same building as you are, you have a different tabletop from which to make decisions, and that can be a positive force."

As the "The NewsHour's" Michael Mosettig puts it, "We don't have the ax of the ratings hanging over us, so we can go where the news leads."

That is a professional's delight, and most of the journalists I spoke to cherish it.

"I am a blessed person," Jim Lehrer said at the end of our interview. "And, more importantly, I know it."

Senior Editor Carl Sessions Stepp wrote about newspapers' efforts to increase readership in AJR's December 2003/January 2004 issue.

This article was funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.


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