A New Era at Newhouse
Long regarded as mediocre money machines, Newhouse newspapers are attracting big time talent and dramatically improving their content.
By Linda Fibich
Linda Fibich is a former Washington bureau chief of Newhouse News Service and a former assistant managing editor of Minneapolis' Star Tribune.
Donald Newhouse leaves Manhattan for his office in Newark before dawn. Most mornings, he is at his desk at the Star-Ledger building by 5:30 – the best time to reach him, his secretary says. She is right. He answers his own phone.
His father, the late S.I. Newhouse, built a media empire during the first two-thirds of this century, beginning with a part-ownership of a nondescript daily in Bayonne, New Jersey. Sons Donald and Si command one of the world's largest family fortunes, recently estimated at $8 billion between them by Forbes magazine. They control what an editor who once worked for them terms "the largest journalistic concern in the English language." The properties are familiar names to anyone who takes reading seriously: Random House. Conde Nast. Vanity Fair. The New Yorker.
Donald Newhouse, 65, has ultimate authority for newspapers in 22 cities across America. But on a midsummer day as the sun is just bleaching the sky, he has no desire to talk about the dramatic improvement of several of those papers. Nor does he wish to arrange a later interview.
If the Newhouse papers are doing better journalism, he tells me, "it's coincidental. If there's improvement in the papers, it's as a result of improvements being made locally. Our publishers have autonomy."
The Newhouse newspapers for years were regarded as high-profit journalistic underachievers. But in the last decade, particularly in the last five years, they have begun to move forward.
In some cases, longtime Newhouse talent has raised the papers' sights: Editor Jim Amoss at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Editor and Publisher Stephen A. Rogers and Executive Editors Michael J. Connor and Tim Bunn of the Syracuse Post-Standard and Herald-Journal.
In other cases, change has come at the prodding of top-echelon talent hired from outside the group: Deborah Howell, Washington bureau chief and editor of Newhouse News Service; new editors Sandra Mims Rowe (the Oregonian in Portland) and David Hall (Cleveland's Plain Dealer), John Kirkpatrick (the Harrisburg Patriot-News) and Stan Tiner (the Mobile Press and Register). Bringing in outsiders is a departure itself; typically, the Newhouses promoted from within.
James D. Squires, former Chicago Tribune editor and author of 1993's scathing critique of corporate newspaper ownership, "Read All About It," says the Newhouses "looked at the press as a business long
before there was corporate America to do it." The old publishing families – the Grahams, the Sulzbergers, the Binghams – "looked down their noses at S.I. Newhouse and said, 'There is a man who looks at newspapers as a deliverer of advertising.' "
No longer. Today, the papers have fat news holes and the staffs to fill them. The Springfield Union-News in Massachusetts runs an average of 200 open columns per day, and with a circulation of 108,000 maintains an editorial staff of 204. The Mobile Press and Register in Alabama has increased its news hole by 15 percent in the last two years and its staff by nearly 50 percent.
After decades of non-contention, Newhouse writers are claiming major prizes – a top environmental writing award for Mobile, an IRE first for Cleveland, Penney Missouri awards for Syracuse. They are creeping closer to the Pulitzer, with a finalist in 1992, three finalists in 1993 and two this year.
?roundbreaking reporting on the Persian Gulf War syndrome came out of the News in Birmingham, Alabama. The Staten Island Advance led the borough's secessionist movement in 1993, winning a first place for editorials from the New York AP. And the Ann Arbor News in Michigan, one of eight Booth papers Newhouse purchased in 1976, was listed as an example of an excellent small daily by ASNE in 1989.
While some students of Newhouse's history raise doubts about whether the trend will last, whether it is deeper than a quest for prizes, this much is clear: These are different papers than they were.
Asked if there is a distinctive Newhouse management style, David Starr, publisher at Springfield, answers, "I think the management style is no management style. I'm serious when I say that. We have no cookie-cutter system in Newhouse... We think that every newspaper is best seen as the expression of its own community."
Then why such steady improvement throughout the chain, and why now?
"It's hard to get a handle on the Newhouse group," media analyst John Morton observes. "It's a very secretive company. It's even hard to talk to them. They used to joke that the corporate headquarters was in S.I.'s back pocket, and it's not that different now."
Morton theorizes, "One thing that may have happened is that once the old man died, the sons took some steps to protect the quality of the newspapers."
Deborah Howell, from Washington, D.C., echoes Donald Newhouse's notion that the change is coincidental. "They've just made some very good hires and have been doing some very good journalism," she says. "If you're looking for some grand truth here, there isn't one."
Other insiders can only guess. Some believe the change is strategic, a reaction to retrenchment elsewhere in the industry. "My sense is that they're trying to gain prestige, and perhaps take advantage of opportunity – the other guy's retreating," one reporter says. Others believe the trend stems from the family's desire for respectability.
Their analyses have this in common: All say the push comes from Donald's elder son. Says a former editor: "It's all Steve."
Steve Newhouse, 37, learned the business as only a newspaper brat can. In high school, he worked in classified at the Newark Star-Ledger; in college, as an intern at the Staten Island Advance. After graduating from Yale, he spent a summer at the Oregonian, then went to Springfield, Massachusetts. There David Starr, an elder statesman in the organization, trained him in every aspect of the newsroom. Next was a stint as a copy editor at Parade Magazine, another Newhouse property.
Then, at 26, he was named editor of the Jersey Journal, a job he held until he named himself editor in chief last year. Jim Dwyer, a columnist at Newsday, says that Newhouse's leadership turned the paper from the lapdog of the Hudson County political machine into a credible broadsheet. "It's not a perfect newspaper," Dwyer says. "But the transformation has been incredible."
Newhouse works in a plainly furnished office at 30 Journal Square in Jersey City. He personally escorts me up the several flights from the building's narrow lobby, then asks if I want something to drink. My answer brings an apologetic smile. We walk back to the street level, outside and into a deli next door, where he buys two coffees in Styrofoam cups.
Back in his office, he listens politely to what he must already know: that the industry buzz says he's the pivot in a Newhouse turnaround.
"That's a generous premise," he allows. But, he adds, "to say that my generation has done anything different is absolutely false... The reason has been with us since the start of our newspaper group. We're decentralized. We've given a lot of authority to łhe operators of the newspapers. And, as a private company, we've been able to take the long view... Newspapers don't change overnight."
Newhouse publishers have the freedom to make decisions that shape the futures of their newspapers, rather than the next quarterly report, he says.
There is no central command post at Newhouse. No skyscraper like Gannett's in Arlington, Virginia, not even acreage like Knight-Ridder's on a full floor of One Herald Plaza in Miami.
"Our corporate level is the actual family – a group of family people who visit various papers and work directly with the publishers, have long-term relationships with the publishers," Newhouse says. He, for instance, goes monthly with his father to Cleveland, but also works with Starr on oversight of the Washington bureau.
┘he meetings are unannounced to the papers' staffs. Publishers and editors who attend say Donald Newhouse and his kin are attentive to the details of each operation, but are directly involved only in major decisions.
The papers have no formal budgets. "Practically speaking," says Jim Amoss from New Orleans, "it means you don't spend time on that particular subject... If I, in my own mind, can justify [an expense] in terms of reader interest, I'm pretty assured it will happen."
Steve Newhouse explains: "Because we have our own jobs, we suffer through our own problems and don't create problems for other people."
Newhouse is a gracious man, soft-spoken to the point of seeming shy (he declined to be photographed for this article). But he bristles at the suggestion that in the past decade his family's newspapers have become different, better.
"For many years we were criticized for not taking an interest in our newsrooms," he says. What that really was, he explains, "was a lack of interest in interfering in local news decisions... Now, when intervention from the corporate sector is seen as a big negative, the fact that we don't do it is a positive.
"I think it's ironic."
In 1992 when Stan Tiner was considering whether to become editor of the Mobile Press and Register, he turned to a biography of S.I. Newhouse "to get some sense of how Mobile fit into the constellation." He found the papers were "widely regarded as two of the sorriest in America, and that goes back as far as most people can remember."
But the promise from a new publisher, Howard Bronson Jr., was "that we were going to be aggressive, that he wanted to be the best paper in Alabama pretty quickly and one of the best papers in the South not much later."
In 1993, Mobile won both most improved and general excellence awards from the Alabama Press Association. "I have never seen such a profound change in a paper in such a short time..," says Bill Keller, the group's executive director. "Every time I run into someone from Mobile, they talk about the paper. And you don't see that in many American cities."
When Tiner arrived, about 80 people put out the two newspapers. The combined circulation of the dailies – which are often referred to as the Press-Register, as though they were one – was then about 100,000. Under the formula calling for one editorial employee for every thousand in circulation, Tiner figured they were understaffed. "We moved rapidly, and in about the first year hired about 40 people," Tiner says. "Our budget has nearly doubled in that period."
His first move was to try to bolster the credibility of the business pages. "If we could convince the movers and shakers of this community that we were not going to be a toy of the chamber of commerce..they were going to understand that there was something going on here," he says. He boosted the business staff from one to six, then started a Sunday section and a Wednesday business front.
Then the Press and Register were completely redesigned. A group of editors brainstormed at a retreat, ultimately settling on a look that Tiner calls an amalgam of the Dallas Morning News and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
"That was in July ," says Tiner, 52. "On September 1, we printed a totally redesigned newspaper, without any outside consulting... We did it for two or three six-packs of beer and a weekend at a church camp."
?ext in line was sports. The papers hired a new sports editor, John Cameron, from the Selma Times-Journal. "Everything [had been] wire copy," Tiner says. "We generally didn't go places to cover things. When I explained to the sports staff that they were going to cover all the New Orleans Saints games, they didn't quite get it."
Íravel didn't stop with sports. Tiner sent reporters to Miami to cover Hurricane Andrew. When Alabama debated whether to allow casino gambling, he sent staff to Las Vegas, Atlantic City and Deadwood, South Dakota.
"When you're a weak institution that hasn't done the job, people assume they can push you around because they always have," Tiner says. He unveiled the papers' new attitude with a series on pollution of the air and the water of Mobile Bay. The stories won 1993's Meeman Award for environmental journalism from the Scripps Howard Foundation.
Tiner also increased the number of editorial writers from two to five. He hired an editorial cartoonist. He put a second reporter in Washington, D.C. He published pictures of the royalty for the separate black and white Mardi Gras balls on the same page, "and the world didn't come to an end."
"It's an unusual era we're in," Tiner says. "Success begets success." Circulation is up, and "the only thing we've done different is improve the editorial product."
One word captures the motive for change at Portland's Oregonian: Packwood. In November 1992, just weeks after a squeaker of a Senate election, the Washington Post published a story in which women associates charged Republican Sen. Bob Packwood with making unwanted sexual advances. The Oregonian had looked into rumors of Packwood's misbehavior months before, but not aggressively. With no story of its own, it ran the Post's.
In December, in a lengthy page one piece, the Oregonian delivered an explanation to its readers. In essence, it said, we screwed up.
Reporter Dee Lane was one of the staffers who labored to restore the paper's credibility on the story. She has a bumper sticker on her desk, reading, "If it matters to Oregonians...it's in the Washington Post."
"I keep that to remind me not to let that happen again," Lane says. "It hurt a lot." Lane and others say that even without a dynamic new editor, the Oregonian would have changed after the Packwood debacle. It was too embarrassed not to.
The paper that wooed and won Sandy Rowe had a proud history. But under Newhouse ownership, it had seen some journalistic ups and downs. Richard H. Meeker, publisher of Portland's alternative paper, Willamette Week, and author of a 1983 S.I. Newhouse biography, says of Rowe, "She has an enormous task to turn that into a modern, effective newpaper. I admire her for trying."
"When I got out of college in the mid-70s, you couldn't have brought me here with a bonus offer," says John Killen, who leads an Oregonian reporting team. "The Oregonian was seen as a bad newspaper..staid and gray, a paper that, other than the town of Portland, didn't have much going for it."
Killen believes the paper improved in the mid-1980s under Bill Hilliard, Rowe's predecessor. But a stubborn rift between top managers, fallout from the 1982 merger with the Oregon Journal, an afternoon paper, kept it from realizing its potential.
Rowe set a new, even radical, tone (see "A Brand New Ballgame," page 28). And when the next national story broke in Portland, one featuring a figure skater named Tonya Harding, the Oregonian owned it.
Jacqui Banaszynski had been wooed by top papers since winning a Pulitzer Prize at the St. Paul Pioneer Press in 1988. Last March she joined the Oregonian, encouraged by such recent Newhouse hires as Deborah Howell in Washington, D.C., and David Hall in Cleveland.
"I looked at every other job that had been offered to me," Banaszynski says. "This one was the riskiest. The other jobs, to one degree or other, were safer, in that I was stepping into someone else's box and either making it bigger or making it mine. This was no box at all – just possibility."
How big is that possibility? "It means Philly in the '70s," she responds, referring to the turnaround of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Lane, for her part, used to complain that Oregonian editors seemed afraid of investigative journalism. These days, she says, "I'm being assigned that kind of story."
°on Franklin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who teaches journalism at the University of Oregon, credits Rowe with "a broadening and deepening of coverage that has been remarkable..more exciting that anything I've seen [in journalism] since 1975."
He dismisses the notion that breaking news has suffered. "You're going to get that kind of criticism whenever you do this kind of change... So far as I know, they're not missing the important stuff."
Meeker, on the other hand, says the new Oregonian seems more driven by the quest for prizes than the desire to cover Oregon. He says the changes represent packaging, not vision. "There's more hard, breaking news on the evening televsion than there is on the front page of the metro section," he says. Rowe is "publishing a paper that could be published anywhere in America – and that's a shame."
Trend-watchers have a term for adults who move back to their hometowns after success in bigger places: rubber banders. And in Syracuse, two rubber banders share credit for improvements to the morning Post-Standard and the afternoon Herald-Journal. Stephen A. Rogers, 55, now editor and publisher of the two papers, returned to New York State in 1977 from the Miami Herald, where he had risen to managing editor/ news over a 13-year career.
Some years later, Syracuse native Tim Bunn, then a Miami Herald assistant city editor, got a clipping in the mail from his mother. Steve Rogers had been promoted to publisher.
Bunn, 48, hadn't known Rogers in Florida. But he knew his reputation around the Miami newsroom. "A guy who had worked that long at a paper that good and had risen that high was going to make things happen in Syracuse," he says. "I wanted to be part of it."
In 1981, Bunn became assistant managing editor at the Post-Standard; a year later, he was managing editor at the Herald-Journal. His counterpart at the Post-Standard is Michael J. Connor, 41, whose career began at the Post-Standard in 1976.
Connor says the '70s were marked by "a culture of change." The old Post-Standard was "lethargic," he says. "Suddenly, we felt the freedom and encouragement to hit hard."
Post-Standard alumnus Jim Naughton, a former Washington Post and New York Times reporter now writing books, was a journalism undergraduate at Syracuse University in the late '70s. Students then thought the local papers were beneath them. By the time Naughton returned for graduate school, Rogers and Bunn were turning things around.
They had hired from what Naughton calls the first wave of the J-school boom, reporters who "were young..ambitious. They didn't have lives yet, so they worked hard."
Writing improved. The paper got choosier in its national and foreign coverage. "If you broke newspapering down to its technical components," Naughton says, the Syracuse papers "got better at every one."
Bunn says the philosophy was to "make tomorrow's paper better than today's." In the last five years, those increments began to pay big-league dividends.
In 1990, the Post-Standard embarked upon an exhaustive investigation of improper recruiting practices in the Syracuse University basketball program. The result: NCAA probation, the loss of some scholarships to athletes and a massive follow-up investigation by the school.
In 1992, after a mutant form of tuberculosis began killing prisoners, the Post-Standard investigated the medical care given New York state inmates. The project took nearly a year to complete, and the resulting series was a finalist for the 1993 Pulitzer Prize.
Connor says the emphasis is shifting now, "from the massive, seven- to 12-month project" to a more thorough report of what's happening.
xeanwhile, the Herald- Journal hasn't been left behind. Bunn says the paper's performance in this year's New York state AP awards marks its progress: first place in its circulation class in five of nine categories.
The Herald-Journal combats its tough afternoon cycle by aggressively changing the paper from edition to edition until the 2:30 p.m. press start of its final. "If we're going to lose circulation," says Tim Atseff, Bunn's managing editor, "it's not going to be because of a crappy product."
The New Orleans Times-Picayune stunned?Louisiana in 1993 with "Together Apart: The Myth of Race." The series spanned six installments from May to November, exploring a "tumultuous, three-century-old relationship" between New Orleans blacks and whites that, the paper observed, "continues unresolved today." Publisher Ashton Phelps Jr. and Editor Jim Amoss told readers that their hope was to bring people together "by talking unflinchingly about a subject that has us tongue-tied."
The stories didn't spare the paper. They exposed its own racism, and not just in the past.
The Times-Picayune had started addressing racial and gender issues two years before, within the organization. "We were responding to women and minorities who told us how overlooked they felt, how un-listened to," says Amoss, 47. He put staff members through diversity workshops.
Events leading up to the race project "were a real sea change..and it continues. We [now] talk freely here about race and gender, which as you know manifest themselves in the news."
For instance, a reporter and photographer returned from a recent trip to Haiti with photos of a voodoo ceremony that sparked a vigorous debate over racial sensitivity. Ultimately, the paper chose not to publish some of the photos.
"That kind of discussion is had and should be, even though it is painful," says Amoss, who was metro editor before being named editor. "And we would not have been able to have the discussion – even the vocabulary for it – if we had not gone through the process."
?hat's a far cry from the paper that, in the mid-1970s, made a list of the country's 10 worst large-circulation dailies compiled by More, a since-closed journalism review.
Edgar L. "Dooky" Chase III is a business law professor at Dillard University in New Orleans. Within the last five or so years, he says, the Times-Picayune has made "substantial progress in coverage of racial issues." The society pages now are integrated, he notes. "Before, hardly anyone black would read it, because there was nothing of interest in it... Now, you can pick up the living section and see that New Orleans is a mix of people."
Stephen B. Lemann, a longtime New Orleans lawyer and former newspaperman, says the Times-Picayune has been a generally better paper since Newhouse acquired it in 1962. But it still falls short of his expectations.
"I am certainly seeing improvement in the kind of things that are important to [journalists]," Lemann says, "but not the things that are important to me." The paper took "justifiable pride" in its race project, "but that's not what I buy a paper for... The Times-Picayune's a much softer paper now than it was, much more heavily into features."
Jay Perkins, a journalism professor at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, offers a mixed view. He praises the paper for "covering stories which have national significance, but covering them in Louisiana." He criticizes it for being "still a bit too meetings-oriented. If you stick someone behind a podium, they will come... They need the courage to say, 'That's not news.' "
For Cleveland's Plain Dealer, the major opening of 1994 wasn't Jacobs Field, the Indians' new baseball park. It was the official unveiling in June of its new $200 million printing plant.
David Hall, the paper's editor, has worked for other newspaper groups, Knight-Ridder and Times Mirror. He says Newhouse's distinguishing characteristic "is the long view of what is required to build quality throughout the newspaper... The clearest example is the new plant. It's a stunning building, and nobody has one better."
For years the Plain Dealer was seen as a paper that undershot its potential, and worse. It joined the Times-Picayune on More's roster of the country's worst big dailies.
Nor did Hall arrive without baggage. As editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, he ordered a reporter to name a source to whom the reporter had promised confidentiality (see "Burning the Source," September 1991). The source was then fired from his job. When the subsequent lawsuit reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991, the court ruled in the source's favor.
Hall's performance at his next paper, the Record in Bergen County, New Jersey, was the subject of several critical pages in the 1993 book "Media Circus." The author, Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz, holds Hall chiefly responsible for diluting the Record's editorial quality.
?ince he came to Cleveland in 1992, Hall, 51, has broadened sports coverage, committing to greater emphasis on minorities, women and minor sports. He has continued to customize the paper for suburban readers. The paper launched a weekly family section. And the Plain Dealer has put into place what Hall says will be "one of the best set-ups for computer-assisted journalism in the country."
But the proof is in the pages. And a veteran observer of Ohio journalism says the new Plain Dealer has a way to go.
"It looks nicer," says James Neff, an investigative author and director of the Kiplinger Public Affairs Reporting Program at Ohio State University. And Neff praises the arts and entertainment sections as delivering, "pound for pound, the strongest [journalism] in the paper." But he complains that on both page one and in the local news sections "you have format driving content." The zoned local section "deprives you of a sense of Cleveland... I skim the paper now in 10, where before I would have to take 20 minutes to read it."
To Hall's credit, the Plain Dealer has undertaken several high-profile investigations. Among them:
G"Lethal Doses – Radiation that Kills," published late in 1992, documented deadly mistakes made during radiation-therapy procedures in hospitals across America. The series resulted in an overhaul of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's radiation medicine programs and won awards from IRE, SPJ and APME.
GEarly this year, reporters looked into bad bond investments by county treasurers. To ensure that the numbers were right, Hall hired an expert – a CPA he termed "a forensic accountant."
G░Images of Deceit – Money, Medicine and Machines," published in March, exposed Ohio's laxity in controlling the purchase and overuse of unnecessary, high-tech medical equipment.
While the pattern of improvement seems clear, some who have studied the Newhouse papers are not convinced.
?ournalism prizes, notes David Johnston, assistant business editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, tell only half the story. "The cost of doing those projects is minimal compared to the cost of putting out a quality newspaper day after day," he says. "And your reputation in New York is more influenced by the fact that you win a Pulitzer Prize in New Orleans than by the fact that you put out a consistently good newspaper there."
?ohnston regularly sees Newhouse papers from Newark and Syracuse, and in 1992 was paid by the New Orleans Times-Picayune to run a daylong reporting seminar on gambling coverage. He regards the Syracuse papers as strong on enterprise, but hit-and-miss from week to week. His assessment of the Star-Ledger is unforgiving: "The Newark Star-Ledger continues to be an absolute journalistic disaster. It covers New Jersey like a thin sheet."
Indeed, the status of the Star-Ledger is a major question in Newhouse's future. The paper has the largest circulation of any in the group (464,000 daily, 697,000 Sunday). It has dominated the Central Jersey market since it became one of the first U.S. dailies to recognize the potential in suburban readership. Editor Mort Pye, a traditionalist now in his 70s, has been in complete charge there since 1957. John Farmer, the Star-Ledger's veteran political writer, calls it "an old-fashioned paper, with old-fashioned news values."
The paper's sheer poundage beats the rival New York Times' on many Sundays. Its formula: Cover everything in great, if routine, detail. Pye says he wants stories to satisfy appetites whetted by the previous night's television news.
Change at the Star-Ledger is a subtle thing, he says. The paper recently began using full color, for instance, but only in advance feature sections and on Sunday's page one. Pye doesn't want to sacrifice news hole and flexibility for fancy packaging.
"I don't look at [the Star-Ledger] as a wall poster," he says. "We know what's going on. And I think people in the state know if they're interested in anything of consequence in New Jersey, they'll find it in the paper. We're not flashy. But we do appeal to the reader."
?homas Maier is a Newsday investigative reporter who spent four years researching and writing a recently published book on the Newhouse family. Given its history, he doesn't believe the newpapers' gains will be sustained.
┴n the past, "a good number of these newspapers have had moments when it looks like they're breaking the chronic mediocrity that has been instilled," he says. But the talent has come and gone.
Maier's book, "Newhouse: All the Glitter, Power and Glory of America's Richest Media Empire and the Secretive Man Behind It," is essentially a hostile biography of Si Newhouse, Donald's older brother.
"It's great that [Newhouse has] in some cases hired quality people and put them in important roles," Maier says. "And there are some idealistic, earnest people throughout the organization... My intent is never to question their individual efforts."
But, he asks, "why shouldn't cities like Cleveland and Portland have had excellent newspapers for the past 20 years?"
Others are confident that the changes across Newhouse's America represent a genuine commitment to better journalism. The Newhouse group has been a great place to ride out the newspaper recession, they say. "For a dying business, the steelworkers of the '90s, this is one of the few shops that's making steel the way it ought to be made," says Jim Nesbitt, a national reporter in the Washington bureau.
The challenge is the future. "They've got the necessary critical mass of talent, the commitment to spend money. But they've also done the easy upgrades," Nesbitt observes. "What'll be interesting is what they do next."###