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, an? "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."
Four years before Oklahoma joined the union, 29-year-old Edward K. Gaylord, a newspaper business manager from St. Joseph, Missouri, came to the territory, prowled the still unpaved streets of dusty Oklahoma City and bought a minority interest in the fledgling Oklahoman. That was in 1903. By 1918, E.K. Gaylord had gained control, and his family has been running Oklahoma's largest newspaper ever since.
Today the Daily Oklahoman, circulation 224,000, and the Sunday Oklahoman, with 308,000 copies sold, constitute one of the country's largest remaining independents. Both paper and family have figured prominently in the development of the 46th state, and their presence is apparent. One of Oklahoma City's downtown streets is named for E.K. Gaylord. At the large and impressive National Cowboy Hall of Fame, a bronze bust of Gaylord, a "founding benefactor," stands in the museum's Hall of Great Westerners. Special exhibits there are housed in the Edward L. Gaylord Exhibition Wing, named for E.K.'s son. Tens of millions of Gaylord dollars have been given to universities, hospitals and dozens of charitable and civic organizations.
More recently, after the catastrophic 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, the newspaper donated its former headquarters there – a vacant but classical 1909 building listed on the National Register of Historic Places – to the YMCA, whose own building had been severely damaged by the blast.
Clearly, the Gaylords have a sense of civic pride and an interest in the well-being of Oklahoma. At the same time, they have done extraordinarily well themselves. Large amounts of the family's wealth have been spun off into Gaylord Entertainment Co., which created the Nashville Network and Country Music Television and owns the Opryland Hotel in Nashville. In 1991, the newspaper itself was moved to a stunning, 12-story black tower that rises from the flatlands in north Oklahoma City. "We now have by far the nicest newspaper facility in the United States," the general manager, Edmund O. Martin, boasted during the paper's 1994 centennial celebration. It would be hard to argue. With palatial paneled executive offices, an airy newsroom, and such amenities as a cafeteria, auditorium, fitness center, outdoor running track, basketball court and lake, the Oklahoman's quarters are truly impressive.
It's not clear, though, that enough Gaylord money has been spent to make a better newspaper. Modest in size, modern in its printing but old-fashioned in its narrow eight-column design (punctuated by a full-color American flag at the top of the front page), the Oklahoman gets by with a small news staff – just under 150 full-timers, says Managing Editor Ed Kelley, an Oklahoma native and staffer since 1975. He knows that's low for a paper the size of the Oklahoman but says he inherited staff limits when he returned from the Washington bureau in 1990 to take the top newsroom job.
Some papers this size have half again as many newsroom employees. On the other hand, it's not clear what the paper would do with additional reporters, given its relatively small newshole. The staff is about 35 percent female and less than 5 percent minority, Kelley says, adding that "we need to do better." Analysts point out that the weekday Oklahoman traditionally has had low household penetration in its market. Kelley is proud, though, that the paper covers the entire state and circulates in every county, and he boasts of its coverage of local news and sports. He says the suburban news, and the writing and editing in general, "certainly need to be better." And he cares about the paper's performance. "I want us to get to the point where we're not a pretty good newspaper," he says, "but a very good newspaper."
The paper's locally written stories often lack style and imagination. When the federal building was bombed, the paper did not publish an extra, but it did put together four- and six-page special sections every day for the next week. At the same time, the Oklahoman more than doubled the number of papers printed for street sales. More important, Kelley believes the paper helped hold the community together during a time of devastation and fear. The coverage cost about $1 million in extra pages, bigger press runs and overtime pay, he says. The paper spent another $250,000 to cover the bombing trials in Denver, and the coverage continues. "This story will be for Oklahoma City like the Kennedy assassination was for Dallas," he says. "It will go on forever."
The paper's coverage won several awards but did not make the finals of the Pulitzer competition. In fact, rather surprisingly for a paper of its size and dominance, the Oklahoman has won only one Pulitzer, and that was 59 years ago for editorial cartooning.
The paper tries to put six news stories on the front page each day, the usual mix being four city/state stories and two national/international. The paper uses AP copy "nine times out of 10," says Assistant Managing Editor Mike Shannon, another native Oklahoman and a staffer for 27 years. "We have a bias here that government needs to be watched. We watchdog state government and see how they're spending the taxpayers' money." Kelley and Shannon are hardly alone in believing that a paper's chief mission today – even the key to survival – is intensive local reporting. They may be right, but the trend is leading many papers to abandon intelligent and thorough coverage of national and international news. The Oklahoman's selection of foreign stories is quirky at best. Earlier this year when the United States was threatening to bomb Iraq and the Pope was visiting Cuba, the Oklahoman's coverage was so skimpy that a subscriber would have been better served reading almost any out-of-town metro.
The paper seems most dedicated to urging a right-wing, anti-government conservatism on its not-always-receptive readers. The editorial page editor, Patrick McGuigan, says it forthrightly: "We're trying to change the political culture; we're trying to make Oklahoma a conservative bastion." Unsurprisingly, that dovetails with the longtime philosophy of the Gaylords, including E.K. Gaylord II, grandson of the founder and current president of the parent Oklahoma Publishing Co. He has written of the need for a "weeding out" of government employees with "socialistic ideas" and for passage of a state right-to-work law to help Oklahoma business. His father, Edward L. Gaylord, used to blast what he called "liberal bubbleheads" and once accused the notably down-the-middle AP of being leftist.
McGuigan, 43, a longtime Oklahoman with a graduate degree in history, joined the editorial page in 1990 after 10 years at a conservative Washington think tank, the Free Congress Foundation. He describes himself with cheerful enthusiasm as "a multi-issue conservative" and believes his page is "filling a critical niche" in a national landscape of liberal editorial pages. When the first stories appeared about President Clinton's alleged sexual affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, McGuigan immediately published an editorial titled "Clinton Should Resign." Three days later, in a signed piece, he accused Clinton of "habitual immorality" and "a casual indulgence in fornication." Though the charges against the president were just beginning to be investigated, McGuigan was confidently saying, "He did it."
?iding McGuigan are two full time editorial writers – one in Oklahoma City, one in Washington – and longtime editorial cartoonist Jim Lange. McGuigan says the page wants to "help people understand what's important in life," is "pro-free enterprise, anti-regulation," supports a strong military defense and favors conservative social values. "We're not buying into the gay rights agenda," he volunteers. "In fact, we don't use the word 'gay'; we use 'homosexual' and 'lesbian.' We get accused of being homophobe, but we're not."
Actually, the problem with the Oklahoman editorial page is not that it's conservative but that it's blindly so, simplistic and loose with the facts. When McGuigan's page went after the global warming treaty agreed to in Japan last December – labeling the U.S. role "Clinton's Kyoto Calamity" – it claimed, dubiously, that there is "growing doubt among climatologists about the human effect on atmospheric temperature change." When the AFL-CIO launched an advertising campaign in January to promote union membership, the Oklahoman's editorial said the ad campaign failed to disclose the "brutality, selfishness, fraud, corruption and intimidation" associated with unions. Disagree with union "bosses," the editorial concluded, and "your life may be in danger, your tires may be slashed and your family may be trembling in fear that you won't come home in one piece."
The city's alternative weekly, the Oklahoma Gazette, publishes letters attacking the Oklahoman. After the verdict in the bombing trial of Terry Nichols, the daily paper was editorially upset by the jury forewoman's criticism of the FBI. But a Gazette reader wrote that the Oklahoman itself had helped "sow the seeds of cynicism" by its "relentless knee-jerk harangue of almost all government."
The conservative message appears on page two in the person of Argus Hamilton. He writes what passes for a humor column, stringing together often tasteless one-liners on a variety of issues. In a January column, he noted a popularity drop by President Clinton and wrote that "only Sonny Bono went downhill faster." When the Clintons got a male Labrador retriever, Hamilton wrote, "So far, they say the three-month-old puppy jumps all over every woman who walks into the White House. Monkey see, monkey do."
The man behind the message, E.K. Gaylord II, who has admitted that his true loves are horses, rodeos and film production, now seems to have dedicated himself to running the newspaper. Just 41 years old, he pledged during the paper's centennial celebration four years ago that "as long as I'm alive, this will be a privately owned, family-based company." Chances are it will remain independent and in the control of the Gaylords, who own most of the stock. E.K. II, as he's known at the paper, turned down requests for an interview, leaving it to general manager Martin to discuss the newspaper's finances and the family's views.
The Oklahoman, being a private company, does not announce its profit margin, but Martin says "we would far exceed the industry standard," which he says he understands to be a percentage in the mid-20s. "We do very well."
Asked about the Oklahoman's virtues, Martin cites "the love and care and concern about the community and the state we operate in" and the fact that as an independent publication "we control our own destiny in the product we put out." The newspaper is "financially supportive" of local good causes and is "part of the community, like a bank or other major institution." The Gaylord family, he says, "has a commitment to the city and the state, and believes in newspapers."
The Oklahoman's professed care for its community and state seems genuine. But unless it begins to spend more of its ample resources on staff, on more ambitious reporting efforts and on more lively writing, it will remain a journalistic underachiever.
A decade after taking the helm of the Eugene Register-Guard, Tony Baker can relax. He has successfully engineered an agreement among family members to perpetuate their longtime control of the paper, Oregon's second-largest daily, and in January he presided over the move to a new and thoroughly modern plant.
The Guard (as it's known by all) is an 80,000-circulation newspaper that's exceptionally close to its community. The paper is scrutinized, praised and criticized, but hardly ever ignored. The Baker family has owned it for seven decades. Alton F. "Tony" Baker III is editor and publisher, the third of his immediate family to lead it. Baker's cousin R. Fletcher Little is general manager. Another cousin, Richard A. Baker Jr., is information systems manager. Cousin Bridget Baker-Kincaid directs corporate and public relations. Cousin David H. Baker serves the newsroom as assistant managing editor. Cousin Carol Little Johnson is a classified advertising sales assistant. Tony's sister, Susan Baker Diamond, is the Newspaper in Education coordinator.
Tony's grandfather, the original Alton F. Baker, son of the general manager of Cleveland's Plain Dealer, struck out for the West in 1927 and bought the 60-year-old Guard in growing, still raw Eugene. Three years later he purchased the competing Register and merged them. He ran the combined paper for the next 30 years as Eugene grew from a timber and college town – home to the University of Oregon – into a diversified city. He became a civic force, and today the largest public greenspace in Eugene, running for two miles alongside the Willamette River across from downtown, is named Alton Baker Park. Upon his death in 1961, he was succeeded by his son, Alton F. "Bunky" Baker Jr. After Bunky retired more than 20 years later, it was his brother Edwin's turn. Five years after that, Tony Baker took over.
When the paper completed its move to a new $40 million facility in north Eugene in January, Baker said the expenditure demonstrated the family's commitment to maintaining ownership. "It underscores our long held philosophy that we believe the community is best served by a locally owned newspaper," Baker told Register-Guard readers in an 18-page section about the move. "It's the family's intention to continue to own and operate the paper in that manner for years to come. There's no question that if the family was interested in doing anything other than continue to own and operate the paper, it wouldn't be saddling itself with this debt load."
He wrote, correctly, that "there are not many family-owned papers our size..not many left at all." Because of family ownership, he explained, "we're able to make all the decisions here locally... We don't feel the pressure from investors or stockholders, wherever they may be, to drive that bottom line on a quarterly basis... There's pressure but we put that pressure on ourselves, because we make our own decisions about what we're going to buy and sell, the products we're going to produce, where we circulate and the setting of ad rates."
A brightly modern, cleanly edited newspaper, the Register-Guard puts a premium on civic duty and on trying to be the conscience of Eugene, as exemplified by its local public affairs news coverage and its thoughtful, moderately liberal, good-citizen editorial line. It wins deserved praise for its sports pages and its classy and well-displayed photography. A dozen times in the last two decades the Register-Guard has captured the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association's highest honor, its General Excellence Award.
The paper's coverage of local news, especially government news, is persistent and aggressive, and stories are nearly always written with skill and style. The main section sometimes gives questionable front page play to local features and photos with little news value, squeezing out state, national or world stories that deserve better play and would better serve Eugene's literate readership. But it doesn't omit those stories from the paper, and its overall report is complete, intelligently edited and rarely dull.
Local coverage mostly adheres to the paper's written "News Coverage Philosophy," which states that "our professional role is civic observer, not civic booster." The paper does, however, involve itself directly as a contributor or backer in such community efforts as United Way and the construction of a downtown performing arts center.
Tony Baker candidly assesses the Register-Guard as not doing enough in-depth projects, needing to beef up literary and cultural coverage, and lacking sufficient reporting on outdoor recreation and on homes and gardens. So he has authorized four new editorial hires this year. The news staff now numbers about 80 full time and 20 part time people, says Managing Editor Jim Godbold. That's an acceptable, but not exceptional, staff size.
Baker says he intends to look at other news needs too, including strengthening the Sunday paper, which is sometimes thin and stints on local news. The Commentary section is solid, often provocative, and replete with intelligently selected pieces usually tied to the news. There's no Sunday magazine other than Parade, but that's not unusual these days. What's different is there's no television magazine either, because the Guard publishes its book on Saturday, believing it's of more use to people then. In fact, the Saturday edition is the biggest seller, at 83,000 copies, because of the TV magazine. The paper sells about 75,000 copies Monday through Friday, 80,000 on Sunday. It forces a seven-day buy on subscribers, and the extra Saturday and Sunday numbers come from street sales. Circulation has been flat for three years.
Although some young staffers use the paper as a training ground and move on to bigger newspapers, Tony Baker says "many people stay a long time because they like the paper and they like the community. We're blessed with a strong staff, a lot of people who are overachievers, who have more good ideas than we can put into practice."
Don Bishoff, a three-times-a-week columnist who holds forth concretely and pungently on local issues, is in his early 60s and has been at the paper for nearly 40 years. Bishoff's columns sometimes take a different point of view on local controversies from the editorial page, but that doesn't upset most staffers, who figure it adds to the paper's appeal.
Editorial Page Editor Don Robinson has been there for 35 years and directs a staff of four, which he says is "certainly bigger than the chain papers of our size." They produce daily editorial and op-ed pages and a four-page Sunday commentary section that are admirable, thought-provoking and well-read, judging from the many letters to the editor. The editorials are more rigorously reasoned than in many larger newspapers. Politically, Robinson says, the Guard is "largely centrist, but sort of moderately liberal." The paper endorsed Bill Clinton in both his presidential bids. Tony Baker's father, Bunky, still in charge during Ronald Reagan's presidency, insisted the paper endorse Reagan over Walter Mondale in 1984, but he initialed the editorial because Robinson and most of the staff disagreed with him.
A flap early this year involving the Eugene city manager, Vicki Elmer, illustrates the extent to which this paper engages in and promotes local debate. Near the end of Elmer's first year on the job, reporter Joe Kidd analyzed her performance. He concluded that she'd made numerous bad decisions and, by firing some key officials, had damaged City Hall morale to the point that her own executive team urged her to quit. The editorial page followed up with a strong editorial, "Elmer should resign," and said if she didn't, the City Council should fire her. Then the paper granted Elmer space for a 1,200-word reply, in which she defended her performance. But the City Council took the Register-Guard's advice and dismissed Elmer. Perhaps because the paper had prepared its readers, no one was taken by surprise and there was a minimum of civic trauma.
The paper suffered its own public embarrassment in December, when the sports editor mistakenly quoted a black University of Oregon football player as saying that bowl opponent Air Force "had a good white defense." It turned out, as a tape recording showed, that he'd actually said "a good WAC defense," WAC being the Western Athletic Conference. This prompted a front page apology by Godbold. He offered "a full and complete retraction of the error," saying it had hurt the image of the university's football team and "the credibility of the Register-Guard in ways that won't be quickly forgotten." The player in question accepted the apology. "It was an awkward thing to go through," Baker admits.
Eugene being the kind of place it is, a liberal, activist college town where citizen debate is as much a way of life as drive-through espresso stands, not everyone loves the Guard. Some think it's too leftish and lives in the 1960s. Others believe it's turned too conservative. Some think it's gone soft. "A lot of people in Eugene are very critical of the Guard," says Fred Taylor, the retired executive editor of the Wall Street Journal who reads the Guard from 125 miles away in Coquille, where he owns the weekly Coquille Valley Sentinel. "But I tell them they just haven't read enough papers in other towns. The Guard is a very good medium-sized newspaper and one of the best of its size in the country that I've read, and I've read a lot of them."
Not to say he is without quibbles. Taylor says the paper's stories have grown shorter over time and lack detail for "political junkies like me," who he says are apparently expected to get the added information by phoning the paper's audiotext, GuardLine. He adds the paper "ought to look more closely at the university; they don't cover it very well." But Taylor volunteers that he's a stockholder of the competing Eugene Weekly and therefore could be "suspected of self-interest" in any critique of the establishment paper.
Another expert reader is Jon Franklin, who won two Pulitzer Prizes at Baltimore's old Evening Sun before coming to Oregon to write and teach. He calls the Guard "a rather good newspaper" – high praise from the curmudgeonly Franklin, who harbors strong doubts that newspapers will survive as a medium, at least in present form. Still, he finds the paper too buttoned-down, "very sober-sided. There's not a lot of joy. They take themselves very seriously." (Franklin has since returned to newspaper journalism at Raleigh's News & Observer.)
But whatever criticism one hears of the Guard, it's almost always offered in the context of overall admiration for a solid paper that, as Taylor says, benefits from local ownership and stable leadership. The Guard's top brass may sometimes be too close to "the bankers and the developers," he says, "but that's maybe not as bad as a paper being run by floating editors and publishers from somewhere else."
Tony Baker plans to keep it that way. "The prospects for retaining family ownership are good," he says. "I've argued that what's good for this business is good for the family. We've kept pace with what would be considered a reasonable rate of return. We're not as profitable as the published reports of some publicly owned papers – we're not doing 20 percent; let's put it that way. But we're not poor either."
Twenty-one relatives, all direct descendants of founder Alton F. Baker, own the stock and constitute the board of directors of Guard Publishing Co. Five of them, including Tony, control a 10-year voting trust that began in 1987 and was renewed for another 10 years. That arrangement stems from months of discussion among the family in the mid-1980s when Tony's father and uncle were retiring. Eventually the third-generation Bakers signed a document, pledging to their parents that "despite the problems and the tremendous amount of work ahead of us, we have decided we want to keep the Register-Guard in the family. We all have strong emotional ties to the paper and to Eugene. We know we've got a good thing here, and we believe we have the ability and the dedication to maintain it and to make it better."
The paper seems well positioned for the foreseeable future. Managing Editor Godbold says the work force is stable, the new building and equipment are "state of the art," and journalistically, "what I hear all the time from Tony is, 'We want to do the right thing.' "
Such can be the mantra of the independent newspaper.
It's impossible in today's media environment to start a new daily newspaper. That's the accepted wisdom. But such rules do not apply to multimillionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, who is happily cultivating a new and growing daily in Pittsburgh. It's actually a spinoff of his Tribune-Review newspaper in Greensburg, 30 miles to the east.
Heir to the Mellon banking and oil fortune and reportedly worth close to a billion dollars, Scaife is a philanthropist of considerable generosity. But these days he's much better known as the funder of right-wing causes, some way off the chart of believability. He has long been a financial backer of the American Spectator magazine and other conservative critics of President Clinton. And it has been widely reported that Scaife money has benefited David Hale, a former judge who's an anti-Clinton witness in independent counsel Kenneth Starr's Whitewater probe.
But all that is about politics. What motivated Scaife to launch his Pittsburgh venture is a strong belief that a major city should have two newspaper voices. (At least that's the reason his associates give; although Scaife employs journalists he doesn't talk to them.) He proved this once before in Sacramento, where he kept the underdog Union going despite a decade of negative cash flow. In the Steel City, events were put into motion in 1992 when a devastating strike prompted Scripps Howard to unload the Pittsburgh Press. Scaife tried to buy it but Scripps rebuffed him and sold the paper to the Block family, owner of the rival Post-Gazette. The family in turn closed the Press, and an incensed Scaife decided to rectify matters.
So he set up a newspaper office in the city's historic Station Square, a scenic spot on the banks of the Monongahela River that he'd earlier restored with more than $10 million in grants from his Allegheny Foundation. He began printing a Pittsburgh edition on his Greensburg presses, while starting construction of a $43 million printing plant north of Pittsburgh.
Last October the state-of-the-art plant, dubbed NewsWorks, opened and started printing Scaife's Pittsburgh Tribune-Review at the rate of about 35,000 copies on weekdays, 50,000 on Sundays. The Greensburg edition, whose slogan is "Worthy of Western Pennsylvania," circulates about 61,000 daily, 115,000 on Sundays. Even so, the combined Greensburg-Pittsburgh editions are dwarfed by the Post-Gazette, which sells 241,000 on weekdays, 429,000 Sundays. Scaife's start-up news staff in Pittsburgh, nearly 100 (the Greensburg edition has about the same number), is also small compared to the Post-Gazette's.
"Right now, for us it's not about making money," says David House, who came to Pittsburgh as editor last year from the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. "It's about providing Pittsburgh with an alternative daily. Here's a guy, Dick Scaife, who really wants Pittsburgh to have two newspapers. He was willing to put his money where his mouth is."
House says he took the job because "this is a privately owned newspaper and it's an exciting challenge." Newspapers owned by public companies, he says, are plagued by "a bottom-line philosophy and downsizing, with catastrophic results. That makes it tougher and tougher to perform." Over in Greensburg, a classic Pennsylvania mountain town, Editor Tom Stewart agrees. "We were never forced to run on a shoestring here. We've always been healthily staffed. We can react quickly to things." The paper's conservative editorial policy "doesn't drive our news decisions," Stewart says. "We sit here every day and try to put out a good newspaper and cover both sides of an issue."
Still, Scaife's views clearly affect story play, headlines and overall tone. A few days after the Clinton-Lewinsky story broke, the papers' lead story, an AP piece used inside in many papers, explored why citizens weren't more disturbed. It was based on comments from William Bennett, Alan Keyes, Jesse Helms and others from the right. The Tribune-Review headline read "Conservatives Ask: 'Where's the Outrage?' "
Much of the outrage, of course, resides in Scaife's bosom. A virulent Clinton opponent, he seems haunted by conservative conspiracy theories that drive him to publish bizarre stories about governmental intrigue and murder plots in Washington. Those stories – implying, for instance, that White House lawyer Vincent Foster was murdered, and that Commerce Secretary Ron Brown may have died from a bullet to the head, not in the crash of an Air Force plane in Croatia – color every judgment about Scaife's papers. Editors in Pittsburgh and Greenburg, forced to print the stories no matter what they might think, only shrug when questioned about them and try to change the subject.
The most notorious Tribune-Review stories have been written by Christopher Ruddy, a special correspondent who previously worked for the New York Post but was let go. Scaife's editors were reticent when questioned about Ruddy and the details of his hiring, but he apparently was given carte blanche to write and publish his stories on the front page of the Tribune-Review.
Stewart is the paper's liaison with Ruddy, who is based in New York City. "He's broken some controversial stories," Stewart acknowledges. "He's not assigned to go out and dig up dirt on enemies." Asked whether he believes Ruddy's stories about Ron Brown's death, Stewart demurs but says Ruddy has turned up some curious facts about a wound in Brown's head that could have been a bullet hole.
Ruddy's stories implying that Vince Foster's shooting death was made to look like a suicide have brought even more attention but have been thoroughly discredited, including by Kenneth Starr. (Although Starr says he has never met the megamillionaire, their names continue to be linked.) Even so, Scaife apparently believes the stories, having told the Dallas Morning News in a rare interview in 1995, "The death of Vincent Foster: I think that's the Rosetta Stone to the whole Clinton administration. There are just too many questions that have no answers."
Scaife's employ of Ruddy is of a piece with his financing of dozens of conservative organizations and causes, dating back to his $1 million contribution to Richard Nixon's campaign in 1972. One recipient of Scaife's largess is Pepperdine University. Last year the California university invited Starr to become dean of both its law school and a new school of public policy that the Pittsburgh conservative helped endow. Starr first said he would accept the Pepperdine offer; then, after a storm of criticism, he announced he would postpone his move. More recently he said he would forgo Pepperdine altogether. (Another big financier of the Pepperdine public policy school is Edward L. Gaylord of the Daily Oklahoman.)
Edward H. Harrell, president of the Tribune-Review and the man in charge of both editions, claims not to know the details of the paper's arrangement with Ruddy. "He's a correspondent; he comes up with his own ideas," says Harrell, who runs company operations from an office in suburban Pittsburgh and consults with Scaife frequently. Harrell acknowledges the Tribune-Review's ideology, but he says "no one ever points out that we run some liberal columnists, too." He cites the paper's use of Molly Ivins and Donald Kaul.
Trying to assess the Greensburg and Pittsburgh papers without taking into account the Ruddy portfolio calls to mind the old line, "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?" But the truth is, overall, Scaife's papers measure up well journalistically. In fact, they're quite good. Were it not for his extreme political agenda, Richard Scaife would be considered a respectable independent-newspaper owner.
The Greensburg newsroom supports a projects team that has published examinations of various state government programs gone awry, a look at problems in prison financing, a year-after piece on the relatives of those killed in a nearby airline crash, and a series on the Bill of Rights called "We the People." The latter, which the editors cite with special pride, ran for five days beginning last July 4 and seemed designed to stir patriotic fervor. In February, the paper published two lengthy front page stories about threats to individual privacy. All these projects were well-crafted and raised legitimate issues, but they possessed an edge that seems particularly suited to a Scaife-owned paper, with their tone of pro-Americanism, pro-individualism and anti-government.
Says Sue McFarland, a news editor in Greensburg, "Our readers feel connected to the paper because Scaife lives in the community and has made contributions to it. He has a vested interest in the community and in the quality of life here." The Tribune-Review, she says, has a good reputation as "a place where you can grow and where you can tackle some meaty journalism."
Art McMullen, the general manager, says "technologically, we're way ahead of other places our size," leading the way, for example, in pagination. The Greensburg and Pittsburgh editions, which have nearly identical makeup, are clean in appearance, with a healthy newshole and a balance of local, state, national and international news. The papers use color and graphics skillfully, and they share a fair amount of content. Although Scaife's operation is not as big, complete or ambitious as the Post-Gazette's, his papers would stack up well against many metros.
House, the editor of the Tribune-Review's Pittsburgh edition, expresses great enthusiasm about his paper's future. "We can't go toe to toe with the Post-Gazette now, but that doesn't bother us." He figures the paper and the staff will keep expanding, as the capacity of NewsWorks, the new printing plant built in nine months, is 320,000 copies daily. Meanwhile, staffers at the old Greensburg office are nervous about their sister paper's ascendancy. The Post-Gazette, clearly not a disinterested observer, published a piece last October saying some in Greensburg thought the Pittsburgh edition was overstaffed and a money drain, while Pittsburgh staffers thought the Greensburg operation wasn't providing enough stories.
But for now, Scaife and his top people seem committed to both editions. With Scaife's deep pockets, that shouldn't be a problem. "Dick doesn't take any money out of the papers," says Harrell. And the profit margin? "We don't say. We're a private company."
Scaife is actually expanding his western Pennsylvania empire. In the last year he has purchased three small dailies from Thomson and two dailies and a weekly from Gannett – all near Pittsburgh and Greensburg. The aim is to capture suburban readership. He's also beginning to print the regional editions of USA Today and Baseball Weekly. Scaife has vowed to spend whatever it takes for up to a decade to make his Pittsburgh edition profitable. If he does – and he's just the man to do it – this mysterious conservative may outdistance the headlines to become an ever more influential journalistic force.
When the St. Petersburg Times last year uncovered shocking misconduct and possible fraud by the president of the National Baptist Convention USA, it had a tricky story on its hands. Besides the usual concerns over fairness, proof and libel suits, there was the troubling fact that the Rev. Henry Lyons was African American and a local minister. St. Petersburg was trying to heal the wounds of a violent racial disturbance that shocked the city the previous year and brought into question the Times' awareness of conditions in the black community.
Pursuing the Lyons story might well reopen the wounds. But the paper did not flinch. A team of reporters produced story after story. They reported that Lyons had used National Baptist Convention funds to help buy a $700,000 waterfront estate with a woman, Bernice Edwards, a convicted embezzler.
The paper said Lyons had drastically inflated convention membership lists and sold them to corporate marketers "for personal profit and political gain." More than $1 million intended for convention coffers had gone into a secret Wisconsin bank account set up by Edwards and used by her and Lyons for personal purchases. Plus, Lyons had received $350,000 from the Nigerian government while he was lobbying Washington to ease up on military rulers there. The stories were prominently displayed with headlines like "Lyons' Big Lie."
?arly this year, criminal racketeering and grand theft charges were filed against Lyons, alleging that he and codefendant Edwards had stolen nearly $5 million and spent much of it on lavish living. The newspaper's aggressive coverage became one of three Times stories from last year to make it to the finals of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize competition. Only the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, much bigger papers with much broader reach, had more finalists.
In the end, the Lyons stories didn't win, but another St. Pete finalist did. Thomas French's series on a three-year investigation into the murder of a vacationing Ohio farm wife and her two teenage daughters captured the feature writing prize. The other Times Pulitzer finalist was David Barstow, whose narrative piece about the proposed tobacco settlement was recognized in explanatory reporting.
And so it goes at the St. Petersburg Times, which many journalists consider the nation's finest local newspaper. The morning daily, with 366,000 weekday and 463,000 Sunday subscribers and apparently on its way to becoming the largest daily in Florida, displays admirably unflagging enterprise and tells riveting stories that rival the best in any paper or magazine.
It also has one of the most unusual ownership structures. Bought in 1912 by Indiana newspaperman Paul Poynter, the Times eventually was taken over by his son, Nelson, who ran it for four decades until his death in 1978. Nelson Poynter directed a newspaper that practiced good journalism (laced with a good deal of boosterism), pioneered in newspaper storytelling and in-depth reporting, and was socially progressive, opposing school segregation before any other major paper in the region. The Times led the way in cold type, color and other technological innovations. But what Poynter did to ensure the paper's long-term independence was his most remarkable achievement.
In 1947, Poynter laid down his 15 "Standards of Ownership," which his biographer, Robert N. Pierce, described nearly 50 years later as a kind of combined Declaration of Independence and Constitution for the newspaper. The first standard defined newspaper ownership as "a sacred trust and a great privilege." The 15th declared that a publication is "so individualistic in nature that complete control should be concentrated in an individual. Voting stock should never be permitted to scatter." Poynter also asserted that chain ownership doesn't ensure quality because the owners must worry about all the properties and thus show "diluted or divided" loyalty to any one paper. The 15 standards were compressed later into 10 (see "The St. Pete Principles," page 33).
He mistrusted even the usual course of trying to retain independence through family ownership. Eugene Patterson, the respected Atlanta editor who succeeded Poynter, recalls that Poynter believed the paper should go "not to family, but to professionals who recognize what the duty of the paper is." Poynter believed that a newspaper has "a public service role that can't be fully met if it's in group ownership," says Patterson, whose own view is that "the great plus of being an independent newspaper is that it frees you up to innovate and initiate, to try new ideas."
So Nelson Poynter gave away his newspaper. He set up an educational institution and willed the Times to it when he died. Today the renowned Poynter Institute for Media Studies operates training programs for print and broadcast journalists and sponsors forums on media issues at its downtown building beside Tampa Bay. It also owns Congressional Quarterly (created because Poynter wanted to track what his elected officials were up to) and Florida Trend and Governing magazines. Andrew E. Barnes, Patterson's successor, is editor and chairman of the Times. He also chairs Poynter and votes all the stock. When Barnes, 59, leaves, he will be succeeded in both posts by Paul C. Tash, now 43 and the executive editor.
This setup is not likely to be duplicated elsewhere, most owners being disinclined to give away their newspapers. But what's just as striking about the Times is the overall quality of its leaders and staff, the verve with which they put out their newspaper, and their commitment to it as a great place to work. Barnes came to the paper 25 years ago from the Washington Post. Tash has spent his entire career there, beginning as a reporter in 1978.
Philip L. Gailey, the editorial page editor, was lured from the New York Times Washington bureau and presides professorially over more than a dozen editorial writers and columnists. In 1994, he freed up editorial writer Jeffrey Good for the better part of a year to research and write what amounted to an exposé of Florida's probate system for settling estates. His work won a Pulitzer the next year. "We can choose to be as good as we want to be or as mediocre as we want to be," Gailey says. "The decisions are made right here in this building. If we were counting beans, how could we justify giving Jeff Good eight months to work on a project?" Gailey's editorial page is liberal ("progressive" seems to be the preferred word) and regularly endorses the Democratic presidential candidate in a circulation area that's mostly Republican.
Ruling this empire from an office atop the Times' handsome downtown building, Andy Barnes projects an enthusiastic and intellectual sense of what the paper is all about. He recalls that Poynter believed "a community needs a newspaper that loves it best. And Nelson talked about creating a newspaper where the decisions would be made by people who live in the community, on behalf of the community. He felt very strongly the division of allegiance that comes with remote ownership.
"It had the effect of creating a distinctive institution. The St. Pete Times is pretty quirky, in that we edit the newspaper very largely based on who we are and the wonderful response we get from the community, and we don't really have to wonder what does somebody think in Rosslyn or Miami or wherever," Barnes says, referring to the corporate headquarters of Gannett and Knight Ridder.
"It was the received wisdom when I got here," he continues, "that you serve first the readers, then the advertisers, then the staff, and all those are priorities. That really is quite powerful. The other distinctive thing is that not only are we independent, but we're private." During what Barnes calls the "unconscionable run-up" in newsprint prices several years ago, he had only to meet his obligations to the Poynter Institute. "I could fiddle with the profit margin and not have to explain it to anybody, and did," he says. "That had the effect of maintaining newshole and of not having – because of the exigencies of a quarter or a year – to undo what we'd spent five years creating."
The ratio of news to advertising at the Times runs about 60/40, the reverse of the rule of thumb. "Mind you, we're very careful about our profitability," Barnes says, "and we keep it very healthy." Times executives studied the question several years ago and decided they wanted operating profit "to be on the order of 15 percent. If it was going to be under 10 we'd damn well want to know why, and if it was over 20 we'd be doing something wrong."
Barnes well appreciates that his counterparts at public companies can only dream of such latitude. On the other hand, few of them have ever lived through the storm Barnes endured when Texas financier Robert M. Bass waged a furious effort to take over the Times. In 1988, Bass acquired a minority stake held by Nelson Poynter's nieces, who had been upset by the company's offer for their shares. After several bruising years – Bass accused the Times of being inefficient while the company painted him as a corporate raider with no real interest in journalism – the Poynter Institute paid the financier $56 million, thereby regaining all its stock.
Barnes says Nelson Poynter's motive for creating the institute, which is financed largely by the Times' earnings, was "to do good and to preserve the paper from having to be sold to pay taxes, and he was perfectly candid about that." The institute's president is James M. Naughton, the former executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. A highly respected journalist equally well known for his love of pranks, Naughton delights in running Poynter's seminars and workshops. He sits at a desk in what's supposed to be the anteroom of the director's office because he has filled up the larger room with a full-size pool table.
Naughton, a man of demanding standards, finds little fault with the Times. It's "a writers' newspaper but well edited," he says. It's local without giving up national and international coverage, "covers the hell out of the legislature," is first-rate on enterprise and investigative work, and handles sports "exceptionally well." But he thinks the front section is often too small and says the paper needs to continue efforts to upgrade business coverage. The Times was "shocked and surprised" by the 1996 racial disturbances, Naughton says. "They'd tried to cover that community but hadn't really succeeded. But they reacted quickly when it happened, and they're doing better now. They're more receptive to learning opportunities than most newspapers."
Even so, readers take the paper to task for being too liberal or politically correct. Some in the black community still wonder if the Times understands their problems. And earlier this year Florida's Seminoles leveled some high-profile criticism of their own. The tribe claimed that Times staffers acted unethically in gathering information for an investigation of the Seminoles' casinos. The articles detailed the casinos' huge earnings and uncovered questionable finances and jackpot payments. Executive Editor Tash defends the series as "a statement of our own journalistic findings" and accuses the Seminoles of engaging in deceptive public relations to try to obscure the facts.
Tash, like Nelson Poynter an Indiana native, joined the Times 20 years ago after earning a law degree from Edinburgh University in Scotland. He has been city editor, metro editor, editor and publisher of Florida Trend magazine, and the Times' bureau chief in Washington. He believes the Times tries to guard against what he sees as two dangers of independent ownership: "isolation" from the ideas and expertise that can come from a group setting, and "complacency" that can be fed by a paper's economic security. "We're a better paper than we were 10 years ago," he says, "and we think there's a bright future for newspapers as long as they stay energetic and committed."
Tash treasures the paper's ability to make a decision quickly. In the 1996 campaign he wanted the paper to sponsor the vice-presidential debate. He told Barnes it would cost $500,000. At many papers, if the idea was even entertained there would have been "a huge bureaucratic review and attempts to justify" the expense, he says. "Here, we spent 10 or 15 minutes on the decision. I told Andy I thought we should do it, we discussed it briefly, and he said, 'Let's do it.' "
The news operation now includes 10 editions published in St. Petersburg and four other counties. The idea is to follow the area's growth and expand outside St. Petersburg, where population has declined slightly and where significant numbers of downtown businesses are shuttered. Half the paper's 400 editorial employees work outside the main St. Pete office. The suburban editions are given their own name and identity, such as the Clearwater Times (followed in the mast by "An edition of the St. Petersburg Times"). Another edition is on the home turf of the Times' long-standing rival, Media General's Tampa Tribune. But so far, Barnes acknowledges, it has achieved only a 7 percent penetration rate in Tampa. The Times also supports a Washington bureau of four reporters, a Tallahassee state capital bureau of three full time reporters and two part-timers, and a Miami-based Latin American correspondent.
Staffers say morale is generally good and has improved since management listened several years ago to complaints of female and minority staffers that they weren't getting equal pay and promotions. It's clear, as numerous reporters and editors say, that most take pride in working for a paper with a strong commitment to journalism.
The paper has a Web site, although Barnes isn't much interested in it. Nor is he enamored of the civic journalism movement. "The idea that all journalism should be focused on participatory democracy is not how I think," he says. Still, Barnes is adamant that the Times be "very involved with our community," through its news coverage, letters to the editor and talking to readers. "My ambition for this newspaper," he says, "is that it can find ways to continue to speak to future generations of readers through vigorous discussion of topics that are of interest and importance to them." In that view, Barnes holds true to the vision of Nelson Poynter, whose one-of-a-kind organization seems to be working exactly as he intended.
In November 1995, three bold entrepreneurs from Colorado slipped into affluent Palo Alto, California, leased a vacant plumbing showroom, set up a few Macintosh computers and a satellite dish, and told the curious a vague tale about going into "electronic publishing." That remained their cover story until one day their plumber-landlords said, "We've thought about it, and we've decided you guys are CIA."
At that point, Dave Price says, he and his two partners decided they'd better come clean. They admitted that in a few days they would be launching a daily newspaper. The plumbers were so enthusiastic that they bought champagne to toast the new arrival.
"We started publishing secretly on December 7, a day which will live in infamy," jokes Price, the editor. "We didn't want to raise expectations by announcing that Palo Alto was getting a new daily newspaper and then have people see this little eight-page tabloid and say, 'What's this?' "
The first issue of the Palo Alto Daily News was, in fact, eight pages, written and edited by the three partners, with just one advertisement – from the plumbing company in whose former showroom the paper set up shop. The press run was 3,000 copies, which were distributed free around town. By last April the Palo Alto Daily News was still in the plumbing showroom, with staff crammed into every nook. There are now 22 full-timers, including a news staff of six headed by Price, and about 30 part-timers. The paper was up to 18,000 copies Monday through Saturday, and was typically running 32 to 40 pages, with about 200 ads, most from medium-sized local retailers. It's still free.
ün its admittedly modest and eclectic terms, the Daily News is playing out an interesting experiment. It has taken the model of the free weekly – a concept that has gained widespread acceptance among readers and advertisers alike – and applied it to a daily. You're not supposed to be able to start a newspaper unless you have Scaife-sized pockets, so prohibitive are the expenses. But computers have put production on the desktop. And if you don't need an army of carriers or your own multideck Goss Metroliners, well..
"Our belief is that a free newspaper, available where people shop and work, will do well," Price says. "The newspaper industry has been managed so badly that we have dying dinosaurs in a lot of cities. Independent and small newspapers are the future, and I don't think home subscriptions are the future of the newspaper industry."
Palo Alto, a picturesque Bay Area city of 57,000, is home to Stanford University and many of Silicon Valley's newly rich. It had been without a daily newspaper since the Peninsula Times Tribune was abandoned in 1993 by its owner, Tribune Co. of Chicago. In a classic case of newspaper mismanagement, Tribune had purchased two dailies, the Palo Alto Times and the Redwood City Tribune, and merged them. That was the first of two mistakes. Both Palo Alto (rich, mostly white, very high-toned) and Redwood City (middle-class, blue-collar, ethnically mixed) resented the clumsy amalgamation. The second mistake came when Tribune, to trim costs and appear more worldly, cut back on local coverage. The foolhardy aim was to compete head-on with the sleepy but dominant San Francisco Chronicle to the north and the surging San Jose Mercury News to the south.
Circulation plummeted, a Stanford graduate named Bill Johnson started the free-distribution and high-quality Palo Alto Weekly, and the downward spiral continued. By the time Tribune woke up to what it had wrought it was too late. The Peninsula Times Tribune had been so thoroughly run into the ground that no buyer could be found, and Tribune one day kicked the employees out, shut down the presses and locked the doors. Its building, on a prime block of downtown Palo Alto, has since been torn down and replaced by offices and townhomes.
The Mercury News has an excellent bureau on the Peninsula, and the Palo Alto Weekly, now published twice weekly, does admirable in-depth stories on local issues. Still, Price and partners Jim Pavelich and David Danforth – all of whom had run newspapers in Aspen and Vail – figured that Palo Altans missed their daily.
The new paper emphasizes local news, but it subscribes to the AP and carries a mix of local, state, national and world stories. When water was discovered on the moon, the Daily News localized the news by featuring the role of scientists at the NASA reseírch center in nearby Mountain View. "People see a tabloid, and they think 'alternative newspaper,' " says Price. "But that's not what we're trying to do. We see ourselves as more of a mainstream newspaper, a community daily newspaper."
The paper covers local government, business, and Stanford and high school sports, and tries to stay on top of such hot local controversies as whether to ban noisy leaf-blowers. It carries a few comics, publishes a quirky horoscope ("Aquarius: Do creative things with paper clips today") and treats the news with cheeky irreverence. When the Daily News set up its own Web site this year, it announced the move on the front page with the headline "Newspaper enters 20th century – with just two years to spare."
The paper is printed at a job press in Hayward, across San Francisco Bay. Armando Mendoza, a Daily News employee, makes the half-hour drive to Hayward alone at midnight with the pages for the next day's paper, waits while the copies come off the press, then drives his loaded truck back and directs his small crew's distribution activities.
Readers find the paper in news racks in and around Palo Alto, and at stores and shops. The Daily News encourages retail advertisers to include a coupon for discounts on their products. That gives both the advertiser and the newspaper a way of measuring response, and Price says it's working. "Our circulation is not audited and I could probably give you any figure I wanted," he says. "But we know how many copies we're printing, and we know a lot more people than that read the paper. We find papers in our news racks that people have read while they're eating, and then they put them back in the rack with food stains on them."
Price says the Daily News became profitable in early 1997 – "at least we're taking in more money than we're spending" – and hopes to be printing 25,000 copies daily by this summer. Price is enthusiastic about the paper's future, and believes the community will support him. He likes to quote a local politician, who told Price that when the city's previous daily failed, Palo Alto "lost a mirror on itself."
The joy of newspapering, at least for now, is carrying the day in Palo Alto. That same spirit pulls along hundreds of other kindred, independent souls.
Michael Gartner, who edited two major metropolitan dailies – the Des Moines Register and the Louisville Courier-Journal – and then headed NBC News, is back home in Iowa having the time of his life running the Ames Daily Tribune, circulation 10,000. Last year he won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing for his pungent observations on life in Ames and his critiques of its biggest employer, Iowa State University. He has made friends, and plenty of enemies. He shrugs off the latter, declaring, "You show me a beloved newspaper editor and I'll show you a shitty newspaper." What he likes most is knowing "the history and rhythms" of Ames. Running your own newspaper, he says, "you can make long term financial decisions, not short term ones where you always worry about quarterly profits."
Ted Natt is editor and publisher of the Longview Daily News in Washington state, a paper founded by his grandfather 75 years ago. "Independence makes a whale of a difference," he says. "Our roots run deep in this community." The 25,000-circulation paper has 150 employees, including 32 news staffers, and Natt says he spends more on content and staff than most papers this size. In 1981, the paper won a Pulitzer for its coverage of the Mount St. Helens eruption. Every weekday Natt continues his grandfather's practice of writing a front page column, "Views of the News." "I can come down here to the paper every morning and say in print what I think. It's great fun." Natt, his brother and their families own 70 percent of the paper; the other 30 percent belongs to the employees. Natt has a son working at the paper, and another son and daughter hold degrees in journalism. "I hope we can carry forward," he says, "and remain independent."
Kansan Edward L. Seaton, who owns and operates the Manhattan Mercury, a paper originally run by his grandfather, agrees. At his 12,000-circulation daily with 18 news staffers (more than the industry standard), "we're not publicly traded and we don't have the pressures that come with that. We spend what is required to cover the news." A small-town cosmopolite who has been honored for his work on behalf of press freedom in Latin America, Seaton is the current president of ASNE.
There are other admired independents still afloat – papers like Vermont's Rutland Herald; Spokane's Spokesman-Review; the Day in New London, Connecticut; the Albuquerque Journal; the Journal-World of Lawrence, Kansas; and the Free Lance-Star of Fredericksburg, Virginia. But unless industry economics change drastically, and that's unlikely, independent and family-owned newspapers seem destined to be a dying breed.
?There's a terrible inevitability to it," says Ben Bagdikian, who has monitored the shift toward concentrated newspaper ownership for 15 years in successive editions of "The Media Monopoly." "Families have offspring, and offspring have offspring, and things happen," he says. Heirs fight among themselves, or want greater financial returns than the family-owned paper brings them; eventually ownership gets diluted. "Of course, there were a lot of family-owned papers that were rotten," Bagdikian says. "But people like Tim Hays at Riverside and Nelson Poynter at St. Petersburg cared passionately about journalism. And their papers were founded at a time when the newspaper was a prestigious institution in town and the crown jewel among news media. A newspaper is not anymore the most glamorous and powerful property a media family can own."
As for Tim Hays, these days you won't find him in Riverside but in St. Louis, where his wife restores vintage homes. He's mostly philosophical about last year's sale of the Press-Enterprise. But he still holds to his belief that independence is more than a nice-sounding label. It's often the key to "quality and prestige taking priority over this year's earnings," he says, and to a newspaper with strong journalistic values and a bond with its community. With Riverside's low subscription rates and generous news staff, the paper's earnings as a percentage of income were never all that high.
But then that wasn't the point.
"I have fond memories of some of the family owners in California – the Knowlands; the McClatchys; the Chandlers; Tom Storke in Santa Barbara, who used his paper to fight McCarthyism. It was very gratifying to know those people and to assume that their children would carry on.
"The goal," he says, "was to turn out a paper that served a larger and larger audience and served them well. A newspaper ought to be owned by people in the community it serves."