Gil Thelen found himself in that rock-and-a-hard-place sort of situation not uncommon these days in the profession of newspaper editing.
He'd been executive editor of the State in Columbia, South Carolina, for five years, and for three years before that he'd held the same title at its sister paper over in Myrtle Beach, the Sun News. So Thelen knew something about South Carolina, and he had some firm ideas on how his newspaper ought to be run. Problem was, a new publisher had come in from another Knight Ridder paper, in Gary, Indiana. Fred Mott had firm ideas, too--different firm ideas.
"We were trying to refocus the paper from statewide to increasingly zoned local coverage," Thelen recalls. "And the publisher and I really had a significant and profound disagreement on this point." Both men, of course, were trying to build the State's readership and revenues, but Thelen felt increasing pressure to steer an editorial course for his paper that he didn't believe in.
In the middle of this dispute came Thelen's job review. Mott suggested that Thelen might work on his outlook. As the editor remembers it, the publisher said that while "it is appropriate for a reporter or college professor to struggle over this tension between journalism values and business imperatives..it is not appropriate for an executive editor."
Thelen was abashed. He knew as well as anyone how the ground rules for editors had been shifting, but this was the first time they had been put to him quite so explicitly. "I told him that I respectfully disagreed, and I felt that tension was central to the editor's job," Thelen recalls. "And if that was his position--and clearly it was--then I'd choose to leave.
"So I did."
Thelen recounts this story from a glass-walled office in the Tampa Tribune newsroom, where he is the new
executive editor. He landed here after a few months' consulting stint with his old company; on this late-June morning he has been in the newsroom only 10 days. His wife, in fact, is still up in South Carolina, overseeing the transplanting of her day lilies. Thelen is still dealing with his own case of root-shock. He seems a man both bruised and blessed.
Having to leave so unexpectedly the job he'd hoped would be his last--he was nearing 60, with two little kids--that was tough. But Thelen feels lucky to be here. The Tribune, Media General's largest newspaper, is in a punishing war with the St. Petersburg Times for the hearts and minds of Tampa Bay readers. There is no shortage of pressure. But Thelen, an intense, animated man, is eager for the challenge. And he speaks enthusiastically about his new publisher, Reid Ashe, who himself had left a Knight Ridder paper, the Wichita Eagle, to come to Tampa.
"You have to work for a publisher who understands and is willing to live with the tension, rather than to try to deny the tension exists, or turn the editor into the vice president of marketing," Thelen says with a conviction reinforced by his experience in Columbia.
"I worry very much that we're losing some of our very best people before their time."
2. Evolutionary Species
Once upon a time an editor was the paramount figure at a newspaper. In an age when most papers were independent and family-owned, he was often the editor and publisher (not for nothing was the industry's trade magazine so named). He cared about the cash register, yes, but he hired the people to watch it for him. He (needless to say, back then it was virtually always a he) reigned like a prince--sometimes benevolent, sometimes imperious, almost always autonomous.
But over the years, with the decline in newspaper readership, the emergence of the publicly owned newspaper company and the concomitant ascent of the business side, the editor's role has evolved. Dramatically. The importance of the position--in the newsroom, in the company, in the community--has diminished. Editors are still pivotal figures at their newspapers, of course, but increasingly they are team players, replaceable faces in a management constellation. Princes they are not.
This evolution of roles over the last couple of decades has not been easy for editors. I experienced something of it myself, as editor of the Des Moines Register from 1988 to 1995. Along with other editors, I dealt with the swelling business-side demands and the encroaching influence of other departments. I heard the low grumblings and caught the glancing asides at corporate gatherings. Once or twice, along with some other editors, I raised my voice in righteous indignation. And I saw the backlash, as a pull-up-your-socks, tough-it-out attitude emerged among still other editors.
Along this bumpy way some editors quit. Many stayed on, making a quiet, if uneasy, peace with the new order; to continue to argue about marketing or corporatization seemed pointless, even destructive. And more than a few editors came to believe that much of what had happened was necessary, even overdue. To them, a desire to keep the newsroom aloof was both arrogant and misguided. "The world has changed," says Julia Wallace, who edits the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon, a Gannett paper. "I think there was a time when editors said, you know, 'Eat your peas. We know what's best for you. Leave me alone and let me do my job.' The reality of today's world is that everyone wants a piece of what we're doing... You've got to be pretty open to that or it's going to drive you crazy.
Most editors would agree that the job today means being all things to all people. Editors are more itinerant than ever, but pressed to find better ways to understand their communities. They are better paid than ever, but largely because of bonus arrangements that link their compensation to company profit and circulation goals. They agonize more than ever over what good journalism is, but get less and less time to do it. They try to be sensitive managers of their employees--well, many do--but to headquarters these same employees are mere "full-time equivalents." The editor's world is circumscribed by corporate news evaluation procedures, byzantine personnel requirements and elaborate budgeting processes. Declining readership compels editors to be marketers. Corporatization compels them to be entrepreneurs.
Most of the foregoing litany boils down to money. America became obsessed with business, and newspapers did, too. John Carroll, editor of Baltimore's Sun, sees the larger changes when he looks back, past his 35-year newspaper career, to his alma mater, Haverford College. "Business is ascendant in this society to a degree it has not been in my lifetime," he says. "The best and the brightest from my college are all becoming investment bankers. When I went there, I'd never heard the term 'investment banker.' People all wanted to be journalists or doctors or college professors. But now--a lot of publishers and CEOs want an editor who talks about leveraging assets."
To be fair, one reason editors' jobs have changed is that newspapers have confronted a series of economic challenges over recent years, with pressure to keep profits high even as costs have risen and advertisers and readers have turned elsewhere. "The business people to some extent felt they had to take firmer charge and do something," says Carroll. "And they weren't without reason there."
The changes did not come unheralded. I vividly remember how, more than a decade ago, Mike Fancher, then the bold new executive editor of the Seattle Times, told every editor who would listen that the best defense was a good offense. He preached that we in editorial owed it to ourselves to gain a better understanding of the business side. All the energy in the industry--and control of resources--was clearly moving in that direction, he said. It would serve little use to sit around, wringing our hands over the corporatization of the news. Savvy editors had to act, not react.
I also remember the thanks he got--being cast by many colleagues as the embodiment of that evil specter, the MBA editor.
Since then this merry-go-round profession has spirited away many an editor, but Mike Fancher is still contentedly running the Times. And now we know that he was on to something. The trends he warned about--the loss of power and editorial autonomy, increasing business pressure, the threat to journalistic values--they're conventional wisdom now. Indeed, plenty of editors would agree with the cautionary assessment of wily Harold Evans, who now runs Mort Zuckerman's publications, including the New York Daily News: "The challenge of the American newspaper is not to stay in business, it is to stay in journalism."
3. Corporate Creatures
It's a sticky summer night in Tampa. At a comfortable, long-established Italian place called Donatello's, I'm having dinner with Gene Patterson, one of the few living newspaper people with a cult following. (For example, Bill Ketter, former president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, will tell you, "I'm in the Gene Patterson School.") A man of electric energy, the 75-year-old Patterson has a jaw that calls to mind Billy Graham and a laserlike gaze that seizes attention. He's spinning out stories from his brilliant career, which he capped by running the St. Pete Times. The best yarn concerns publishing legends John S. Knight, who built the Knight chain, and Nelson Poynter, who then owned the St. Pete paper.
"Jack saw Nelson at a Gridiron dinner in Washington," Patterson tells me. "They were in the men's room, standing at the urinals beside each other. And Jack leaned down to Nelson, who was a diminutive guy, and he said, 'I've got an announcement coming up next week and I wonder what you think of it.' Nelson said, 'Well, what is that?' And Jack said, 'I'm taking Knight Newspapers public. Whaddya think about that, Nelson?' And quick as a shot Nelson replied, 'Jack, I think it'll be just fine--as long as you're alive.' "
Patterson pours us another glass of Chianti. "Nelson loved to quote that little conversation. He was vastly amused by it. Knight was not amused. But the fact is, what would Jack Knight think today?"
Good question. Of approximately 1,500 dailies in the United States, only about 300 remain independently owned today. In 1940 there were some 1,300. These days fewer companies own more and more papers. They trade them and cluster them to consolidate operations and to achieve maximum market clout. As longtime newspaper analyst Leo Bogart puts it, "The degree of concentration throughout all of the American economy is just incredible. So newspapers and media companies are part of a larger trend, and that trend certainly is tied to the ascendancy of management consultants and the substitution of corporate earnings on a three-month basis for the old criteria of craftsmanship and--sort of gut feelings of excellence."
Corporatization didn't rock editors' lives suddenly. It began with cost-cutting campaigns in the '70s and '80s, then gathered speed as computers gave bean-counters new clout to pressure news hole and payroll. As readership fell and bottom lines flattened out (or worse), corporate headquarters in distant cities stepped up their memos and publishers turned up the heat. Bit by bit the editor's autonomy has eroded: from the overall budget to the news hole, from personnel policies to new sections, from job tenure to the shape and size of stories. Stress fractures appeared everywhere along the traditional wall between business and editorial.
In reporting this story I talked to 50 current and former editors, and their views were augmented by a detailed questionnaire sent to editors around the country by the Project on the State of the American Newspaper. What I found most striking was how many editors volunteered candid, on-the-record concerns about public ownership of newspapers. It's almost a new article of faith: Investors demand quarter-to-quarter profit increases. When the local economy does not promote or permit growth, profits have to be squeezed up by cost-cutting. In so doing, the journalism is diminished. Thus can public ownership undermine the basic newspaper imperative--public trust.
Of course, you don't hear that everywhere--not, for instance, in the office of one-time editor Jay Harris, who is now publisher of the San Jose Mercury News. Harris has seen the dynamics of newspapering from every vantage point. He was a reporter for Gannett News Service, executive editor at the Philadelphia Daily News, and an assistant to Knight Ridder CEO Tony Ridder in Miami. Since 1994 he has occupied the publisher's suite in the capital of Silicon Valley.
In his grand office, once Ridder's, with classical music playing softly in the background, I tell Harris the Patterson story about Knight and Poynter. He sees nothing portentous about it: "Jack Knight was pretty strong on the point that good business and good journalism are not only not in opposition to one another, but, indeed they require each other to exist over a long time."
Harris is among those who believe public ownership has uplifted papers, providing new resources, stronger journalism--and one thing more. He speaks pointedly as an African-American publisher to a female former editor: "I am sure that were it not for what we talk about as corporatization of newspapers that I would not be here to be interviewed--and there's at least a fair chance you would not be here interviewing me."
Harris is frankly tired of the nostalgia of purity. He well recalls his early newspaper days, conjuring for me an image of one of his first managing editors. "He sat there in a white shirt and smoked all night and he was the god of the newsroom," Harris says. "As far as I could tell, that was all he did. He may have been 'pure' in the narrow sense of it. But I would not want to have that person running this newsroom today."
Maxwell King also ran a big Knight Ridder shop, the Philadelphia Inquirer. But King stepped down last January, after seven pressure-packed years as the top editor. Like Harris, King recalls earlier jobs, in a different time.
"I remember when I worked in Louisville [at the Courier-Journal], I knew a guy on the business side and I asked him what the profit margin was. And he said two-and-a-half percent was their margin before taxes. Well, of course, the Binghams did lose the paper. So it's silly to be glib and say, 'Oh, why can't it all be like that?' On the other hand, it is a reflection of the fact that they weren't focused on profits, they were focused on what the paper meant to the community."
As we visit, King is still on his 10-month "sabbatical," as he calls it. In the Inquirer's West Chester bureau, a transformed movie theater near the handsome small-town courthouse, he is wearing jeans; his shirt sleeves are rolled up. We meet here because it's close to his farm, where he's been reading, clearing fence lines, building stone walls and relaxing. But on this topic, he is not relaxed. He's passionate.
"I think the..paradigm of the family-owned newspaper, where the family lived in town, cared about the local issues, cared about the community--certainly it led to some evils, you know, Colonel McCormick storming around the Chicago Tribune telling them what to say about things," he says. "But it also led to a newspaper that was far more responsive to the needs of the local community than to the financial needs."
This is not green-eyeshade nostalgia. And King wants that known: "What I am not saying and what I feel some people misunderstand me to be saying--and what I hear from so many people in newsrooms around the country is, 'It's just those greedy bastards who run the companies. And if they really cared about journalism instead of caring so much about profits, everything would be okay.'.. I think that is such a shockingly simple-minded view of what's going on in our business. And it pisses me off because it's not what I'm saying."
What he's talking about is the pressure built into the situation and built up over so many quarters, so many budgets, so many balance sheets. "For efficiency, efficiency, efficiency..." King is saying. "To drive costs down, drive market share up, all in the interest of serving the shareholder..."
4. Money makers
In 1985, the year I left the Des Moines Register's editorial-page staff for a Nieman Fellowship, the company (then owned by the Cowles family) made a profit before taxes of just under $6 million. Gannett bought the paper that year for $165 million. Within a year the newspaper had raised its profits to $11 million, then $17 million the next year. By the time I returned as editor, in 1988, the Register's earnings had reached $20.5 million. I heard Douglas McCorkindale, then Gannett's chief financial officer, tell a gathering of editors that year, "People thought we paid too much for Des Moines, but [the margins] are right on track."
Newspaper profits are the envy of the business world. In 1997, the operating profit margin for newspapers, as a sector, was about 20 percent, says industry analyst and AJR columnist John Morton. (That's double or more the figure for U.S. industry at large.) Margins ranged from 29 percent at Lee Newspapers to 10.6 percent at Hollinger International's Chicago Group. The largest newspaper company, Gannett, had a pre-tax margin of 26.6 percent, according to Morton.
Newspaper stocks operate under the "theory of elevated expectations--that's certainly there, and it certainly has an impact," he explains. Much of this profitability in recent years, Morton goes on, was achieved through fairly severe cost cutting, including layoffs of staff, trimming of news space and various forms of downsizing--"all of which raise questions from some constituencies about whether corporate management had become too focused on profitability at the expense of journalistic quality."
It's not that editors don't understand the necessity for making a profit. But with the kind of margins newspapers are used to, asserting a need for solvency is a bit like having a 350-pound man tell you he needs his ice cream sundae.
The man most responsible for the particular pattern of profit pressures on American newspapers is Al Neuharth, former Gannett CEO, who retired as chairman of the Freedom Forum in 1996 and lives in Cocoa Beach, Florida. He stays busy these days contributing a regular column to his best-known creation, USA Today, and tending the growing, multiracial brood of kids he and his wife have adopted. Over two decades Neuharth built the nation's largest newspaper company (76 dailies today) by demonstrating to analysts that a large newspaper chain could overcome the downward drafts of the business cycle and deliver reliable profit increases. Every single quarter.
I ask Neuharth how he feels being blamed for this "terrible chain around your neck," as one critic put it. Neuharth is pleased to respond: "Well, the fact is that at Gannett we did have 86 uninterrupted quarters of earnings gains. The degree of those earnings gains varied a good bit from time to time, but we simply said that there are two objectives for a media company. One is to produce products and the other is to produce profits, and it was my feeling then--and I'm even more convinced now--that nearly all of the editors and publishers that I know could set similar goals for themselves without in any way compromising their news judgment or news product--and probably enhancing it."
Neuharth goes on with cheerful confidence. "I realize there are a good many who would differ with me, but it's my feeling that if you charge what a product is worth..and if you're willing to invest the proper amount of that income in the product itself, that you can indeed change or improve newspapers and at the same time enhance the bottom line. I believe that in the majority of the 60-something papers we acquired while I was around, the Gannett ownership enhanced the professionalism of the news product."
Whatever one thinks of Gannett newspapers' journalism, everyone can agree that Neuharth was positively fearless when it came to charging customers what he believed the market would bear--and thought his papers warranted. He boosted Gannett profits with an aggressive pricing strategy, which, to the horror of many a circulation director, was sometimes employed even during recessions. Neuharth continues to point to this as the best way for papers to fulfill their dual profit and public service commitments. Publishers like the Washington Post's Donald Graham, he says, are "afraid to charge what their paper is worth."
So call San Jose's Jay Harris a neo-Neuharthian. He says the Mercury News tried to fight the California recession of the late 1980s and early 1990s with aggressive cost-cutting. It didn't work. In December 1993, Harris became publisher. "When I got here we began to shift the focus over to growing revenue," he says. "So now there is at the heart of our mission at the Mercury News a goal of providing sufficient revenue each year to do four things: invest in employees; do new product development; improve quality; and, number four, do all of that after we have met our obligations to Knight Ridder shareholders. And what I think is happening in some other places is that the company is only growing enough to do the fourth of those four things, and not leaving enough money for investment."
However the company sets priorities, the business demands wear on editors. "The journalism tends to get crowded out by administration and marketing issues," says Sig Gissler, editor of the Milwaukee Journal until early 1993, now teaching at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. "The first time you have to take a hundred thousand out of payroll, it's kind of a fascinating exercise. The fifth time you have to do it, it's lost its allure. That becomes a drain. You come in and start killing the nearest snake."
John Carroll says editors once got away with saying, "This is my newsroom, get the hell out of here--no, I won't cut my budget." But as financial pressures increased and revenues grew scarce, he says, that had to change. "That's not the song I was singing back then, but that happens to be the truth, with the benefit of hindsight. And I think in that process a lot of editors were really beaten down. They lost a sense that all things were possible and they started..just showing up for work. They were demoralized. And some of them just never got back up off the canvas."
The most demoralizing problem stemmed from financial expectations that many editors considered unrealistic. Traditionally, newspaper people have taken up and down cycles for granted. Investors don't. "That's been a really pernicious notion: that profits in what is a cyclical business have to go up every quarter," says Carroll, who edited Knight Ridder's Lexington Herald-Leader before going to Baltimore. "I'll tell you, I can remember when Knight Ridder got a down quarter, but Gannett was marching steadily upward. Analysts killed 'em. I could see they were going to do all they could to avoid having that happen again.
"I don't know any way out of it," he goes on. "But I think newspapers might be better long-term investments if they didn't try to have an up quarter every time. When revenues fall off, as they do cyclically, newspapers scramble to cut costs--it might be your bridge column or your horse-racing agate--but you add them all up and it hurts your paper a whole lot."
Editors feel the squeeze not only in figuring out how to do more with less, but in explaining the rationale to staffs and readers. Several years ago, newsprint prices shot up and newsrooms were forced to cut news columns and features. How many editors told readers that the cuts would allow the newspaper company to keep its operating profit at 21 percent rather than see it drop to 19 or 20? What other business covered on the news pages would be let off that hook?
Says Carroll, "I think that in chain operations in which the shareholder interests are conspicuously put first--sometimes really to the exclusion of public service and journalistic values--a fundamental shift occurred in the role of the editor vis-à-vis the corporate and business side."
A few days after my interviews with King and Carroll, Knight Ridder reports its second-quarter results: Profits soared 107 percent to $127 million. Then more Knight Ridder news: Things look bad at the Miami Herald; staffing cuts are said to be "inevitable" in order for the paper to reach a 22 percent profit margin over the next three years. Days later Publisher David Lawrence, one of the most relentlessly optimistic figures in the business, resigns.
Walk into any sizable newsroom in the country, ask where you can find the editor, and chances are good the answer will be: in the Marketing Committee. It's the place today where key decisions affecting newsrooms are made--how to boost circulation, how to create new sections, how to structure zoned coverage, how to define the paper's target audience. Editors spend long hours plotting strategy with their counterparts from advertising, marketing and circulation, and they are being pushed to turn news coverage toward the most profitable territory: the interests of women, younger readers, suburbanites and the affluent.
Bob Ingle, former executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News and now Knight Ridder's president for new media, says marketing committees merely institutionalized what was always part of the editor's job. "The best editors are marketers," he says. "You know, that's what I tried to do when I was editor--get the bloody staff to listen to the audience. I wanted them to say about me, 'He's a terrific marketer.' Goddamn, that's what we do."
Editors adept in the Marketing Committee say they have won support from other departments that previously would have been difficult, or impossible, to obtain. Jerry Ceppos, Ingle's successor in San Jose, is a believer. "I want to be in on those decisions," he says. "And I want to build a case saying, 'Here's why we need more resources for business coverage.' Even when I was making a pitch for additional resources for business staff a couple of years ago--which we got in a big way--somebody said, 'You know what you're actually doing is marketing.' And I said, 'No, I'm not. What I'm doing is journalism.' At some point they intersect." Then, grinning broadly, Ceppos adds, "I guess that's a terrible thing to say."
Yet as newspaper marketing strategies grew more sophisticated--the audience increasingly analyzed, sliced and diced--many editors got nervous about emerging conflicts between the needs of a modern newspaper and the needs of the community. Does the notion of continually targeting specific reader preferences--or perceived preferences--set us on the wrong road?
"Back in the early '80s, when I became editor, I think we thought about news as being the hard news, breaking news," says Dave Zweifel of the Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin. "It's really changed today as we look at the audience or potential audience. Some of the journalists' instincts don't necessarily hold true today. I find myself torn between what I feel is the more traditional approach--Damn it, this is news you ought to have and it's really important to you, it's gonna mean something to your pocketbook or to your kids' future--torn between that and something like a story on modern women and day care."
There's no confusion about the reasons behind the marketing push. After years of assuming that Americans would continue their daily reading habits, papers began to suffer a steep and steady decline in readership. Today no one knows whether the next generation, weaned on the Internet, will even want newspapers. Beyond that, aggressive marketers for broadcast and other media started using sophisticated research and marketing techniques to lure away traditional print advertisers. Even classified ads, the bedrock of newspaper revenue, are under pressure from online competitors.
Max King notes that the Inquirer did extensive research in the '70s and '80s "because our life was on the line. There's no question that a lot of newspaper companies put too much emphasis on market research. But if you're conducting market research and the newsroom's using it and the decisions are being made by editors who are better informed by market research, I don't see it as a huge problem. Nobody ever tried to take our decisions away. They wanted results, but they didn't specify what the [methods] should be."
But editors may find the front lines of marketing being drawn increasingly in treacherous terrain. Does the editor beef up coverage of crime in a bid for circulation and downplay the reality that serious crime is actually declining in the community? Does the editor shift coverage from inner-city problems to suburban soccer leagues because that's where the affluent live and, in any case, the circulation director has removed the vendor boxes downtown and the ad director reports no business?
Gregory Favre, vice president for news at McClatchy and former editor of the Sacramento Bee, voiced this precise concern when he told a recent forum sponsored by the Committee of Concerned Journalists, "I see a trend emerging in our business of seeking out only those readers in the areas that our advertisers, and too many of our executives in this business, believe to be 'the best areas of our communities.' Someday, if we continue to do that, we will be without good, strong newspapers representing the wholeness of our community... We will be without newspapers that will give voice to all segments of our communities so that we can learn from each other, so that we can listen to each other, so that we can grow together and learn from our differences."
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