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From AJR,   December 1998  issue

Continuation of Editor Inc.   


By Geneva Overholser
Geneva Overholser holds the Curtis B. Hurley Chair in Public Affairs Reporting at the Missouri School of Journalism.     

9. Compromisers

Of all the changes editors cite, perhaps the most affecting is loss of editorial autonomy. This comes in many forms, from the desire of other departments to get their clutches into content to the corporate controls on every dime and every minute that go into news gathering.

Consider, for example, Gannett's News 2000, a complex corporate prescription for working out each newspaper's content goals in accord with detailed formulas. The aim is to have each paper do a better job of representing a community's interests, getting minority voices into the paper, involving readers, reflecting First Amendment values, etc. The degree of the News 2000 impact on Gannett editors varies enormously--depending primarily on the publisher, and how seriously he or she takes the program. When Ron Thornburg was editor of the Free Press in Burlington, Vermont, that turned out to be very seriously indeed.

In a 1994 deposition in the case of a reporter who was fired and then sued the company, Thornburg acknowledged that his publisher had called him in and "suggested that I either be transferred or put on a Performance Improvement Plan," and that one of the reasons was that the publisher "felt that the newspaper's News 2000 score needs to be higher." Thornburg described the paper's scores as average, but said the publisher "wants the paper to be above average." Thornburg resigned after his meeting with the boss.

The 1991 unveiling of this elaborate recipe for better newspapering was quite the event at Gannett, bringing together publishers, editors and managing editors. Irene Nolan was still managing editor at the Courier-Journal when News 2000 came down. As you might expect from a woman who raised a couple of kids mostly alone even as she rose through the editing ranks of a major paper, Nolan wastes no time. She calls things exactly as she sees them, with sometimes sardonic wit.

"Remember that I told you it was the end of journalism as we knew it?" she recalls for me. "You all were trying to put a nice light on it. For me, it was the final straw. Although Gannett kept saying it doesn't take away local autonomy, the idea of filling in all those sheets and sending in all those papers and being judged by editors who know nothing of your community, know nothing about your paper's history! It was formulas.

"The whole time I was managing editor of the Courier, the readers' satisfaction levels and the circulation were good. And the paper kept flunking News 2000 all the time. You know, it didn't satisfy Gannett or their committee of editors, but it satisfied the community."

Nolan also recalls the time she was running for the ASNE board and had composed for the organization's magazine a short summary of what her goals would be. She wrote of the need for editors to do all they could to continue to put out a good newspaper even as they met a tight budget. It sparked quite a response, she says, from Gannett Vice President for News Phil Currie, who wrote to Nolan's boss, David Hawpe, then the Courier-Journal's editor.

"Currie practically demanded my ouster. And David gingerly went to bat for me. He didn't let them get me. But it was kind of like--you didn't even feel like you could speak freely. I do believe editors cannot spend totally freely, and they have to have some fiscal responsibility. But on the other hand, feeling like, if you say something that will offend the corporate bosses they will want your head on a platter, is not exactly something that encourages bold editorship."

Sometimes, albeit rarely, editorial undercutting is brutally direct. Witness the Chicago Sun-Times' acknowledgment last spring that it tilts news coverage in favor of advertisers. Nigel Wade, the editor, told the Washington Post that, on a story about fashion trends, for example, "You don't send a reporter to a store that routinely refuses to support us with their advertising. On the fashion page, you don't choose a gown from a store that refuses to do business with us."

The pressure is usually more subtle. Corporate makes its expectations clear to the publisher, the publisher gets his management team together, the team draws up a list of goals, then everyone agrees..and everything is affected--who spends time doing what, what goes into the newspaper, how it's displayed. This leaves room for fewer calls from the gut, fewer last-minute judgments. Consultants and retreats and goal-sharing and performance reviews come together to drive the newspaper.

Bill Woo, former editor of Pulitzer's flagship, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, was a traditionalist in an organization whose higher-ups wanted change. After years of worsening difficulty, he left in 1996 and was replaced by Cole Campbell, one of the least traditional of today's newsroom managers.

Woo, who had been at the paper for 34 years, now teaches journalism at Stanford. He retains his elegant, almost Old World manner, but his views are arrestingly frank. One of his areas of research at Stanford is the theory of organizational accidents. "Looking at Bhopal or Three Mile Island or the crash of ValuJet--the view of these accidents as arising out of certain organizational and business environments, with certain elements in common, such as the normalization of deviance, the progressive relaxation of professional standards," he explains.

Woo proceeds to draw parallels in the newsroom. "The expectations of the editor have been removed from the daily news role. One of the things that's expected of editors now is that editors are to be managers. Now look at this paradox: At a time when the emphasis on management has never been higher--it's unprecedented--all around, the landscape is littered with disasters of journalism. We find that people are making things up to put into the paper. You find in the Clinton/Lewinsky thing a kind of systematic meltdown of fact-checking, sourcing, reliance on rumors, hearsay and so forth. You look at papers such as the Cincinnati Enquirer having to walk away sort of wholesale from a big project--which the San Jose Mercury News had to do a couple of years ago."

The industry has lost the sort of editor who would make a decision on the spot, he says, the fast thinker and hard charger who brought to the job a view of the news, a view of the world, that gave him a context for making decisions: "Let's do it." "I like it." "Never!" "I hate it."

Woo believes that if the model of the maverick editor--Woo calls it the "non-team player"--is destined to die out, perhaps we should figure out the things about it that were good for the paper and recreate those qualities today in different structures. Because, he says, "I'm not sure that the way we're going now is the way to do it. One bright person makes better decisions than one bright person in a room with eight dull people."

The Post-Dispatch under Campbell has become a very different place, one where he has said the emphasis is on "building the capacity of the newsroom to be innovative and problem-solving." An editor there describes it this way: "Process is an enormous focus for us--and particularly for Cole. There was a moment months ago when he said, 'The next day's paper doesn't matter.' His point was that we must create the proper processes, the proper organization. And if you get sidetracked thinking about what goes into the next day's paper, you'll be handicapped. We're in the midst of something called mountaineering school--the AMEs and above, which is now a rather large group of people. It's leadership and management training--and figuring whether we're suited to what level of function."

The training is based on management guru Stephen Covey's four quadrants: urgent and important; important but not urgent; urgent but not important; not urgent and not important. "Basically, Cole has been pushing the top layer of editors--11 of them--to shift toward quadrant-two-type activities: important but not urgent. Basically we're not making decisions about what goes in that next day's paper, or even that week's papers, but setting up processes so that good decisions will be made."

But processes have a nasty way of draining energy, not to mention pleasure, from newspapering. "A lot of editors feel they are slowly taking the paper down," says Deborah Howell. "It's so different working for a private company. [In public companies, the executives] are looking at editors and saying, 'We want someone who'll get along and not be a troublemaker. If you are viewed as a troublemaker...' " Howell ends her thought with a sigh.

10. Lions

John Carroll smiles wistfully. He is recalling Knight Ridder meetings of two decades ago when editors mingled with the corporate brass. "Coming into those sessions, the top corporate people knew that nobody was gonna give them an inch," he says. "That they were gonna get questions that were barbed, that were sarcastic, that were hilarious, that were irreverent. And it was done in a good spirit. There was no viciousness about it. But there was a total outspokenness and self-confidence on the part of these big-paper editors who thought they had to bow to no man. The spirit there was that although the corporate officers got the biggest salaries, the editors were the heart of the company. They were lions. They really were."

Al Neuharth, a bonafide lion himself, professes no such sense of loss. "I think that's one of the benefits of what we've seen happen," he says. "I know a lot of those swaggering, quick-decision, tough-guy editors. And more often than not they made the wrong decision, and they edited the newspaper for themselves rather than for the general public. They were more responsible for the demise of their newspapers than anybody in the business office."

11. Itinerants

So the life of a newspaper editor today is a mixed blessing. The pay is better and the opportunities for advancement richer. But the job has become more complex and frustrating, the days longer, the autonomy constricted. And the moving van comes along with increasing frequency. Today's editors have more education, stronger management skills and a better understanding of the market. And they call on these richly, because the odds are they don't know their communities very well. With the overwhelming majority of newspapers owned by large chains, the editor who works his or her way up through the ranks and then stays on for a longer tenure is the rare editor indeed.

Of those replying to the Project's survey, the average tenure as editor was just above five years. Almost four in 10 said they'd been at the top job for two years or less. Companies large and small are moving editors around. And in other cases, editors are simply opting out.

Sig Gissler, formerly editor in Milwaukee, now at Columbia, calls it the "revolving-door phenomenon" and notes a benefit in some cases "because it brings a fresh set of eyes to the newspaper. But I think over the long haul it has hurt us because too many editors lack this organic sense of connection with the community. To go into a community and really understand what's going on takes a number of years and a sort of soaking in the environment."

Ken Paulson, who now heads the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center in Nashville, was editor at three Gannett newspapers during my less-than-seven-year tenure as editor at the Des Moines Register. He believes he more than made up for his short stays in Wisconsin, Florida and New York with spark and good instincts. "I was an editor who never spent more than four years in a single place," says Paulson. "The downside, of course, is that you don't develop the deepest possible understanding of your community in just four years. The upside is that in those four years you bring a certain energy and commitment..and are determined to make a difference in the time you are there."

One of the men responsible for moving Paulson, Al Neuharth, contends that when Gannett found an editor who truly wanted to remain in a community, "to my recollection we never moved anyone who had that feeling. The vast majority of our people felt they were in a farm system where they could work their way up--and they wanted to."

Keith Moyer, another editor who was at three Gannett newspapers during my tenure in Des Moines, remembers the situation differently. "I think that in Gannett, you turned down one chance for a transfer and you might get a second opportunity, but you rarely got a third. If they wanted you to move and you didn't, there were times, I think, when people were ultimately sort of rousted out and sent on their way."

Moyer, now publisher at McClatchy's Fresno Bee, says that within Gannett, it was a "constant gripe that the publishers and editors were never in town long enough and the company didn't seem to care. Belo, McClatchy and others work to strike that balance and try to put good people in the right places and let them stay awhile and do their jobs. And I think that serves the community well."

That longer tenure is better for the readers is the same conclusion Sandy Rowe reached when she decided to remain editor of Portland's Oregonian rather than be drawn to the publisher's suite. "I really don't expect or want to run another newsroom," says Rowe. "The fact that editors move around has a huge impact... I really believe that I can make the greatest difference in the newsroom only if I'm willing to stay in that newsroom for a significant amount of time. What we're doing here can't be done in two years, three years, four years."

Rowe, who came to the Newhouse paper five years ago, says readers aren't stupid--they know the paper's ownership isn't local, they see editors come and go. "They think, 'That person is not one of us,' " she says. "I was astounded coming here, being a child of the South, how different the place was--and I frequently felt I was editing by Braille, that I was literally blind to the nuances here. I wanted nothing more than for the Oregonian to be much more of the Northwest and of Oregon, and for it to feel and smell and look like Oregon. But that's been very difficult to achieve because I'm from somewhere else, and I can't imagine doing that every couple of years and being locally competent. [That's] a very important quality."

12. Advocates

Three years ago Carl Sessions Stepp, a University of Maryland journalism professor and senior editor of AJR, wrote in this magazine about how the business demands on editors had sucked much of the fun out of newspapering. Several heated responses were published in ASNE's own journal, The American Editor, and Arnold Garson, then editor of the Sun in San Bernardino, California, was among the irritated. "I am growing weary of whining editors," he wrote. Will Corbin of Newport News, Virginia's Daily Press had even less patience: "We can sit around wringing our hands and wailing over the demise of newspapers. We can bitch about bean counters and Wall Street and budget cuts. We can whine about the flagging commitment in American newspapers to quality journalism. Or we can get over it."

If "getting over it" is the only alternative, you can understand the anger at those who can't or won't. But my conversations plainly reveal that today many editors see options beyond complaint or resignation. They speak forcefully about creating a dialogue with media bigwigs about the dangers of over-commercialization and the values of journalism. Yes, these editors say, they understand that business and market imperatives come with the job. But in turn they want their bosses to understand that there are some things editors must not accept if newspapers, and indeed a democratic society, are to flourish.

"I think the ball is in the editors' court," says Max King, who just returned to the Philadelphia Inquirer as associate editor. "We have to be clear and articulate and strong-voiced about what our values are and what we stand for and why that should be accorded importance in the company. We must realize that we have a fine and noble profession, and we must fight for it."

King is among those who believe that editors must become advocates. "My thesis is that the people who run these big corporations..go to the top jobs because they're very sharp, and very responsive--particularly responsive to the shareholders, which is their job," he says. "However, I think that if the editors and other staff members in newsrooms were more vocal and clear about what their mission is, and spoke to that instead of just bitching about it, that they'd be responsive to us. We need to make the damned case as journalists, saying it's important in and of itself."

So are editors really ready to talk turkey with their bosses? Perhaps. Just over a year ago, ASNE gathered an impressive group of editors and other newspaper leaders to launch a project on credibility--what has happened to it, what could restore readers' faith. At first when anything "corporate" surfaced in the discussion, many editors were clearly gun-shy: Please, no whining. Yet the company-induced financial and organizational realities of an editor's everyday life kept coming up. Finally, the group agreed to add companies' failure to invest in their products to its list of concerns--gingerly couching it in the publishers' own language.

Editors, the conclusion read, "must find ways to better articulate the franchise value of newspapers to those on the business side--how a paper is indispensable to a community which in turn translates into corporate value. Think tank members agreed that a group of editors should come together to help frame and spur and carry forward the economic issues conversation. And they strongly urged that editors approach such discussions with the business side of newspapers in the context that everyone at the table seeks good journalism."

Are the bosses listening? The early signs are not exactly inspiring. Fact is, corporate executives have generally avoided this subject. But an instructive source of their thinking is a Poynter Institute booklet titled "The View from the Top: Conversations with 14 people who will be running journalism organizations into the 21st Century."

In it, Marty Linksy of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government interviewed these media moguls, then wrote up their responses. One of the first and most significant things Linsky noticed was that when he asked the corporate leaders to describe themselves, they generally didn't reply in journalistic terms. "One of the clearest ways to gauge the differences in vision between the newsroom and the corporate suite is the extent to which the bosses see themselves as corporate managers rather than journalist managers," he wrote, "the extent to which they identify with CEOs of widget companies more than with Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters."

Gannett CEO John Curley told Linsky that the lives of some reporters and editors "changed from laissez faire, where you had people sitting around in newsrooms, going to the movies in the afternoon, and now they're required to perform at a different level... The journalism issues have flared because a couple of people bitched about their inability to go where the hell they wanted to go, whenever they wanted to, and not be accountable."

As Linsky concluded, "Whatever else one can say about Curley's attitude, it is not likely to make his reporters and editors want to talk through these issues with him."

The same problem is evident even a couple of levels down. Trying to set up an interview with Phil Currie, Gannett's vice president for news, I made numerous phone calls. I assured his assistants that I was not asking about the Cincinnati Enquirer's problems (the Chiquita debacle was just unfolding). Finally I sent a fax outlining the issues I hoped to discuss.

After weeks of this, Currie's secretary replied, "Phil actually responded to me. He said to tell you that he's sorry, but he's really not interested in having the discussion you are seeking."

This lack of dialogue is precisely what Burl Osborne and his colleagues at the Dallas Morning News and, more broadly, at A.H. Belo Corp., have sought to avoid. "The best way to deal with those concerns," Osborne says, "is to have a very clear understanding at the highest level of the organization about what its qualitative and journalistic goals are, in addition to what its financial goals are--an understanding at the board level and with the CEO and anyone else involved in important decision-making. There must be a common understanding of what the institution's objectives are."

Osborne says Belo's "rules of the road" include treating each other "with respect and candor--with emphasis on the candor," he says, chuckling.

Candor has been in short supply in most newspaper companies, a fact that surely contributes to the difficulty of establishing good relationships among executives, publishers, editors and newsroom staff.

Says Sandy Rowe, "You have to be able to look news people--skeptical, even sometimes cynical, reporters--in the eye and tell them the truth and have it be believable. And a lot of editors haven't been able to do that because they're so conflicted with the level of profits or with the business principles or anything else--and so the newsrooms understandably don't come along."

One of the most powerful and overlooked factors in this evolving process will be the view of the public. Ponder this from a recent Freedom Forum survey of how Americans use and view the news: "Special interests are pulling strings in newsrooms, most Americans believe. They think profit motives, politicians, media owners, big business and advertisers influence the way news is reported and presented."

As Columbia professor Jim Carey sees it, finding a way to reaffirm journalistic values may be crucial to survival. "The press as understood by the courts is the only commercial enterprise that is singled out within the Constitution for distinct treatment. There are no clauses on automobiles or natural resources or commodities or anything else. The courts have over the course of the last 50 years regularly supported the press in case after case." But that could change, he believes, if newspapers are so focused on profits that "the public comes to the conclusion that freedom of the press means simply freedom to make money."

So you must balance the marketing pressures that may lead to a thinning of seriousness, an overabundance of sensationalism, with the newspaper's fundamental role in nourishing a democracy. You must balance the growing fragmentation of markets--the economic reality of needing to appeal to narrower and narrower segments--with the journalistic goal of serving as many readers as possible. You must square a business that, on the one hand, stands for ferreting out difficult truths and, on the other, hides unpalatable facts from its own newsroom, eschews difficult discussions up and down the line and keeps its own business from the public. But how?

Once, this dilemma was confronted by a single forceful person--say, a man like Jack Knight who, for all his power, valued most of all being editor. For years thereafter, there were editors who inspired others to think of them as lions. But then the story Knight told Poynter at the Gridiron dinner became a business reality. Today, Knight's beloved paper in Akron is but one small piece of a huge corporate machine in which editors struggle to show how willing they are to understand the business side--but too often, it seems, fail to win more than lip service from the business side about the importance of journalism.

Staying solvent, it turns out, is not just the publisher's concern. But if the editor must take on that responsibility, it's all the more crucial for publishers and owners to understand--to take deep into their hearts and minds--the other side of the equation: Newspapers are not just another business. As Yale Law Professor Stephen Carter, discussing his recent book "Civility" with a Washington audience, put it, "The problem in America today is not that we have a market economy. The problem is, we have let that market economy and its values dominate too much of our lives."

Isn't that the dilemma of journalism? Not that we have corporate ownership. Not that we are businesses and have to be commercially viable. But that we have let economic realities and market values dominate too much of our newspapers'--and our journalists'--lives. The question is whether today's editors, bred in a different era, chosen by publishers with an eye on different traits, rewarded for corporate successes and shaped by managerial procedures, have the taste, the talent, the time, or--with economic difficulties again on the horizon--the latitude for the battle.

13. Optimists

Kay Fanning, former editor of the Christian Science Monitor and before that of the Anchorage Daily News, has seen more newspapering than most of us ever will. Now retired (though still writing) in Boston, Fanning surveys the dilemma of the modern editor and remains hopeful. Why? "I'm a believer in the pendulum theory--I think things swing one way and then another," she tells me. "We happen to be in a phase where corporate and business interests are everything. I have a great hope we will have a swing back toward caring about people."

A continent away, the "MBA editor" whose views sparked so much distress a decade ago is bullish, too. "Things have unfolded pretty much as I expected they might," says Seattle Times Executive Editor Mike Fancher. "The opportunity for editors to participate is as great as ever. The fortunate thing is that it's not too late."


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