AJR  Features
From AJR,   July/August 2000

Risky Business   

More than at any time in recent memory, newspaper editors are leaving their jobs--voluntarily or involuntarily--without another one in sight. The changing nature of the business has made the coveted top newsroom position a precarious perch.

By Susan Paterno
Susan Paterno (paterno@chapman.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

ONE BY ONE, THE COUPS were carried out swiftly, often without warning. By May, more than a dozen editors from around the country had left their offices in the past year, mostly under duress, virtually all without new jobs, replaced by other managers eager to get into the game.
Press reports painted pictures of brutal departures: In Oklahoma City, Daily Oklahoman Executive Editor Stan Tiner walked into a meeting with the general manager, came out, grabbed his briefcase, left the building and never returned. In New York, a Post columnist speculated that Daily News owner Mortimer B. Zuckerman was about to replace Editor in Chief Debby Krenek. Krenek called Zuckerman to ask about the rumor, the Village Voice reported in March, to which her boss replied: " 'I can neither confirm nor deny it.' " Two days later she resigned.
At the Press & Sun Bulletin in Binghamton, New York, Executive Editor Martha Steffens was there one day, gone the next. "One minute she was on the fast track," says one editor, "the next she was out of a job." In Denver, Post Editor in Chief Dennis A. Britton's exit was preceded by outright rebellion among disgruntled former employees who launched a malicious "Dennis Britton Go Home!" Web page. In Colorado Springs, Gazette Editor Steven A. Smith resigned to a publisher who was ousted by parent Freedom Communications Inc. only three months later.
Though no statistics exist to prove the pace of turnover at the top is unprecedented, the large number of editors stepping down with nowhere to go, willingly or unwillingly, is startling. "More people have suddenly been without jobs than at any time I've been watching," says an editor with more than 30 years in the newspaper business. It's a new game. And the rules are changing daily. "Everybody needs to get comfortable with that," says John Kimball, senior vice president of the Newspaper Association of America, the organization that represents America's publishers. Being an editor is "not a comfortable place to be anymore."
Managing editors now drive newsrooms while top editors try to influence the direction of the company, says Jim Naughton, former Philadelphia Inquirer executive editor and now president of the Poynter Institute. Distracted by business initiatives, modern editors have less time for journalistic crusading; by cooperating with the moneymakers, they risk being co-opted. Less power in the company "means less influence, and that means [editors] are easier to let go," says Naughton. Editors today, he warns, "need to be worried."
Not so long ago, says one newspaper executive, "editors got a pass. Whatever they put out, circulation had to sell." Today, editors had better "produce what readers want to read," the executive says, "or we'll find somebody else to do it."
Or, as Tampa Tribune Publisher and former editor Reid Ashe puts it: "It used to be OK for the editor to be the grouch in the corner. That won't fly anymore."
What started this recent round of musical chairs is open to debate. There are the usual factors: Poor performance. Bad chemistry. Mercurial owners. New publishers. Not all of the cases fit any one pattern. But most experts cite an underlying force that magnifies the impact of all of the potential causes: the emergence of new and formidable competitors. The growing public ownership of newspapers and the daunting challenges posed by today's complex and rapidly evolving media landscape have breached the ramparts that once protected journalists from profit margins and stockholders and the distracting business of making money.
Editors work for publishers who work for corporate vice presidents who work for chief executive officers who sometimes work for even bigger media companies that work for stockholders and board members who demand ever-increasing profits. But there's a B-side to that scratchy old tune. All but the most dimwitted realize that nobody is selling just ink-on-paper anymore. The product is content, intellectual property, ideas rendered on newsprint, or on television or radio or online, or in some yet uninvented laser that beams information directly into your brain.
When the public is buried in heaps of information, as is fast becoming the norm, the trusted news source will rise to the top as the most valuable commodity, says Philip Meyer, Knight Chair of Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The battle for news supremacy, he believes, "should be fierce," fought not, as it was 100 years ago, with newsboys hawking headlines on street corners, but as a 21st-century media war in every city and town, across a global landscape. Editors are the lieutenants, expected to bravely lead forces into the unknown, and to suffer the consequences when strategic command replaces them or their own troops shoot them in the back.
The new world order, declared Sandra Mims Rowe, editor of Portland's Oregonian, in a recent speech, "changes the game for all of us."

THE BATTLEGROUND IS SET against a backdrop of soaring newspaper profits. Many of the papers that ousted editors are impressive moneymakers, with margins between 25 percent and 42 percent. (Compare that with a roughly 1 percent margin in the supermarket industry.) Being wedded to "a history of easy money" makes newspaper companies particularly unsuited to embrace the innovation needed to beat back upstart competitors, especially online challengers who have far lower profit expectations, Meyer says. "What the newspaper business needs is a paradigm shift, not a trivial tweaking of content."
There is little doubt that great dark clouds are massing. The percentage of households reading newspapers is down. Circulation is down. Sunday sales are down. "That's a diagnosis for a sick industry," says David Hall, who left Cleveland's Plain Dealer in May 1999 without another job for reasons he declines to discuss. "You can't expect editors to solve that problem."
Wanna bet? Publishers not only expect editors to help find ways to sell more papers; they often tie salary bonuses to the company's circulation and profit goals. Knight Ridder makes greater demands on "all managers, not just editors," says P. Anthony Ridder, the company's chairman. It used to be unusual for Knight Ridder to ask a publisher to leave, he says. No longer. "We've been much more demanding of publishers than ever before. We expect them to perform on a much higher level."
Publishers pass those demands on to editors. Take circulation declines. The editor, charged with reversing a downward slide, might propose sweeping changes in the paper's content or the newsroom culture. Too much risk-taking can create irreconcilable differences with a conservative publisher; too little innovation might prompt the publisher's meddling. Conflicts escalate, disagreements grow into disputes, and pretty soon, the editor is being escorted out the door by a security guard. Editors--who most often lose jobs when a relationship with the publisher sours, or when a new publisher arrives--rarely win. "In a dispute between the editor and publisher, there's only one winner: the publisher. And it should be," says former editor Hall. "No great editor, however great he is, ever made a great newspaper. Without a publisher and owner willing to give direction and support, you're not going to have a great newspaper."
The relationship between publisher and editor has changed dramatically in the last two decades. The newest generation of publishers has spent little or no time in the newsroom, making the editor's job more difficult, says Mike Walker, of the executive search firm Youngs, Walker & Co., who for more than 20 years has been hired by owners to recruit editors and publishers. In the past, truly great publishers "were able to take strong stands and do what was right journalistically, even in adverse business conditions," he says. "New publishers are coming at it from a totally different perspective."
They demand team players, editors who work willingly with executives in budgeting, circulation, marketing. There's no doubt, he adds, that "editors have had to do more adjusting. There just isn't as much time to deal with the conflicts as there used to be. Do [publishers] need to spend more time understanding the newsroom? They probably could benefit greatly from that. But if they don't spend time looking at what the newspaper industry's constant change will lead to, then they're going to fail."
Though he doesn't "get too many requests for an editor to come in and implode the place," Walker says owners want editors who can change the old way of doing business, who can "take it to the next level," who understand a "different approach," "what the market needs," "what the readers want." Depending on a paper's individual circumstances--Is circulation declining? Are competitors encroaching? Is the boat adrift?--some need to bring about change more quickly than others, he adds.
Editors also can become victims of their own success. Brought in to change the newsroom culture, they might lose their jobs when the paper's publisher brings in someone else to restore tranquillity. That's what happened to him, says former Denver Post Editor in Chief Britton. He says he did exactly what his superiors told him to do. The media coverage that followed his departure in August created an impression that he was a provocateur nonpareil, that he was "universally hated," wrote former Post reporter Kerri S. Smith in a letter to Editor & Publisher magazine. "He was not."
William Dean Singleton, CEO of MediaNews Group, which owns the Denver Post, calls Britton a "fine editor" who was replaced when a new publisher "didn't hit it off well with" him and wanted to "recruit his own editor," a fairly common practice among publishers. (The Post has changed editors 11 times in two decades in its battle with the Denver Rocky Mountain News, a war the Post won in May when the News declared itself a failing newspaper. The News entered into a proposed joint operating agreement with the Post, paying its rival $60 million for the privilege.)
At MediaNews Group's 51 dailies, more than half of the publishers have at some point in their careers been reporters or editors, Singleton says. And though he says he has heard of other newspapers across the country getting rid of editors who fail to produce circulation or profit increases, "I haven't heard it here. Editorially, we're pretty traditional. I like passionate editors. But the editor has got to get along with the publisher."
In the dozen or so cases of recent editor departures, each had supporters and detractors, and individual situations differed enormously. "These resignations that seem forced," says one corporate executive, "it's usually because something wasn't working right, that the job wasn't getting done, that there was internal tumult or chaos in the newsroom that [the editor] wasn't able to control. And it's usually because of things nobody wants to--or can--talk about" because of the threat of lawsuits. But, he adds, "That doesn't mean there aren't good or true reasons" for the departures.
Sometimes, though, editors are scapegoats. "The perfect fall guy, an easy explanation for what's wrong with the paper," says former Daily Oklahoman Executive Editor Tiner, who adds he is "speaking generally about all editors." Tiner was abruptly dismissed in January after he significantly improved a newspaper considered among the worst in the United States. Like most other editors interviewed, Tiner, who was highly regarded in his previous job as editor of the Mobile Register, declined to provide details of his departure from the Oklahoman. Many of the ousted editors said they had signed nondisclosure statements as part of severance agreements barring them from publicly discussing their previous employer. None voiced righteous indignation about big business suppressing the truth by buying their silence; instead, these sophisticated, professional managers, with families and mortgages, explained that speaking out would not only violate their contracts, but would significantly reduce their chances of ever working in journalism again.

WHILE SOME EDITORS describe their partnership with publishers as a "shared vision" and "the right relationship," others seem more like people trapped in a bad marriage. The vision they're charged with realizing remains a vague imperative to produce quality journalism, increase circulation and "get the margin up," says one editor working for a publicly traded newspaper company. "I think everyone in the newsroom would agree that's what the message was. It may be untrue and it may be unfair, but that's the message people are getting, even if that's not the message they're intending on sending."
Editors talk about philosophical differences, about publishers more willing to tinker with content as an option to build circulation. Some describe subtle business-side encroachments into the newsroom, pressures to produce special sections to please advertisers, snide comments and eye rolling from business executives when editors stand up for journalistic integrity or credibility. One editor was ordered to fire a columnist, another fought off the advertising department's efforts to wrest control of a new community edition from the newsroom, another refused an owner's demand to cede editorial control of stories being posted on the newspaper's Web site. One new publisher told a veteran editor the paper was becoming "too black, too gay and too female," the editor recalls.
Many editors voiced concern about a growing number of business executives who seem to have little interest in or understanding of basic journalistic standards. "In talking to other editors, there's an overall sense that editors aren't in charge of the newsroom anymore," says Lorraine Branham, who resigned as editor of Knight Ridder's Tallahassee Democrat in October after a new publisher arrived. "Everybody else feels they should have a hand in how the newsroom should operate and what should go in the paper."
The reason, say publishers, is competition. Television, radio, Internet, direct mail, alternative newspapers, free weekly shoppers, even Happy Meal boxes are "ferocious competitors," stealing away advertising revenue from newspapers. Top editors and publishers "have to be concerned about that," says John Lavine, director of the Media Management Center at Northwestern University. "They have to produce a product consumers find valuable."
Giving readers a newspaper filled with information unavailable elsewhere is not easy. "It's very hard to know what's useful and vital to readers," says Paula Ellis, publisher of the Knight Ridder-owned Myrtle Beach Sun in South Carolina. "Customers have more choices, and that's driving a very fundamental change in the newspaper business. Change makes people uncomfortable. Maybe you're doing the same things, but they're not producing the same results. You have to find a different way."
The most egregious examples of business-side meddling are public and glaring. At the Los Angeles Times, it was splitting advertising profits with the Staples Center from a thick edition of the Times' Sunday magazine devoted to the new sports and entertainment arena. At the San Francisco Examiner, it was a publisher testifying that he offered to "horse trade" with a mayor. At the Boston Herald, it was widespread reports that the paper suspended a consumer affairs reporter aggressively covering a major advertiser, a characterization Publisher Pat Purcell calls "a gross misrepresentation." The reporter "was suspended for talking to other media outlets about an internal assignment decision," Purcell says, and was taken off the story because "we had exposed the consumer angle and it was time to move on."
But every public revelation of a perceived conflict of interest erodes credibility, journalism's most valuable asset. "Given our slide into the fuzzy realm of news providing as just another business, is there any or much surprise in the fact that credibility is at an all-time low in our industry?" Tiner asked in a speech to the New England Newspaper Association in March.
"In a culture that pushes you along to be part of the group dynamic, how do you know when to rise up and oppose something you know is wrong?" Tiner asks. "It's harder for the modern editor to take a stand. That's just part of what's happening today."
Not all editors face down such dilemmas; there are "islands of pleasure" out there, as one editor put it. Editors working for the Newhouse-owned Advance Publications, for instance, say the family company has accepted lower profit margins in the past decade, reinvesting earnings into strengthening their newspapers, improving many of them dramatically. The late Publisher Adolph Ochs' legacy of reporting the news "without fear or favor" continues at the New York Times, burnished by his great-grandson's vision. "To be honest, if someone would be kind enough and smart enough to invent the technology, I would be perfectly willing to beam the New York Times directly into your cortex," Times Publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. has said. And Frank Blethen, part of the family that owns a majority share of the Seattle Times, has fought fiercely to keep his newspaper independent; he speaks often and eloquently about how the drive to please voracious stockholders has deeply wounded American journalism.
In the end, though, what matters most is not the type of ownership--publicly traded companies have produced Pulitzer Prize-winning newspapers; independent owners have sold dreck--but how the owner behaves. As part of management teams, editors across the country have allowed the space allocated to news to diminish and have stood by while journalists have abandoned newspapers for higher-paying jobs in new media. In many newsrooms, especially the larger ones, reporters complain about having little contact with the top editor, who rarely attends regular news meetings. "Most of America's top editors are not editing anymore," says Poynter's Naughton.
"They're nowhere near stories."
At the Los Angeles Times, for example, one metro reporter says he talked to former Editor Michael Parks once in four years and hardly ever saw him. Parks had two offices: one in the newsroom, the other three floors up, next to the publisher's suite. (His successor, former Baltimore Sun Editor John Carroll, maintains only one office--in the newsroom.) Parks says he had extensive and frequent contact with reporters, attended nearly all news meetings and was in the newsroom daily "most of an 11-hour day." But, he adds, "I didn't line edit stories."
Among many top editors, conversations about circulation trump discussions about journalism. "Certainly editors talk more about the circulation numbers these days than they do about news stories," says one former editor. "It's the new reality in the business we call journalism." Rarely do editors command the stature and power of such journalistic visionaries as Ben Bradlee, Gene Roberts, Jim Squires or Eugene Patterson, the leaders and consciences of their newspapers. While editors used to be "close to on par with the publisher, now they're vice presidents, one of 12 people on an operating committee," Naughton says. The end result? "The modern-day editor is getting squeezed."

IN APRIL, THE EXODUS continued. Parks left the Los Angeles Times and William Ahearn left the Associated Press. The following month Nigel Wade resigned from the Chicago Sun-Times and Mike Tonos departed the Sun Herald in Gulfport, Mississippi.
Former New York Daily News Editor in Chief Krenek and Parks say their departures had nothing to do with publishers "making it tough," as Krenek puts it. And Parks' exit was expected. He had drawn severe criticism for his role in the Staples Center affair and was closely associated with former Times Mirror Chairman Mark H. Willes, whose reign ended when the company was sold to the Tribune Co. in March. Though Krenek declined to elaborate on her situation, Parks says he was replaced after "a management change, not a change in philosophy."
For Co-publisher Zuckerman, who has replaced five editors since he bought the Daily News in 1993, change at the top has nothing to do with the bottom line. "It has to do with my sense of the quality of the product," he says. "I haven't thought they put out a sparkly enough paper." He wants the Daily News to be "a serious newspaper" that captures "the emotion, the drama and the humanity of the story," he says. "I try to find editors who share my vision. The real question is whether or not they can execute it. The editor I have now is doing that."
But the vision is not always so clear to those charged with carrying it out, says a veteran Daily News reporter who remembers with wistful fondness the sense of mission she felt when the newspaper occupied the building built by the paper's founder, Joseph Medill Patterson. Patterson had chiseled his vision into the stone of that building, exhorting his newspaper to "always be fearless and independent."
In 1995, Zuckerman moved the staff across town to a modern building in a forlorn part of the city's far west side. Reporters and editors were demoralized and despondent, says one Daily News reporter, who has worked for more than a half-dozen editors there. Editors came and went, but the old building stood as a reminder of her mission. "Every day, you walked through those doors and you had a sense of history and purpose," the reporter says. "We were there to help the little guy, to right the wrongs. I don't know what I'm doing anymore."
Editors need to attack that malaise increasingly infecting journalists nationwide if newspapers want to beat the competitive forces intent on stealing away their franchise, says Tiner, who in May succeeded Mike Tonos in Gulfport, Mississippi. Editors have the power to reinvigorate the old media, he says, to infuse it with the same sense of purpose felt by the young upstarts. By recalling the passion that brought them to journalism, editors can reclaim their role as visionaries, serve as beacons and inspirations, and ultimately, win back readers.
"Of course we've got to make money," Tiner says. But if editors remember the reasons "so many of us went into journalism in the first place--to be the protectors of America's core values, the nation's watchdogs and guide dogs, to serve the public trust, to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable; if we refocus on the purity and honesty of such a role, our countrymen will march with us up every hill, and they will buy our blamed old newspapers.
"We really don't have to reinvent newspapers. We merely have to reclaim their purpose, and their greatness."