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Corporate influence on local news

How much of what you read in the Trib is brought to you by the bottom line?

"The challenge of the American newspaper is not to stay in business; it is to stay in journalism."

–Harold Evans, who runs Mort Zuckerman’s publications, including the New York Daily News

STORY BY DANIEL BLACKBURN

He wasn’t exactly squirming, but Tad Weber was undeniably uncomfortable.

Thus the question posed to him hung heavily, like a stale sugar doughnut: Is this county’s only daily newspaper controlled by its San Jose owners and their quest for ever-greater profits?

The managing editor of The Tribune paused momentarily, perhaps to better choose his next words, before answering the provocative query.

The Knight Ridder-owned publication, he finally said, responds to the beat of its own local management, controlled neither by corporate mandate nor by the ubiquitous bottom line.

Weber’s inquisitor sat among several dozen people arranged in a semicircle, attendees at a recent San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce leadership conference who at this particular moment were enthusiastically grilling a panel of local media types.

Weber’s response served to spark several subsequent follow-up questions from conference delegates, aimed at (1) better understanding policies now guiding The Tribune’s editorial philosophy; (2) understanding how out-of-town corporate ownership can be a real asset for local readers; and (3) learning how a kinder, more gentle daily newspaper is best for the community.

That such blunt, cynically edged inquiries would be peppered at an influential county journalist by some of the county’s most promising young leaders was, in its own way, a remarkable event. The news business is usually criticized for content, rather than a dearth of content.

Thus, the chamber experience was duly noted May 4 by Weber’s boss, Sandra Duerr, the newspaper’s current managing editor, when she devoted an entire, prominently displayed Sunday column to the issue shortly after the event.

"While our parent, Knight Ridder, works with us to set financial goals–just like all corporate parents–all other decisions are made by us here," wrote Duerr. "On the news side, for example, that means reporters and editors make decisions on the types of stories, photos, graphics, comics, and editorial columnists to publish."

That’s her story and she’s stickin’ to it.

In a recent interview with New Times, Duerr and 34-year-old Publisher Paul Anthony "Par" Ridder emphasized that they are running the show at The Tribune–all of it. And along the way, that elusive but increasingly vital bottom line will somehow be met, and Par’s dad, corporate CEO Tony Ridder, will remain satisfied.

That is the challenge of the 42,000-subscriber daily, considered by the elder Ridder as a small but intriguing jewel in the newspaper empire over which he and his shareholders hold sway.

But the pursuit of profits has caused the modern Tribune’s policymakers to blunt its news edge, said George Brand, who for two decades was the newspaper’s editor when it was known as the Telegram-Tribune, or the T-T, owned by John P. Scripps.

Brand now is editor of Plus magazine.

"I think The Tribune has gotten softer. But that goes along with a national trend," said Brand. "And newspapers are just following the lead of television." Brand cited the example of ABC, where the news division is controlled by the entertainment division.

Brand didn’t just edit the T-T. He ran it.

"Being editor of the Telegram-Tribune was like having my own newspaper on someone else’s money," said Brand. "I did not have to involve myself much in administrative matters."

If Brand had been asked to work with a "focus group"–like the one recently assembled by Tribune executives to mine opinion from community leaders–he said he wouldn’t be at all happy: "I’d quit."

Brand views with dismay The Tribune’s pervasive practice of placing feature stories on the front page.

"When I was editor, these kinds of stories would be on B-1," he said, which would result in keeping the front section exclusively for "hard" news–the late-breaking and hard-hitting stories that have traditionally been the meat and potatoes of journalism.

Richard Jackoway, The Tribune’s city editor and former managing editor of New Times, was part of a panel of news people speaking to special district executives several weeks after Weber’s chamber of commerce experience. Jackoway referred to one such example of front-page "soft" news in which a Morro Bay woman’s televised makeover dominated the front page as the war in Iraq accelerated.

"We got a lot of heat for that one," Jackoway said, while acknowledging that the practice–know in the business as "puffery"–will, naturally, continue.

Several days ago, Duerr used her column again to defend the newspaper against a reader’s criticism of commandeering the front page for feature-story presentation. Using such stories "means sharing in readers’ joys and sorrows, trials and tribulations. Stories that warm our hearts, make us laugh and inspire us, all have a place in The Tribune–and on its front page."

Uplifting thoughts, but hardly realistic, according to author Robert McChesney in a 2002 book called "Into the Buzzsaw: The Myth of a Free Press."

"Idiotic or largely irrelevant human interest stories get the green light for extensive coverage," he wrote. "These are cheap, easy to cover, and never antagonize those in power. Then, when people consume these stories, the media companies claim they are responding to demand."

Noel Greenwood, who retired from the Los Angeles Times after a Pulitzer Prize-winning career as a top editor and who now resides in Santa Barbara, said the problem of soft, sanitary, and problem-free journalism is not new, just intensifying.

"With so many modern newspapers part of public companies today," said Greenwood, "executives with no news experience are at the top, running these businesses with absolutely no sense of public duty. All they think about is, ‘How can we maximize profits and improve the bottom line.’ The reader? Who cares anymore?"

Corporate ownership is exerting more and more power over the news product, said Greenwood, "and it’s just another business to them."

Meeting fiscal objectives at any cost has eroded the news integrity of many Knight Ridder newspapers, according to former editors.

One of Tony Ridder’s favorite, handpicked publishers, Jay T. Harris, who rose from the editors’ ranks to run the Knight Ridder California flagship, the San Jose Mercury News, was being pressured in 1998 by profit demands from Tony Ridder. Under orders to bludgeon the newsroom budget, Harris, the nation’s most prominent African-American publisher at the time, dramatically and vocally walked out the door.

"I resign," he wrote in an e-mail to corporate executives, "in the hope that doing so will cause you to closely examine the wisdom of the parameters for profit [assigned to] the Mercury News senior executive team," he wrote. "Meeting the goal will necessitate deep and ill-advised staff and expense reductions."

Emphasis on corporate profit targets, he added, would cause "significant and lasting harm to the Mercury News as a journalistic enterprise."

In a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) several weeks after his departure, Harris explained his action: "I had lived as long as I should or could with a slowly widening gap between creed and deed. I knew that I wanted to go no farther down a road leading away from all I thought was best and most important about being a newspaper publisher and a journalist."

Corporate interference, he said, was inexorably impacting the news content of the newspaper: "I worried that in Knight Ridder, greater priority was increasingly given to the business aspects of the enterprise than was given to fulfilling our public trust," he said.

Tony Ridder responded with a mildly acidic op-ed piece in an industry trade publication, Editor & Publisher: "Publishing a newspaper in good [economic] times can be exhilarating," he wrote.

"Publishing a newspaper in tough times is different. A publisher has to make choices with an eye to the quality of the newspaper, to the way it serves the community, and to what is best for the organization."

Could this be loosely translated to say that certain types of news stories–those that pose a threat to year-by-year profit projection hikes–will be ignored, or even killed, in the modern newsgathering process?

It doesn’t happen that way at The Tribune, agreed Par Ridder and Duerr.

"I would disagree with that statement," said Duerr, "and I would say that we have covered a host of controversial subjects over the years."

But it does happen at other Knight Ridder newspapers, according to some top editors who opted for unemployment before yielding to compromised news coverage in favor of black ink in the profit ledger.

Knight Ridder, the second-largest newspaper chain in the country in terms of circulation, has been plagued by internal convulsions gone public in recent years. These image nightmares were fueled by high-profile departures of top editors walking from their newsrooms while firing verbal barbs at corporate headquarters.

As if with one voice, the dissident editors raked company executives for the corporation’s incessant drive for profits and happy shareholders, as well as tying editors’ bonuses to newsroom budget performance. Both practices, believe many in the news profession, inevitably create critical newsroom compromises and deprive readers of quality journalism.

Gene Roberts was the respected and longtime editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, one of Knight Ridder’s 34 daily newspapers, when he resigned in 1999. He subsequently steered to completion a major project of the American Journalism Review (AJR) which resulted in the book "Leaving Readers Behind: The Age of Corporate Newspapering."

In the book’s forward, Roberts wrote: "The [newspaper] chains increasingly are pressuring top editors–primarily through their wallets–to focus more and more on corporate goals, and less and less on news. At too many papers these days, the editor is just another replaceable face in a management constellation. The business side is in clear control, and its influence is being felt in unwelcome ways in the newsroom. Decisions about editorial emphasis, the size of reporting staffs, special sections, news hole, more and more of these are being made either by committee or by corporate fiat."

The Trib’s Par Ridder doesn’t want to talk about criticisms of corporate influence in the newsroom made by editors such as Gene Roberts or anyone else.

"Roberts is a wonderful editor and I don’t want to go there," said Par, who joined The Tribune in November 2001. "But when you think about the business model, it’s all about the reader. If we don’t have readers, we don’t have a business. So if the reader is getting screwed for short-term revenues, we are absolutely shooting ourselves in the foot. If [readers] don’t trust us, or if they don’t think we’re accurate or fair, we don’t have readers, and we don’t have advertisers."

Par Ridder doesn’t have a lot of patience for discussions of divided loyalty, either.

Asked if modern newspaper editors in the Knight Ridder chain serve two masters, readers and shareholders, Ridder said, "Actually, I’d add a couple more: the community and the employees. You have to weigh the interests of all those people."

So has The Tribune avoided falling into this corporate abyss of compromised news reporting so eloquently and emotionally described by erstwhile editors such as Harris and Roberts? Has the Trib stayed true to its professed public trust?

Or has the advertising dollar won the battle for readers’ attention?

"Never been a case of that … never has that been an issue," said Par about advertiser influence. "Furthermore–I’ve been with Knight Ridder for eight years and before that I was at the Washington Post–I’ve never seen that scenario happen. It just doesn’t happen."

Added Duerr: "We cover anything that is a good news story. Is there any subject matter that we shouldn’t approach? Never."

Former Tribune employees interviewed for this story said they accepted severance agreements with the newspaper prohibiting them from speaking adversely and publicly about the company. To do so now, they said, would expose them to personal liability.

But one, a former longtime Tribune journalist who asked not to be identified, said the newspaper has been making a critical transition over the past few years: "[Editors] there are trying to be more ‘reader friendly’–trying to make the paper more useful for the reader, not necessarily more informative."

And that situation, the erstwhile reporter suggested, results in a softer, non-controversial, advertiser-safe product completely devoid of the kinds of informative and important news stories that, in the not-too-far-distant past, were standard fare in any newspaper.

Duerr just last week announced the launching of two new puffy features which will inhabit, and thus diminish, the so-called "news hole"–that part of a newspaper devoted to reporting.

One, called "News2Use" and appearing on page A-2, will, Duerr reasoned, "offer a dose of advice to help you organize your life and spend your money more wisely–short stories on personal finance, health, parenting, and consumer issues." The other feature, Duerr added, will be an expanded activity calendar.

Reducing a newspaper’s news content in favor of softer features is less disturbing to a reader’s delicate psyche than the cold reality of day-to-day events, and ironically more likely to increase readership, something The Tribune’s management claims is occurring steadily.

Toward that end, former Tribune reporters point to often esoteric, economic considerations that constantly and adversely affect the publication’s news content and placement of stories, and thus the ability of a reader to stay informed on the critical issues that impact the local community.

With a standing policy requiring the scheduled use of soft feature stories on the front page, The Tribune’s time constraints regularly intrude in the newsgathering process. For example, front-page color features are "locked up" at 8 p.m. the evening of production, so that any late-breaking stories, however important, are relegated without exception to a page further back in the newspaper.

Former editor Brand said he didn’t fear controversy or libel lawsuits as long as the report was accurate and the story worthwhile. And he’d make some basic changes if he were back at the helm.

"Stories would be shorter, more tightly edited. We would delve into more controversial issues. And we would try to get involved in projects for the betterment of the community," said Brand. Then he added with a sigh, in reference to The Tribune as it is today: "But you sure can’t quarrel with the bottom line."

The bottom line, then, has become the new dominating influence in newsrooms all over the country.

Newspapers are businesses, just like the grocery store and the used car lot, so the quest for profits by newspaper executives is neither new nor particularly noteworthy.

But with publicly held newspaper profits streaking toward 30 and even 40 percent, shareholders don’t give much thought to a newspaper’s content–as long as the profits continue to accumulate.

Lost in the mad scramble for higher earnings and greater executive bonuses, claim some of the nation’s most prominent editors, is quality journalism.

That’s the edgy, somewhat unpredictable kind of journalism that has always helped keep the bureaucratic scalawag wary and the reader alert–a mission greatly diluted by modern fiscal influences.

Today, "quality journalism" is more often defined as something much softer, resulting in production of a toothless, overly cautious product catering to the flighty whims of market research analysis.

In fairness, the seeds of caution at San Luis Obispo’s daily newspaper may have been sowed several years prior to Knight Ridder’s acquisition of it in 1998, in the devastating fiscal aftermath of an editorial project that was either gutsy or foolish, depending on whose recollections are being voiced.

The newspaper, then under the editorship of the late Jeff Fairbanks, planned an article on Tom Copeland and the sports store magnate/developer’s significant impact on the local community’s economy.

Copeland didn’t want the article published, no matter what its content, fearing that knowledge about family wealth might unnecessarily expose family members. He made his feelings abundantly clear to editors. The newspaper eventually ignored Copeland’s plea, however, opting instead to utilize a big, black headline announcing the front-page story.

Copeland was furious, and he immediately pulled every penny of his company’s advertising expenditure from the newspaper. The Copeland account loss cost the newspaper an estimated $2.5 million over the next five years, an extraordinary amount of money to escape the clutches of a small daily newspaper.

"I think the newspaper turned on its news policy then," said one former Tribune editor. "That affected the paper’s attitude about hard news stories in general."

By avoiding controversy, a newspaper can avoid those pesky and costly altercations with subscribers and advertisers that subtly, albeit inexorably, undermine over time the bottom line. But such paper-tiger journalism only further erodes reader confidence at a time when even the profession’s leading icons of integrity such as the New York Times are tumbling from public grace.

Jerry Nachman, a longtime big-city newspaper editor and now editor-in-chief for cable television’s MSNBC, said last week that journalism "as an industry has a terrible reputation, and part of it is well-deserved."

But for shareholders, life is good because that black ink of profit just keeps rolling in. Newspapers are golden these days, and some newspaper publishers consider the business to be recession-proof.

All three of the country’s biggest newspaper chains consistently post profits more than twice the U.S. industrial average. Gannett, with flagship USA Today, chalked up an eye-popping before-tax profit margin of 29.8 percent last year. The Tribune Co., which owns the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, topped 25 percent.

Knight Ridder profits were 10 percent in 1995 when Tony Ridder took over the chain’s controls. Profits skyrocketed to 20.8 in 2000. A Knight Ridder corporate goal of profits in the mid-20 percent in 2003 "might be difficult to achieve," corporate executives said recently, but the effort is still on the table.

Adding to critical newsroom conflicts for top editors are bonuses tied to financial performance.

One such practice, termed management by objective (MBO), calls for editors to consider many business issues while making news-related decisions.

Poynter Institute president and former Knight Ridder editor Jim Naughton pointedly disagrees with the use of MBOs for editors.

"MBO has become an insidious process that makes editors unduly conscious or even subconscious of their own potential gain at the risk of something that they might otherwise want to do in the newsgathering process," he said.

Details of one such MBO of a Knight Ridder editor, reprinted in former longtime Philadelphia Inquirer editor Roberts’ book, "Leaving Readers Behind," cited eight annual objectives, including "communication with advertising and production," "partnering with circulation," "diversity," and "meeting budget obligations." Only one of the eight objectives was related in any way to improving the news product.

The Tribune’s Executive Editor Duerr has an MBO, she said.

"Do I look first at my MBO?" asked Duerr. "Absolutely not. You know, to me a bonus is an extra. Have I ever changed what we do in the newsroom based on potential financial performance? No."

Par Ridder elaborated: "It’s semantics. It’s a bonus. It’s based on performance. The idea here is that we are lining up the goals of the whole company. Everyone has a similar shared sense of what is important."

There is certainly no denying the importance of Knight Ridder’s stock performance, hovering today at around $67 a share. And last quarter, the San Jose Mercury News reported Knight Ridder corporate executives were granted $10 million in bonuses, including $2.4 million worth of stock for CEO Tony Ridder, $1.5 million for newspaper division president Steve Rossi, and $1.4 million for senior vice president of human resources Mary Jean Connors. Æ

 

News Editor Daniel Blackburn can be reached at dblackburn@newtimesslo.com.




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