Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Fall of Western Civilization—IV. Corporate newspapers—UPDATED

They suck, why can't we make as much money as they do?
July 21, 2005

Why can’t we be mediocre like all the other newspapers?—
This is about journalism not science, but it’s important. John Carroll resigned yesterday as editor of the Los Angeles Times. That is of more than passing interest because a) he is a great editor who, in his brief period at the Times, won 15 Pulitzer Prizes, b) his reason for leaving, at least in part, are familiar and frightening and no good will come out of it, and c) he was my editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

[In the Times picture above, that's Carroll on the left, his successor second from right].

Part of the reason for his departure he says (and I bet it is more than a small part) is pressure from the Chicago-based Tribune Company to squeeze ever higher profits from the wonderfully profitable paper. The Times earns 19% profit, a margin that would make most industries drool. That's not enough to most newspaper executives. I have no idea why. The way they raise margins is to cut back on newsroom expenses, firing reporters, photographers and editors, closing bureaus, folding magazines—in other words, make it harder for the newspaper to do its job and giving readers less reason to buy the paper. Carroll is not the first one to run into this relatively new (20 years) phenomenon.

When we were all much younger, we were at the Inquirer in the 70s. That paper, under John McMillan and later Gene Roberts, was, for a dozen years or so, by far the best newspaper in America. We won awards so regularly, they just ordered champaign on a standby basis, figuring it would not go to waste. I was science writer; Carroll was news editor. One Carroll story tells all: After we had covered the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, during which Carroll emptied out the newsroom to make sure everything was fully covered (sports writers found themselves on the police beat because the police reporters were at the nuclear plant), I asked him how much the coverage cost the newspaper. His response still makes me smile (now, weep). “I don’t know and I don’t care.” We won the Pulitzer for that as well. I was one of the three lead writers.

Roberts eventually quit the Inquirer when the suits in Miami started demanding cuts in coverage to bring the paper to within its profit goals. It hadn’t always been that way. When the paper was sold to Knight Newspapers by Walter Annenberg, the Knight brothers ran the company and had, by far, the best newspaper chain in the country. They then merged with Ridder, and were taken over by Tony Ridder, known as Darth Vader to his employes. Ridder is far more concerned with the price of the Knight-Ridder stock and pleasing analysts than he is in fulfilling his responsibilities of running a newspaper in a democracy and to his readers. Roberts wasn’t the last. Other Knight-Ridder editors quit over the same issue, including the editor of the San Jose Mercury News, the Ridders' flagship paper. One editor recently quit, suggesting the company has no clue how to run a newspaper. The KR papers now are ghosts of their former selves and we are all long gone.

Carroll went to the Baltimore Sun, bringing with him Bill Marimow, his protégé (two Pulitzers for investigative reporting). The Tribune company bought that paper from the family foundation that owned it for decades. They took Carrroll from Baltimore and brought him to Los Angeles; Marimow took over the Sun. Last year he quit or was fired when he wouldn’t cut the budget to satisfy Chicago. He is now at NPR. Pressures on Carroll in Los Angeles were relentless. One Tribune executive, in the week after the Times won a slew of Pulitzers, was asked how they could be chopping a paper that was so obviously excellent. He responded that USA Today never wins Pulitzers and they have a higher profit margin. Both statements are correct; USA Today is a Gannett paper and Gannett papers are the gold standard for mediocrity in journalism, but the paper finds its way to every hotel room door in the country. I’d have packed at that stage.

By the way, I don’t even like John Carroll very much. He treated a friend of mine and several others unfairly at the newspaper, I thought. As an editor, however, he may very well be the best in the country right now and any company that drives someone like him away, is equally clueless.

[Let me add that winning a Pulitzer is not the defining metric for the quality of a newspaper, but it does say that for one brief shining moment, it rose to the level of excellence, and when a paper wins 15 of them in a few years, attention must be paid.]

The only good news out of this is that the Tribune company agreed to replace Carroll with Dean Baquet, Carroll’s designated heir, but only after Baquet extracted promises about cuts in the budget. He threatened to follow Carroll out the door otherwise. He is a former New York Times reporter and editor, a winner of the Pulitzer for the Chicago Tribune and, by all accounts, a prince.

An old friend, science writer Laurie Garrett, who won a Pulitzer at Newsday, another Tribune paper, was asked after winning the award to make a speech at a stockholders meeting. She told them that newspapers have a special role in a democracy (that’s why they are named in the U.S. Constitution) and if the stockholders don’t want to accept that responsibility they should invest in something else. I would add that if the executives of those companies are unhappy with those responsibilities they ought to try a shoe company or selling life insurance.

Leave the people who care the hell alone. Laurie has since left the business.

By the way, it is no accident that the three best newspapers remaining in America are family owned or dominated, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.

Here is Editor & Publisher.

UPDATE—CJR Daily, a website at the Columbia Journalism Review (put out by Steve Lovelady, along with Susan Stranahan, both former Inquirer people, has an excellent interview with Carroll, who also worries that corporate ownership doesn't bode well for newspaper quality. You can find it here.

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