Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Democracy or incompetence. Choose one--UPDATED OFTEN

Look, we're losing circulation and advertising. The obvious answer is to destroy the product--If you care about journalism, your heart should be breaking about now.

We are all aware by now of the fall of the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain. It is being dismantled, thanks to Wall Street greed and the incredible ineptitude of Knight-Ridder management. The chain was bought by McClatchy, which actually is the best newspaper chain left in America. That would be the good news. The bad news is that McClatchy is selling off 12 of Knight-Ridder papers to fund the purchase, including my old paper, the Philadelphia Inquirer. I was science writer at the Inquirer from 1969 to 1980, the best job I ever had in journalism. In the last 20 years, Knight-Ridder emasculated what was arguably the best newspaper in America to keep the ass-holes on Wall Street happy. (I don’t like using profanity on this blog but I am at a loss to find another word. I’m really pissed!). Tony Ridder [top picture], who drove his family-founded chain into the ground, is reported in the San Jose Mercury News (another KR paper destroyed by his management and now also up for sale) to be distraught. I weep for him.

Background: When I was hired by the Inquirer, Knight Newspapers, owned by the illustrious Knight family, had just bought it from Walter Annenberg, who ran a thoroughly dishonest newspaper. They brought in a man named John McMullen to clean house and turn it into an honest and fearless paper, which he did. The day of my job interview I had to pick my way through a picket line of Philadelphia policemen who were protesting a series of stories on police corruption. McMullen bragged about the number of libel suits he had pending, all but one of which, incidentally, he won. Sounded like my kind of place. I was hired. The Knights eventually merged with the Ridder chain of California, forming KR. Along the way, Gene Roberts [left, bottom], late of the New York Times, was brought in to run the Inky and in a matter of years, turned it into a great newspaper, probably the last great newspaper to emerge in this country. On any given day, we were simply the best. We had national correspondents and foreign bureaus, experts on any subjects (know many papers with an architect writer with a degree from Yale?), budgets that were now the stuff of dreams, and won something like 17 Pulitzers in 15 years. We just ordered champaign at the end of April, figuring it wouldn’t go to waste. The foreign correspondents, who won several of those Pulitzers, were legendary, including one Asian correspondent who allegedly had a pair of teenage female twins as housekeepers. To lure one Pulitzer winner back to Philadelphia from Rome, Roberts promised him he could cover the Phillies for a year. Richard Ben Cramer covered New York City until he went overseas. He covered the invasion of Lebanon by hailing a Tel Aviv taxi. No one else covered LA with the humor and eye of Murray Dubin. Don Bartlett and James Steele won two of those Pulitzers and should have won a third for their pioneering use of computers to analyze data for a story on the criminal justice system. They worked upstairs, were given an almost unlimited budget and were told to report downstairs whenever they had their story, any year they were ready. They were almost pathologically meticulous and never got it wrong. Don Drake, the medical writer, turned in a story or two a year, maybe, always wonderfully written and often heart-rending.

I could go anywhere I wanted to go if I could justify it on journalistic grounds, including the South Pole, and I was the first western reporter allowed into Somalia in a half dozen years to find the last naturally infected smallpox victim. I had editors who included some of the best I’ve ever known. A story I wrote with Susan Stranahan on Three Mile Island (coverage of which won another Pulitzer) was nominated by the University of Maryland as one of the 100 best newspaper stories of the 20th century. We knew while we were there we had the kind of jobs we dreamed of when we went into journalism. And, we were profitable. Sunday circulation topped 1 million.

I left to go to Stanford for various reasons and the Inky kept winning awards. Roberts sent my successor to Africa for several weeks because he thought there might be an interesting story in the endangered white rhinos. There was.

Then the suits in Miami, then KR’s headquarters, started putting the screws on Roberts’ budgets for financial reasons--profit margins weren’t high enough to suit Wall Street analysts. Roberts eventually quit, blaming the corporation for reducing the budget to the point he could no longer do the quality journalism he--and we--felt appropriate, and he just got tired of fighting them constantly. Most of the staff eventually followed. He was the first of several KR editors to quit for the same reason.

A good number of former Inky reporters and editors went on to major positions in journalism, their reputation as one of Roberts' people, assuring them the appropriate respect.

Tony Ridder, known as Darth Vader in his newsrooms, was far more interested in the price of KR stock and fearful of a takeover than he was for the quality of his product, his service to his community, or loyalty to his employees. Like other newspaper corporations, KR was under pressure from Wall Street to keep earning obscene profit margins (20% plus) and, as Roberts pointed out, the suits got together and somehow the answer to falling circulation and advertising was to give the readers less. It would be like General Motors deciding that in order to earn a profit they would take out the back seats of its cars. Budgets were cut, foreign bureaus eliminated, reporters and editors bought off or laid off and the papers are now remnants of their former selves. It, of course, didn’t work and couldn’t work. They teach this shit in business schools?

(By the way, if you want to see newspapers being destroyed before your very eyes, you are welcome to watch the Los Angeles Times and the Baltimore Sun, both owned by the Tribune Company in Chicago--and both formerly run by Roberts' disciples from the Inquirer--be dismembered. McClatchy is the corporation that proves the common wisdom wrong, incidentally. They have invested in their journalism instead of cutting back, and have had more than 20 years of growing circulation. Alas, they won’t try that at the Inquirer or the Merc.)

Now the Inky and the Mercury News and the St. Paul paper, are up for sale. The chance of white knights rescuing them is slim. There is Gannett, whose business plan demands mediocrity; William Dean Singleton, the anti-Christ of American journalism, and the Newspaper Guild and its supporters, who won’t win because the world doesn’t work that way any more. Good guys lose to greed every time.

An old friend, Laurie Garrett, who reported for Newsday, a Tribune paper, was invited to give a speech before Tribune Co. stockholders after she won a Pulitzer. In her speech, she pointed out that newspapers and journalism are unique businesses. So important are they to the running of a democracy that the Founding Fathers put special protection into the Constitution, a protection that no other field of endeavor enjoys, not lawyers or stock analysts or accountants. If, she told the stockholders, you don’t care about that responsibility, please invest elsewhere. Go buy stock in a shoe company or a computer company, and leave us the hell alone to do our jobs.

No one paid the slightest attention.

Steve Lovelady, one of the editors referred to above, has an interesting take on the business here. Also, nothing I am saying should be taken as a rap against the splendid people at the Inky now, one of whom is a former student of mine. They are in no way inferior in talent or energy to the Roberts era staff. There are just far fewer of them, they are limited in what they can cover, have smaller budgets and are working for howling incompentents, including a management that tries to explain how covering fewer things is good for business. That surely ain't the staff's fault. And yes, I read the paper regularly. David Zucchino, who worked at the Inky for 20 years and is now at the Los Angeles Times, has a good story this morning from the Inquirer newsroom. He points out the paper has 300 fewer reporters than it once had and describes the newsroom as vast but lightly populated. He, of course, should know. He works at another newspaper being run into the ground by nincompoops.

Question for discussion: is it possible that a public corporation cannot run a quality newspaper? The three best papers in the U.S. are still controlled by families. Family papers turned over to corporations (often Gannett or the Tribune Co.), immediately go downhill. Maybe the pressures on public corporations make it impossible for newspapers to function properly.

[The server has been down for several hours. We apologize]

[Photo of Tony Ridder from the San Jose Mercury News; photo of Gene Roberts from PBS]


Anonymous said...

its true the inquirer is not what it used to be and that many of its best people have fled over the last decade. however, there are still tough reporters and sweet writers there who are kicking butt every day and writing the hell out of stories and busting their butts. You should read it some time.

Joel Shurkin said...

I know that there are. But there are not as many of them as there used to be and they are not given the resources they need. The drop in quality has nothing to do with the quality of reporters and editors, it has to do with the budget.


Anonymous said...

As they used to say in the '70s:


Anonymous said...

Who the heck is "Perry" Dean Singleton?

John Clavis said...

The rich and powerful in this country saw the President laid low by a couple of newspaper reporters and decided that would never happen again.

Thirty years later, neutered corporate products like the New York Times and Newsweek get labeled the "MSM" with "liberal bias" that nobody trusts and that don't or can't really investigate and get the truth anymore. The White House sends McClellan out to say "Again, I can't comment on that" and "I've already commented on that" and that's that.

There is no longer any accountability for those with the money and the power.

Anonymous said...

To answer the question a couple of posts above, that is actually "William" Dean Singleton. You know, the "antichrist" who is the main reason Denver still a two-newspaper town.

Joel Shurkin said...

I gagged on his name. Fixed it. Thank you.


Anonymous said...

I'd tell you that it is ironic that you lament the death of a newspaper chain in a blog, but being a top notch journalist yourself you may already recognize that. While you can justifiably grieve and wail for the lack of modern day reportage, the entire business model of dead tree newspapers has been co-opted by the 19 employees of Craig's list et al. To extend your GM metaphor, you're an assemble line worker, replaced by a spot welding robot and your writing sounds like it.

Carl said...

Before judging the Inquirer of today, please read our work. Here's a good sample:

Oh, and I've been an editor here for two years. In that time, we've sent a science writer to the Arctic Circle. Now he's headed to Central America.

PS -- There's nothing wrong with blogs. One of the best architecture writers in the business (not sure where she went to college, though) is Inga Saffron, a Pulitzer finalist. Her work appears in the paper and on a blog:

Thanks for reading the Inquirer,

Carl Lavin
Deputy managing editor, news

Joel Shurkin said...

I hope I have not given the impression that the people at the Inky now are somehow inferior to the ones back in the Roberts era. I don't believe that for a moment and I do read the paper regularly. The point I was trying to make is that the staff is much smaller now than it was then; we had our own foreign bureaus (at least a half dozen) and reporters based in Pittsburgh, New York, Atlanta, LA and elsewhere and specialists in every field you could name, as several you wouldn't think of. We also didn't have an editor in charge who tried to make a virtue of cutting coverage. The people there now must hate these comparisons, and I don't blame them. Nothing I am saying reflects anything but the greatest respect for what they are doing, and sympathy for their current situation. If I've offended them, I humbly apologize. It was not my intent to denigrate their talents or work. It's their management that is wildly incompetent.


josh narins said...

And, if my suspicions are correct, management is the target of efforts to destroy any paper which so brazenly contradicts el Jefe Commandante Arbusto.

Doesn't really take that much, does it?

Or, maybe, as the rich get richer, and the rest get poorer (4 years of median income dropping as the GDP rises) there's simply no demand for the truth.

Anonymous said...

Noam Chomsky recently said that it was his opinion that Britain's "Financial Times" is the world's best newspaper. Chomsky acknowledged that his choice was likely to be seen as controversial, especially considering that the "Financial Times" has a right-ward bent. However, Chomsky pointed out that the "Financial Times" readership, which consists of the rich, the powerful, CEOs and other movers and shakers in the world, simply must be informed with what's really going on in the world. He said the "Financial Times" in-depth coverage of the world simply can't be found elsewhere.

Anonymous said...


Joel Shurkin said...

Aaron Epstein, the Inky's SCOTUS reporter for years, points out that the papers McClatchy is flipping are mostly unionized. You can read into that what you will. And all are profitable, just potentially troublesome.


Jim Davis said...

``Don Bartlett and James Steele won two of those Pulitzers and should have 'one' a third. . . ''

Same ol' Joel! ;-)

Jim Davis, your one-time editor, Inky '74-92. Hope you made it to Machu Pichu. I made it only as far as Fort Worth, where the future is suddenly brighter.

Joel Shurkin said...

Hey Jimmy:
Oh aaargh. The problem with blogs is no editor. I fixed it.

Never made it to Machu Pichu but almost. My son married a Chilean woman and the wedding was in Santiago. Cash crisis kept us from spending the additional several thousand dollars to get there. Next
trip, however.

Lovely to hear from you. I actually think of you every time I lament the lack of Mexican food in Baltimore.


Jim Davis said...

It is useful to remember that Knight bought Ridder--it was not a merger. Knight then took a few of the best Ridder editors, including my old friend Larry Allison in Long Beach, and sent them east for Knight school. Miami Herald editors were sent west to run San Jose. I can recall not a single instance of a Ridder editor promoted over a Knight paper.

One story looms large in the Ridder school. Ridders owned the Journal of Commerce, which once was on par with the Wall Street Journal, until the Ridders conceived of a brilliant plan to trim the fat. In trimming the fat, they cut the stock tables, leaving the WSJ to waste its newsprint on non-essentials. Perhaps others know the consequence of that maneuver. Variations of that plan are still in play.

To paraphrase the great William Allen White, may they rest in trust.

Anonymous said...

Just caught up with this today. You've put it so well, and so accurately captured the newspaper atmosphere in Philly in those days. I, too, watched Tony Ridder begin to wreck the Inky from my old post as editor of Philly mag. As I recall, John Anderson wrote a super piece for the magazine, contrasting the roles of Ridder and Roberts. John, I believe, was first to point out where the Inky was going and who was taking it there. I've been working in NY for many years now (at Newsweek for the last 10), but I still recall the very high level of play--at the Inky and at the Daily News, too--during Philly's Golden Period. Mr. Ridder--the golden California scion who was born on third base and thought he hit a triple--will take about $10 million to the bank when his deal is done. He'll cry all the way there and all the way back home to the mansion, too, for his life;s work was only partially completed: He only fooled some of the readers all of the time. -Ron Javers

Anonymous said...

You know, the "golden era" Inquirer was never as satisfactory to Philadelphians as it was to contest judges and its self-congratulatory newsies. (Remember the Dave Barry quip about sending those contest-targeted massive stories directly to the contest judges -- and sparing the readers?)

Your post is full of examples of stories that were probably wonderful to report and write, and made someone the envy of the newsroom for a week, but they were hell -- or, worse, absolutely nothing -- to readers. And in the end, Wall Street grew tired of sending you to the South Pole.

The Daily News of that era was the paper that deserved better. The Inquirer grew only by putting the Bulletin out of business. It didn't spawn any growth or reader affection on its own.

It turns out people won't pay to read homework assignments.

Joel Shurkin said...

I know of no evidence that is true. Indeed, the Bulletin followed that model after a readership survey and was gone in 18 months.


Anonymous said...

The Bulletin was gone, yes, along with about 100,000 circulation that the Inky and the Daily News never picked up -- maybe readers who didn't feel stories about white rhinos were a suitable replacement.

Anonymous said...

I am a former member of the editorial board of the Miami Herald, and agree with your comments about the servility of Knight Ridder toward Wall Street. Of course, that has been the trend of nearly all papers since they became publicly traded and have had to appease shareholders and analysts.

It began at my old paper after John and Jim Knight bowed to the asset-destroying effects of the inheritance tax law by taking the family-owned Knight chain public. This was some time before the merger with Ridder.

By the mid-to-late 1970s, the influence of Wall Street was already becoming apparent.. Jim Knight (the business side of the brother duo, it's interesting to note) once spread an edition of the Herald on his desk in his Miami office and commented: "No wonder people don't want to read our paper any more, there's no news hole!"

By the way, John McMullen did a nice job of cleaning house in Philadelphia. Trouble is, he then went to Miami and did the same thing with a better, dynamic and young news staff, firing about half the newsroom in a couple of years. Every week for months there was a new list of ousted or reassigned reporters and editors posted in the newsroom. Staff members called it the latest "Mac Attack." Some media watchers noted that he apparently thought his job description was to fire a lot of people. Herald staffers mourned the departure of his predecessor, Larry Jinks, who went to the San Jose paper and later became editorial director of Knight Ridder. I knew and greatly respected Larry..