Thursday, April 19, 2007

Freedom of the press belongs to him who owns one and he may be an idiot--UPDATED

When I grow up, I'm going to be a newspaper CEO. I don't have the brains to do anything useful--From time to time we’ve reported on the declining state of American journalism here, and this is a really good time to do it again. I have a new set of heroes and a surprising non-hero. [And don't miss the update below]

A dozen Wall Street Journal reporters based in the Middle East, have sent a letter of protest to the newspaper over contract negotiations in which the Journal seems intent on cutting benefits and diminishing the scope of news coverage. This is, I remind you, one of the three best newspapers on America. The letter, printed in Jim Romenesko’s great journalism blog here, came from both union and non-union reporters and had a really nasty and totally justifiable tone to it. These are the reporters who live in the most dangerous places on earth, risking their lives on a daily basis, while executives of the newspaper cash checks. Keep in mind one of their colleagues, Danny Pearl [below, left], was beheaded by terrorists while on assignment for that newspaper.

The pay package of the CEO, Rich Zannino was particularly galling. [The pay packages of all CEOs is galling--actually, they are immoral]. While the reporters are risking their lives and providing the product, Zannino is making obscene amounts of money. Here are excerpts:
* In 2006, Mr. Zannino received $173,441 to cover commuting costs from his Connecticut home to Manhattan. That means that each and every working day the company pays $667 just to get him to show up at the office. He gets far more just to sit in the back of a limo on his way to work than we get to go into combat.
* Mr. Zannino’s compensation package more than doubled when he became CEO in 2006, to $4.16 million from $2 million. Peter Kann was both CEO and chairman the previous years, yet his compensation was just under $3 million. So Mr. Zannino earned 42% more for half the job.
* If Mr. Zannino does that job badly and gets fired, the company has agreed to give him $10 million to clean out his desk.
It's very clear: We take the risks; top managers reap the rewards
They go on to point out that what sells the paper isn’t the skill of the CEO but the reporters and editors who report and write the news, even from such God-forsaken places as Pakistan (where Pearl was killed) and Iraq (where almost 200 journalists have died). They point out that after the last contract negotiations, a group of some of the best reporters quit the newspaper, which certainly doesn’t improve the product any.

The Journal, like the Washington Post and the New York Times, is family controlled, one of the reasons it remains a great newspaper. There really is no excuse for this.

It gets worse, at my old newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer. So hard up are they for reporters to gather the news after massive layoffs and the sinking of Knight-Ridder, Gail Shister, the long-time television critic, has been taken off the job and put on feature writing. The Inquirer says it can no longer afford a television columnist and needs her body covering news. She has had the job for a quarter of a century and is one of the most esteemed television critics in the country. If the Inquirer doesn’t have enough reporters to cover the news maybe they shouldn’t have laid off so many.

Somewhere, in a conference room of overpaid executives, faced with declining circulation and advertising, a decision was made to give the customers less of a product. These same executives are now puzzled and lamenting the continued decline. Shister, incidentally, is considering suing, but I’m not sure on what grounds. Stupidity is not actionable. Her wisdom, knowledge, connections, and her readers are not important enough to the management.[The line about the product comes from Gene Roberts, the legendary editor of the Inky in its glory days. He won his own Pulitzer this week and a hearty mazel tov to him. Live long and prosper]

Bill Marimow, my old colleague who is now running the Inky said that moving her to features is part of the Inquirer’s move to focus on local coverage and she was covering national stuff. The Inky also brought back its last foreign correspondent for the same reason. Shame on him.
[The Baltimore Sun let its political cartoonist go giving the same rationale. The Sun continues to sink in the east as every day there is less and less reason to buy the paper. They teach this shit in business schools?] The owners of the Inquirer will learn that self-mutilation is not a business plan.

I have a friend, Laurie Garrett, who won a Pulitzer for her incredible coverage of AIDS around the world, a project very few newspapers would try now: It costs money and is not productive to the bottom line. She was asked to give a speech to stockholders of her newspaper (Newsday, then, I think, owned by Times-Mirror before the horrors of the Tribune Co.). She pointed out that newspapers play a unique role in a democracy, one of the reasons the press is singled out in the U.S. Constitution. While it is certain that newspapers are not charities and should earn a profit, the profit is not superior to the other responsibilities of the press. She suggested that if they, the stockholders, were not prepared to earn a bit less so that the newspapers can do their job in a democracy well, they ought to take their money and invest it someplace else--and leave us the hell alone!


I hope Marimow recovers from his bout with prostate cancer and lives a long, happy life. Maybe it's the chemotherapy that made him silly.


Oh, it gets worse.

I was in Philadelphia over the weekend and got a chance to read the Inquirer. Most of the front section now consists of AP stories in a newspaper that once covered most of everything itself. No reflection on wire service reporters (I was one for 7 years), but the Inky had superb reporters around the country and the world and they had an unexcelled level of coverage. Except for the local stories, all done well, incidentally, the coverage of the rest of the world was no different than what you would get in the Fairbanks News-Miner. A really great city (I love Philly) deserves better.

And, according to the New York Times, the Inky is now instituting a column paid for by a bank. What the Times doesn't seem to get into in much detail is the foul ethics of such a thing. I think the word is whoring.

Meanwhile, the Tribune Co., which is systemmatically destroying itself has announced layoffs at the Baltimore Sun, the Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune. They seem intent on eliminating reasons to buy their product. Of course the Tribune Co. is going private, a move that will enrich the executives while reporters, editors and photographers are being forced out the door. Feh!


Ken said...

The obvious conclusion, is there is less demand for quality journalism. It costs more to produce a paper employing good staff, especially in remote locations, than it does to fill a paper with Britney Spears etc stories, and most of the public aren't interested in understanding anything, anyway.

It is almost impossible to find an article on energy policy that doesn't have at least a minor error. Journalists in Australia can't even get the unit of power correct, but most of the public wouldn't notice.

Joel Shurkin said...

That is the reason often given, but it doesn't entirely stand up. All three of America's great papers are profitable, as is number four, the LA Times. They just are not profitable enough for Wall Street, which thinks 20% return on investment (a demand they do not make for any other business) is necessary. Also, there is that responsibility the press has in a democracy which includes printing stuff the public needs to know even if they'd rather be reading something else.

chsw said...

I have two points. First, the WSJ is not family owned, but is owned by Dow Jones, a publicly held company. Second, a 20% ROI is actually higher than most companies in the S&P 500 or in the DJ Industrials. That level of return has simply been the historic benchmark of newspaper operators. In fact, the level of return justifies increasing investment in the medium. Hence, several "new media" tycoons, such as Mark Cuban, are considering bids for newspaper publishers.


Eliyahu said...

All I can say, Joel, is that it's even worse with small-town newspapers. The primary claim to fame for our birdcage liner in Walla Walla is the frequency with which they include glaring typos in headlines (not to mention the plethora of them in columns).
Let's not overlook the other heroes of newspaper work, though... The kids who deliver the papers to us day in, day out, often in all sorts of terrible weather, and for a pittance. The greatest writing in the world isn't worth much if it doesn't get to the readers.

Joel Shurkin said...

Dow Jones is controlled by the Bancroft family, with some public stock, the same situation as the Times (Sulzberger) and the Post (Graham).