Shoptalk: The Perils of Carpetbaggers Managing Local Newspapers

By: Eric Starkman

When the Toronto Star announced in June that Irene Gentle had been named editor, it duly noted that she was the first woman to oversee the 126-year-old newspaper. Even more noteworthy is Gentle’s experience: She’s been with the newspaper for seven years and her entire career is steeped in community journalism in neighboring cities.

The Star has long commanded the most readers in the greater Toronto area, a highly competitive market with four credible dailies. Its success is attributable to deeply embedded principles requiring community “engagement” drafted by former publisher Joseph Atkinson well before the advent of social media. The Atkinson and Honderich families, who have driven the Star’s social mindedness, are actively involved with the Star’s corporate parent; John Honderich, the newspaper’s former editor and publisher, is chair.

Most U.S. local newspapers have been in a decline for nearly two decades, a trend New York Times editor Dean Baquet has declared is the “biggest crisis” in journalism. The culprits typically blamed are the internet and social media, which have provided alternative sources of news and entertainment. But also contributing mightily to the decline are consolidation, bad management and lack of innovation. Most local newspapers today are managed by individuals with no meaningful ties or understanding of the communities they serve.

The Los Angeles Times is a case study of the perils of carpetbaggers managing local newspapers. The Tribune Co. in 2000 installed John Carroll, a former editor of The Baltimore Sun, and Baquet, then the New York Times’ national editor, to oversee the newspaper. Carroll and Baquet immediately eliminated the Times’ once extensive “cops and courts” coverage in favor of Pulitzer Prize winning investigative stories and staffed the newspaper with editors from the East Coast.

“We still haven’t mastered making the paper feel like it is edited in Los Angeles,” Baquet admitted five years into his tenure. Angelenos noticed: The Times lost 10 percent of its readers.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune exemplifies the benefits of a newspaper management with strong local ties. In 2010, a private equity firm rescued the Star Tribune from bankruptcy and installed Michael Klingensmith, a former Time Inc. executive with an MBA from the University of Chicago, as publisher. Under Klingensmith’s leadership, the Star Tribune’s circulation declines have been far below the industry average and circulation revenues have increased every year. Based on Sunday circulation, the Star Tribune is the fifth largest newspaper in the country, an impressive feat given that Minneapolis is the 16th largest metropolitan area.

Klingensmith is a Minneapolis native, and his management team and top editors are Minnesota lifers or have lived in the state for more than a decade. Being from Minneapolis has been critical to Klingensmith’s success. “I never would have tried to do the same thing in Kansas City,” Klingensmith told the New York Times.

Much coverage has been given to the Denver Post’s daring newsroom protests of its private equity owner’s draconian budget cuts. The background of the Post’s top editor is telling: Lee Ann Colacioppo is a Denver native and has worked at the paper for nearly 20 years. Former editorial page editor Chuck Plunkett, who published an editorial urging the sale of the newspaper, joined the Post in 2003. In New Jersey, where Gannett has implemented a bloodbath of layoffs, not a peep of protest has been publicly sounded by the company’s masthead editors. Richard Green, who has overseen Gannett’s Garden State editorial operations since 2016, is from Ohio.

The only material innovation from a newspaper company in the past half century was the creation of USA Today by former Gannett CEO Al Neuharth, which radically altered how news stories were written and presented. Bloomberg, Business Insider, and Politico, among the few publishing success stories, were started by Wall Street entrepreneurs or journalists who understood the internet’s potential before their company’s managements. Many newspaper executives once thought getting into bed with Facebook was prudent, but New York Times CEO Mark Thompson has accused the social media company of supporting “the enemies of high quality journalism.” A curious comment given that a Facebook executive (Rebecca Van Dyck) sits on his company’s board.

Pressures on local newspapers are mounting. Nextdoor, a collection of shlocky hyperlocal websites that was last valued at $1.5 billion, began accepting advertising last year; the CEO predicts the company will achieve $1 billion in revenues by 2020. Local television stations increasingly pose a threat: Detroit’s WDIV has branded its site “Click on Detroit” and is earning meaningful digital revenues from local advertisers. The station has launched a hyperlocal Ann Arbor site and assigned an experienced reporter and two associates to oversee the city’s coverage.  More hyperlocal sites are planned. Meanwhile, the Detroit Free Press, the second biggest local Gannett newspaper, moved its copy editing and design functions to Kentucky.

Eric Starkman managed Starkman & Associates, a New York-based crisis and public relations firm, for 25 years. Earlier, he was a business reporter with major newspapers in the U.S. and Canada, including the Detroit News and the Toronto Star.

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Published: September 19, 2018

One thought on “Shoptalk: The Perils of Carpetbaggers Managing Local Newspapers

  • September 20, 2018 at 3:06 pm
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    Oh, BS. This is not a new phenomenon. It has bee going on for decades, long preceding the decline of print media. Gannet, Thompson, and others were moving around publishers and editors in the ’70s. People worried then that this was an issue, yet the next several decades were a time of growth. There are other dynamics in play, including the competence and training of the new generations, but that is not the main reason

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