HARRIS: DRIVE FOR PROFITS PULLS NEWSPAPERS DOWN

By: Mark Fitzgerald, Todd Shields, and Joe Strupp

Former Publisher Tells ASNE Why He Resigned


WASHINGTON – Jay T. Harris, addressing the American Society
of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) exactly three weeks after a
contentious Knight Ridder budget meeting that led to his
resignation, said Friday he quit as publisher of the San
Jose (Calif.) Mercury News because he could no longer
endure the demands that corporate finances were making on quality
journalism.

“I resigned because I was concerned about the future of the whole
of the paper, the business side and the news side,” Harris said.
“I resigned because I could no longer live with the widening gap
between creed and greed.”

Knight Ridder is still a good newspaper company, Harris said
repeatedly, but he added, “The momentum of the company –
like the momentum of many other media companies – is
trending in the wrong direction.”

What is true at the Mercury News is true throughout the
industry, Harris argued: “The drive for ever-increasing profits
is pulling newspapers down.”

Harris’ talk to the editors at their annual convention was
unusually personal for a man who guards his privacy well. He
talked about how he decided to resign during a sleepless night
following the budget discussion, how his daughter was crushed by
the decision, and how he planned the timing of his resignation
announcement to ensure that he could not be talked – yet
again – into further compromising the paper.

“Resigning was the only way to slow down this process,” he said.
“Continuing to compromise would only lead to a slow and silent
surrender. I had become an unacknowledged co-conspirator in
something I knew was not good.”

His remarks were acknowledged by a standing ovation from the
editors and this comment from ASNE’s departing president, Richard
A. Oppel, editor of the Austin (Texas) American-
Statesman: “History will record that this was the most
powerful and important speech ever given at ASNE.”

The first questioner to the microphones after the speech was
Knight Ridder Vice President for News Jerry Ceppos, a participant
in the stormy budget meetings that led to Harris’ resignation.
Ceppos said Knight Ridder should be judged by its journalism and
that, by that standard, the Mercury News was not headed
downhill. He said that the newsroom staff was unusually large for
its circulation level and that the paper’s news hole this year
will be even bigger than it was during the boom year of 1999.

But while Harris, too, praised Knight Ridder at times, he also
said the balance between the competing demands for journalism
quality and financial performance was “tenuous.”

“He struck all the right notes,” said Hodding Carter III,
president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. “He
articulated a call which can only be misunderstood or ignored by
the deaf.”

Anders Gyllenhaal, executive editor of The News & Observer
in Raleigh, N.C., said Harris delivered “a strong message. The
real question is, how do the people that make the ultimate
decisions respond?”

Larry Olmstead, assistant vice president for news at Knight
Ridder, believed Harris’ comments would resonate within the
company. “My hope is that it causes us to refocus on making sure
we define and articulate broadly the values and mission,” he
said. “We need to be communicating to all of our papers all of
our values.”

Carolina Garcia, managing editor of the San Antonio Express-
News, said she was moved by Harris. “I think what he did was
courageous,” she said. “We all struggle.”

David Levine, editor of The Tribune-Democrat in Johnstown,
Pa., agreed. “I don’t know if I would be able to do what he did.”

The resignation of Harris, one of the few African Americans who
was publisher of a daily newspaper, was one of the two hot topics
at the ASNE convention this week. The other was the decline in
minority journalists working in daily newspapers, which was
reported in ASNE’s annual census – a tally Harris created in
1977.

Members of the National Association of Black Journalists reacted
to the census results with a 22-page report of first-person
encounters with diversity entitled “Voices of Anger, Cries of
Concern.”

“For me, the struggle is no more,” writes Dwight Cunningham, a
newspaper veteran who now works as executive managing editor at
Scholastic Inc. “The industry does not deserve us. That is the
message I want to communicate to whomever. We entered the
business, perhaps a mite altruistic but certainly talented. We
got dissed. We have a ‘lost generation’ of senior black
executives who are fizzling out.”



Mark Fitzgerald (mfitzgerald@editorandpublisher.com) is editor at large for E&P.
Todd Shields (tshields@editorandpublisher.com) is the Washington editor for E&P.
Joe Strupp (jstrupp@editorandpublisher.com) is an associate editor for E&P.



Copyright 2001, Editor & Publisher.

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