By: Mark Fitzgerald
Newsprint price hikes, staff cutbacks, closings, strikes and
defections at the top hobbled the newspaper industry in 1995 sp.
ET TU, BRENDA?
As if the newspaper industry had not been buffeted enough during 1995, on Dec. 12, the most famous newspaper reporter on the funny pages, Brenda Starr, made this observation: “Sometimes I think newspapers care more about profits than they do about people.”
Brenda, of course, has always been the resident cynic in the Flash newsroom, but her sour grace note to this bumpy year nevertheless captured one of the themes of 1995.
Throughout the year, some version of Brenda’s comment was muttered by newspaper employees, as Times Mirror Co. folded the Baltimore Evening Sun and New York Newsday and cut 150 editorial jobs and whole sections of the Los Angeles Times. Or, as Knight-Ridder Inc. demanded substantial labor concessions in exchange for keeping the Philadelphia Daily News alive, and cut 300 full-time positions at the Miami Herald.
Certainly, Brenda’s comment was echoed in the shouts of strikers outside the two Detroit dailies, jointly operated by Knight-Ridder and Gannett Co.
And that theme was sounded, too, by a real-life Brenda Starr.
When Geneva Overholser, probably the most famous woman newspaper editor in America, and David Westphal resigned as editor and managing editor at the Des Moines Register Feb. 13, they spurred an industrywide soul-searching with their remarks about the effects profit pressures are having on the newsroom.
To keep margins up to the corporate specs of its owner, Gannett, the Register, among other measures, abandoned its historic mission of circulating to all 99 Iowa counties and, instead, focused its marketing on the Des Moines metropolitan area.
“I wish we could concentrate on making money by putting out a good newspaper instead of trying to satisfy shareholders on a quarter-by-quarter basis,” Overholser said at the time.
A debate of a different sort was spurred when, seven months after their resignation, the Register reported that Overholser and Westphal were divorcing their respective spouses and had set up house in Washington, D.C.
Nevertheless, Overholser and Westphal were by no means the only journalists to leave enviable newspaper positions under circumstances that reflected how business pressures are affecting the newsroom.
On Nov. 30, James M. Naughton resigned as the executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, citing, among numerous reasons, the “unrelenting pressures” on the newsroom. The Inquirer news staff was cut by 7% and plans were underway to close suburban news bureaus and kill the Sunday magazine.
A few days later, Neal Shine announced his resignation as publisher of the Detroit Free Press. Shine, who turned 65 in September, said he was leaving because he had previously vowed to quit at 65 and because his health was an increasing concern.
Corporate attempts to get Shine to stay on, however, undoubtedly were not helped by the long and bitter strike at the Free Press and Detroit News. In the strike’s early days, Shine was jeered by reporters who had once been like sons and daughters to him. Shine was briefly hospitalized early on in the strike, as well.
Job stress, indeed, appears to be endemic in the newspaper industry. An Associated Press Managing Editors survey, released a few weeks ago, found that nearly half of responding editors said their jobs are not simply stressful ? they are “highly stressful.” The survey disclosed that the median work week for editors is now 52 hours long. Fully 42% of the editors say they regularly work six days a week.
For editors in 1995, the eight-hour day, 40-hour work week is as much a dream as it was for the anarcho-syndicalists of the 1880s: Only 14% work that schedule.
So, who or what is to blame for these business pressures?
In some circles, Wall Street is
to blame. One big consequence of
the rush to go public in the 1980s
is that in the 1990s, financial analysts are merciless in insisting on the kind
of profit margins that can be delivered by medium-sized papers, but are
far more problematic for big metro dailies.
Then there are the readers, or nonreaders, who are giving newspapers a skip.
When the Audit Bureau of Circulations released its latest FAS-FAX,
for the six months ended Sept. 30,
it marked the fifth consecutive reporting period in which circulation slumped virtually across the board among the biggest U.S. newspapers.
Others blame, simply, greed. That has been a major theme in the Detroit newspaper strike, where union members who made concessions during the difficult early years of the JOA say they should not be asked to take even deeper cuts now that the agency is making some money.
But perhaps the best definition of the industry’s biggest problem in 1995 is provided by the bureaucrats who operate the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT): “Uncoated paper of a kind used for the printing of newspapers, of which not less than 65% by weight of the total fiber content consists of wood fiber obtained by a mechanical process, unsized or very lightly sized, having smoothness on each side not exceeding 200 seconds Bekk, weighing not less than 40 grams per square meter and not more than 57 grams per square meter and having an ash content by weight not exceeding 8%.”
That’s the official GATT definition of newsprint.
And newsprint has been behind many ? in fact, virtually all ? of the financial pressures that are squeezing newsrooms.
It is an ironic role for a commodity that, through the early 1990s, helped many newspapers survive tough economic times. Back then, newsprint was wonderfully cheap, and the periodic attempts of paper mills to push the price up were laughed off as newspapers simply went to a spot market that had come to look more like a giant liquidation sale.
But the shuttering of papers mills and the rising advertising volumes in newspapers created a classic supply-and-demand squeeze. Newsprint prices soared from as low as $420 per metric ton in 1994 to $675 by May ? and about $800 at year’s end.
And newsprint is a very, very heavy cost to absorb. Consider: Just to print the New York Times alone takes 300,000 tons of newsprint annually. At the beginning of the year, Knight-Ridder estimated that its 1995 newsprint bill would increase about $100 million over the $285 million its 28 papers spent in 1994.
Page One obits
The owners of several papers that closed in 1995 placed the blame for their demise squarely on the dramatic newsprint price increases.
That was what happened in Houston, according to W. Dean Singleton.
After 111 years, seven of them under the ownership of Texas native Singleton, the Houston Post folded unceremoniously April 18. The 1,500 full- and part-time employees who reported to work that day were told to clear out their desks and leave.
“The unprecedented and sudden rise in the price of newsprint caused the Post to lose any hope of viability in the foreseeable future,” Singleton said at the time.
With a circulation of about 287,000, the Post had earned an operating profit every year and a net loss after debt service, Singleton said.
“The unprecedented rise in the price of newsprint would have caused the Post to show an operating loss in 1995 for the first time,” Singleton said.
Crosstown rival Houston Chronicle, a Hearst paper, bought the assets of the Post for $120 million in cash.
In one fell swoop, Houston earned the dubious achievement of being the largest U.S. city with only one daily paper ? and the proud tradition of bare-knuckled newspaper competition died in the Lone Star State. Only three Texas cities are served by two papers, and none of them are business competitors.
Times Mirror cited a more general need to cut costs when it shuttered two big papers.
New York Newsday, Times Mirror’s 10-year effort to dominate the tough tabloid market in the Big Apple, died a typical 1995 death on July 15. Times Mirror’s brand-new president and chief executive officer ? a former General Mills executive whose cost-cutting fervor earned him the nicknames “Captain Crunch” and the “Cereal Killer” ? declared in announcing the folding that, “in spite of its superb editorial content, New York Newsday’s opportunities to earn an appropriate rate of return are limited.”
Though the paper was reportedly about to turn a very small profit, it had been losing $7 million to $14 million every year and had racked up losses of $100 million in its lifetime. Immediately before its death, New York Newday’s prospects were further dimmed by a circulation fall of 12.8% in its last Audit Bureau of Circulations reporting period.
The Baltimore Evening Sun, H.L. Mencken’s old paper, was shuttered forever by Times Mirror Co. on Sept. 15. At the time of its folding, circulation of the 85-year-old afternoon paper was at its lowest point since 1927.
Another afternoon paper, the Greenville (S.C.) Piedmont, was closed Sept. 29.
In the capital of Nebraska, the morning Lincoln Star and evening Lincoln Journal ended 93 years of competition on Aug. 7, about 90 days after Star owner Lee Enterprises bought the Journal from the Seacrest family. The two papers were merged into a single morning paper, the Lincoln Journal-Star.
Something there was in 1995 that did not love a newspaper. The only paper launched during the year, the bilingual edition of the New York Daily News, El Daily News, died before its six-month birthday.
Urge to merge
The ever-dwindling number of two-newspaper cities dwindled a little more in 1995 as a result of mergers of commonly owned newspapers.
Providence, R.I., became a one-paper city on June 5, when the 132-year-old Evening Bulletin was merged with the Providence Journal to become the Providence Journal-Bulletin.
Earlier in the year, Milwaukee joined the ranks of one-paper cities, when the 158-year-old morning Milwaukee Sentinel was merged with its higher-circulation sister paper, the 113-year-old afternoon Milwaukee Journal, to become the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Newsprint, expected to cost an additional $9 million during the year, was a big factor in the decision, said officials at Journal/Sentinel Inc.
“What we were going to have to confront was not improvements, but reductions, cutbacks ? and that led us to think we would have to look in a different direction,” editor Mary Jo Meisner recalled of the budget-preparing meetings during the summer of 1994 that essentially doomed two-newspaper competition in Milwaukee.
Two newspapers continue to publish in Indianapolis, but the distinctions between them narrowed in the fall. In September, the afternoon Indianapolis News merged its newsroom into its much larger sister paper, the morning Indianapolis Star. The merger ended 92 years of competition between Star and News reporters.
Two other Central Newspapers Inc. properties, the morning Arizona Republic and its sister paper, the afternoon Phoenix Gazette, also merged their newsrooms in the fall.
The wave of newspaper closings and mergers, however, did little to contain sales activity heavier than the industry has seen since the acquisition bubble in the mid-1980s.
In a year of blockbuster sales, the biggest belonged to a veteran of those go-go ’80s: Gannett.
The nation’s largest newspaper chain expanded again with its July 24 agreement to buy Multimedia Inc. in a $1.7 billion deal that adds 60 daily and weekly newspapers, plus ? a plus that Wall Street liked very much ? five television stations.
McClatchy Newspapers, publisher of the Sacramento Bee and 11 other daily newspapers, announced its own big acquisition May 17: It bought the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., for $373 million.
And while it cut staff and shrunk news holes across the country during 1995, Knight-Ridder also expressed its faith in the future of newspapers with the $360 million purchase of Lesher Communications, publisher of the Contra Costa Times and four other California dailies.
Knight-Ridder was also a newspaper seller in 1995: In February, it agreed to sell the Journal of Commerce, a 21,000-circulation daily business newspaper based in New York City, to the corporate parent of Britain’s Economist magazine for $115 million.
Four months after shutting down the Houston Post, Singleton bought one of New England’s finest papers, the Berkshire Eagle of Pittsfield, Mass., plus three smaller dailies and a weekly.
The Miller family parted with the Eagle and the other papers only reluctantly, but they had found themselves squeezed by an ill-starred $25 million investment in an office complex that went into business just as the New England economy collapsed.
As the sale closed, Singleton sold one paper in the chain, the Middletown (Conn.) Press, to Journal Register Co. for a reported $10 million. The sale reportedly angered the Miller family, which had insisted on selling the papers as a package and were said to be opposed to letting any of them go to Journal Register.
Mickey Mouse became a newspaper magnate in 1995, when Capital Cities/ABC was sold to Walt Disney Co. for $19 billion. Among the newspapers caught up in the sale were the Kansas City Star, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Belleville (Ill.) News-Democrat, Oakland Press of Pontiac, Mich., and Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Times Leader.
the rich and famous
For sheer controversy, however, the sale of one 13,000-circulation daily newspaper made almost as much noise in 1995 as those blockbusters.
When Thomson Newspaper Corp. announced in January that it planned to sell 25 dailies that no longer fit in its strategic plan, few could have guessed that the lone Arkansas paper among them would stir up so much controversy.
But the $22 million sale of the Northwest Arkansas Times to NAT L.C. ? a company controlled by the wealthy and influential Stephens family ? was challenged immediately by Community Publishers, which is owner of the 8,000-circulation Daily Record in nearby Bentonville and a company controlled by an equally famous Arkansas family name: James C. Walton, heir to the Wal-Mart Stores Inc. business.
In a lawsuit, Community Publishers charged the sale would create an effective newspaper monopoly in the Ozarks. On March 28, the antitrust division of the U.S. Justice Department also challenged the sale, essentially repeating the Community allegations in a separate lawsuit.
On July 22, U.S. District Judge J. Franklin Waters agreed with the challenges, and ordered the sale rescinded. A federal judge overturned the sale.
In September, Thomson sold the Northwest Arkansas Times to American Publishing Co., a unit of Conrad Black’s Hollinger Inc. now known as Hollinger International.
There was plenty of newspaper family controversy in a city with good restaurants, too.
Nan Tucker McEvoy, the principal shareholder of Chronicle Publishing Co. in San Francisco, sued the company and her relatives to regain her post as chairman of the board after directors convened in a special meeting April 19 to pass a bylaw prohibiting anyone older than 73 from sitting on the board.
McEvoy, regarded by other parts of the family as a troublemaker, is, as it happens, 75 years old.
She charged in a lawsuit that the measure was age discrimination and a denial of her cumulative voting rights under California law. The suit was not successful.
An important transition took place at the top of Knight-Ridder on March 25 when president P. Anthony Ridder replaced ailing James K. Batten as chief executive officer. Batten was injured severely in an October 1993 car accident that doctors eventually traced back to a malignant brain tumor. The tumor was removed in 1994, but Batten continued to fight cancer until he died on June 24 at the age of 59.
There was also change at the top of the biggest newspaper industry association. After five years as the sometimes controversial president and CEO of the Newspaper Association of America, Cathleen Black resigned, effective the end of the year, to take over the magazine division of Hearst Corp.
Black was replaced by John F. Sturm, the association’s senior vice president/public policy and general counsel since 1992.
Motor City mayhem
Change did not come peacefully in Detroit, which, in 1995, was the scene of a newspaper version of a long, hot summer.
On a sweltering evening in mid-July, some 2,500 journalists, pressmen, mailers, circulation workers and composing room employees from six unions walked off their jobs at the jointly produced Detroit Free Press and Detroit News.
Neither side expected a quick resolution to the labor dispute, which had been simmering for months. And as the exceptionally brutal Detroit summer gave way to a winter that turned harsh unusually early, there were almost no signs that the two sides were any closer together.
By publishing a combined edition at first, the Free Press and News managed to continue publishing without missing a single edition. After nine weeks, on Sept. 18, the papers resumed publishing normal, separate papers.
Violence and vandalism quickly became a hallmark of the strike, with both sides blaming the other for provocations. There have been no deaths or very serious injuries, but the strike has seen numerous arrests, crude bombs and continuing damage to newspaper vending boxes. Some scuffling at distribution centers or the papers’ main production plant in suburban Sterling Heights have been weekend rituals of the strike.
Early on, the newspapers were hurt by the desertion of many advertisers and subscribers, and a distribution system often delayed by picketing at the gates. For their part, the unions were hurt early by the large numbers of Newspaper Guild members who crossed their own picket lines.
Some said they crossed in protest of the violence and disagreement about union strategy, while others say they were succumbing to management pressure to resume work or be replaced, perhaps permanently.
Some big-name Detroit journalists crossed the picket lines, including cartoonist Richard Guindon and sportswriter Mitch Albom at the Free Press, and business columnist Jon Pepper and television writer Tim Kiska. Most of the 340 employees who have crossed picket lines came from the Guild.
The newspapers and the JOA have hired about 1,300 nonunion workers and served notice that they are satisfied with their leaner operation.
Violence and the threat of violence was an unfortunate journalistic theme in 1995.
The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City on the morning of April 19 sent shock waves through newspapers, as dozens raced to produce extras.
But it was actual shock waves from the truck bomb that tore through the offices of the 92-year-old Journal Record, a 3,600-circulation business daily located across the street from the federal building. Fortunately, there were no deaths or serious injuries at the paper. However, the blast destroyed access to the paper’s printing presses and most of its other production equipment.
The nearby Edmund Sun agreed to print the paper, and the University of Central Oklahoma opened its public relations office to the paper as a temporary newsroom and composing room.
A career bomber also transfixed newspapers during 1995.
The so-called Unabomber presented the New York Times and Washington Post with a wrenching journalistic and ethical dilemma when, on June 29, the serial bomber sent them copies of a 35,000-word, anti-technology manifesto and suggested that if either paper published the full text within 90 days, he would stop killing people with mail bombs.
After considerable internal and industry debate ? and at the urging of the nation’s top law enforcement authorities ? the two papers agreed to publish the manifesto in the Washington Post Sept. 19.
The O.J. trial
And then there was O.J.
After months of pretrial frenzy, the O.J. Simpson media circus reconvened Jan. 23 with an irresistible force ? a horde of journalists prompted by huge public interest ? confronting an immovable object: Trial Judge Lance Ito’s determination that courtroom reporters should be seen but not heard ? and maybe not seen, either.
Reporters were treated like suspects, searched each time they entered the courthouse and forced to get courtroom seating clearance every day. In May, Ito banned USA Today reporter Gale Holland and a Court TV commentator for whispering.
Even on the last day of the trial, Ito was taking shots at the press, warning jurors about to be released after months of sequestration to “expect the worst” from journalists seeking interviews.
“Judge Ito changed dramatically during the trial,” said Linda Deutsch, the Associated Press special correspondent who added O.J. to the long list of sensational trials she has covered. “He was a more laid-back guy at the beginning
. . . . By the end, he was almost tyrannical.”
Despite the obvious public interest, many Americans professed to be indifferent to the spectacle ? and one newspaper, the Carrollton, Ga., Times-Georgian, in April announced it would no longer publish news about the Simpson trial.
Reasons to be happy
Indeed, for many journalists, the Simpson circus was simply one more reason to be depressed, as it added the humiliation of following up on supermarket tabloid coverage to the other injuries inflicted by the business in 1995.
But there were powerful contrarian voices throughout the year, urging the industry to dispel the gloom.
“I think we spend an extraordinary amount of time, quite frankly, feeling sorry for ourselves . . . . If we don’t have our own people who are genuinely and honestly bullish about the future of newspapers and can articulate it to our staffs, then I don’t think we ought to be surprised when those who work for us are scared, wondering if there is a future,” Miami Herald publisher David Lawrence Jr. told the 72nd annual convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in April.
For one thing, the industry itself is not wallowing in despair ? but moving briskly with a determination to shape the future rather than be shaped by it.
By the end of 1995, even small weekly newspapers had home pages on the World Wide Web.
Another hopeful sign was the formation of New Century Network. Announced at the annual Newspaper Association of America convention, NCN is an alliance of eight big newspaper chains ? counting 185 dailies and 20,000 journalists among them ? that intends to create a network of online newspapers that will share advertising as well as information.
This industry can take heart, too, from the Poynter Institute report issued last spring that showed young people are reading newspapers with far more regularity than many might think.
According to the survey released at the annual American Society of Newspaper Editors convention, more than 90% of young people read some part of a newspaper occasionally during the week and about 30% read the paper every day.
There was at least one other reason to smile during 1995: On Jan. 6, the Wall Street Journal started a sports section that runs every Friday.
?(As if the newspaper industry had not been buffeted enough during 1995, the most famous newspaper reporter on the funny pages, Brenda Starr, made the above observation.)[Photo & Caption]
?(Mickey Mouse became a newspaper magnate in 1995, when Capital Cities/ABC was sold to Walt Disney Co. for $19 billion.) [Photo & Caption]
?(Corporate attempts to get Detroit Free Press publisher Neal Shine to stay on were not helped by the long and bitter strike at the Free Press and Detroit News) [Photo & Caption]
?(“The unprecedented and sudden rise in the price of newsprint caused the Post to lose any hope of viability in the the foreseeable future,” W. Dean Singleton said when he closed his Houston Post.) [Photo & Caption]
?(After five years as the sometimes controversial president and CEO of the Newspaper Association of America, Cathleen Black resigned to take over the magazine division of Hearst Corp.) [Photo & Caption]
?(An important transition took place at the top of Knight-Ridder Inc. on March 25 when president P. Anthony RIdder replaced ailing James K. Batten (above) as chief executive officer. Batten, who was diagnosed as having a malignant brain tumor, died on June 24 at the age of 59) [Photo & Caption]
?(Nan Tucker McEvoy, the principal shareholder of Chronicle Publishing Co. in San Francisco, sued the company and her relatives to regain her post as chairman of the board after directors. Her suit was not successful) [Photo & Caption]
?(What was described as the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history-the bombing of a nine-story federal office building in Oklahoma City-was front-page news around the world in April) [Photo & Caption]
?(The nine-month murder trial of O.J. Simpson was deemed by some members of the press as the “trial of the century”) [Photo & Caption]