By: Mark Fitzgerald
Newspapers in 1994 moved toward reinventing themselves as a
mass medium that appeals to divergent groups and individuals sp.
IN 1994, A newspaper was a voice on a phone, a shimmering series of pixels on a computer screen, a CD-ROM disk.
A newspaper was a fax. A menu-driven database. An electronic grocery-ordering service.
A newspaper in 1994 was a column written by a lesbian. Movie reviews written by high school students. A poem written by a housewife in Asbury Park, N.J.
A newspaper was a story written in Portuguese, across the page from one written in Creole, inserted over a section written in Spanish, published under a flag written in English.
A newspaper was a community meeting to talk about local crime. A paper Menorah cutout to combat anti-Semitism. A brown bag lunch with editors at the mall.
A newspaper was also, in 1994, a product manufactured at printing plants, consisting of black ink with splashes of color on newsprint.
But you would hardly know it.
Mass medium for new masses
For, in 1994, American newspapers worked perhaps more furiously than they ever have to reinvent themselves as a mass medium, but a mass medium that appeals to an increasingly divergent population and appeals individually to persons of any age, color, ethnic origin, gender, sexual orientation, or category yet to be defined.
Are you a child? Check out the Chicago Tribune’s Kid News section every Tuesday.
Do you speak Spanish? Read La Raza Domingo inserted in your Sunday Chicago Sun-Times. Or the Los Angeles Times’ Nuestro Tiempo. Or Tribune Co.’s Exito. Or the Santa Barbara (Calif.) News-Press’ El Nuevo Tiempo.
Are you from Brazil? The Miami Herald has added a weekly page of Brazilian news in Portuguese and a weekly page of Haitian news in Creole, in addition to its complete Spanish-language paper, El Nuevo Herald.
Are you gay? The Detroit News’ Deb Price writes a syndicated column from a lesbian perspective. An Albuquerque-based news service, GayNet News Service, is available to provide “gay-sensitive” news.
Are you an American Indian? You’ll never read the words, “Washington Redskins” or see a reference to the Cleveland Indians mascot, Chief Wahoo, in the Portland Oregonian or the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Are you an aging baby boomer? No need to change the prescription of your eyeglasses: The New York Times has increased the size of its Imperial typeface from 8.5 to 8.7 points.
Do aging baby boomers honk you off, Generation X denizen? Then read the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel’s XS “alternative” paper. Or wait for the Sunday insert magazine Tilt to debut this April.
They feel your pain.
In this process of reinvention, newspapers ? sometimes with careful planning and sometimes haphazardly ? moved to change their content, their employee demographics and their product mixes, to prevail, or just survive, in an economy and culture that is evolving in an uncertain direction.
Indeed, in 1994, the economy and culture sent decidedly mixed messages to newspapers.
On the one hand, revenues, which had begun firming in 1993, were up nearly across the board, and the year ended with a very merry Christmas season indeed.
Through three-quarters of the year, ad spending was up about 7%, and classified ? a perennial leader that had shown signs of fatigue in recent years ? was up a vigorous 11.5%. Even national advertising increased: It was up about 8%, according to the Newspaper Association of America (NAA).
In 1994, newspapers could still claim to command the largest share of advertising revenue of any medium ? 23% of all U.S. advertising.
Wall Street began to warm up to newspaper stocks again, although not nearly as affectionately as most publishers would have liked.
Newspaper properties began to move again. Indeed, there was a small-sized revival of the mid-1980s blockbuster newspaper sales. On the other hand, circulations fell throughout the year for the nation’s biggest newspapers.
And the long-dreaded newsprint price crunch began to close in on newspapers by the end of 1994.
The price of a metric ton of newsprint soared 33% in 1994 to about $550. Predictions of a $600 roll by the middle of 1995 were rife as the year closed.
For newspapers, which typically spend upwards of 20% of their operating costs on newsprint alone, the aggressive pricing looks to be the disaster predicted two years ago by industry leaders such as Tribune Co. chairman and CEO Charles T. Brumback.
To prepare for this irresistible crunch, some papers, such as the Wall Street Journal and Miami Herald, announced layoffs that reached through their buildings and into the newsrooms.
And 1994 proved a fatal year for a few papers.
The year was only 14 days old when the first one fell: After 143 years, the Sacramento Union ceased publication with a final front-page headline that read, “We’re history.”
On June 16, the 102-year-old Oxnard (Calif.) Press-Courier folded.
Eleven days later, the 90-year-old Ypsilanti (Mich.) Press was shuttered by Garden State Newspapers without even a chance to display a bittersweet goodbye headline.
A brief and unusual newspaper war in the tiny town of Shenandoah, Iowa ? population 5,500 ? ended with a fatality: The 112-year-old Shenandoah Evening Sentinel was bought and folded by its upstart rival, the Valley News.
A nation of
In addition to this mixed economic situation, Americans themselves also delivered a good-news, bad-news message to newspapers.
On the one hand, fully 128 million Americans, or 69% of all adults, read a Sunday paper every week. By contrast, all three major network evening news shows draw a combined audience of just 41 million viewers.
Yet Americans spend far more time ? nearly 100 more hours each year ? listening to recorded music than they do reading the paper.
And Americans are not particularly loyal readers, either. An NAA study late in the year found that annual subscription churn levels at big metro papers climb as high as 70%.
Even more worrisome, public disgust with the news media in general has never been more palpable than it was in 1994.
Americans may sit in front of their TV sets, hour after hour, enraptured by the details of the O.J. Simpson murder trial or Susan Smith’s killing of her children or Heidi Fleiss’ prostitution trial, but they feel somehow shameful because of it.
And they blame that feeling on “the media” ? television, supermarket tabloid, newspaper, all are held in equal disregard.
And plenty of forces were urging on this press-bashing.
At times, for example, Judge Lance Ito seemed by his comments and threats to be presiding over a trial of the press, and not that of a former football star.
In the summer’s hit movie, The Client, a reporter from the fictional Memphis Standard is seen distorting the truth and jeopardizing a boy’s life to get a story. Audiences cheered a scene in which a judge ? acting, undoubtedly, against the spirit and letter of the U.S. and Tennessee constitutions ? throws the reporter out of a hearing, after threatening him with jail just for showing up in the courtroom.
Even some journalists share much of the public’s contempt.
In fact, one such critic is no less a journalism icon than Carl Bernstein, whose Watergate expos?s with colleague Bob Woodward supposedly launched thousands of young journalists into careers as ink-stained wretches.
In a speech to the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association convention last fall, Bernstein said the mainstream press had become “bastardized and dominated by . . . Idiot Culture.
“We are moving in the direction of being porn publishers or the equivalent of it,” Bernstein said.
The “appalling condition of so much of our journalism,” he added, “has more to do with our own abdication of responsibility” than any government fiat.
The mainstream press’ increasing embrace of sleaze is destroying its credibility, the investigative reporter said.
Even in the newspaper office, the mood was mixed.
A major survey of industry executives, conducted by the Foundation for American Communications and American Opinion Research Inc., found that while publishers were generally optimistic about the future of newspapers, editors were the most pessimistic.
Overall, however, only one in four newspaper executives rated the industry as “very healthy.” About the same number complained about low pay and said their own opportunities for personal growth were limited.
Twenty percent of industry executives contended that hard work is not rewarded at their papers.
Some journalists apparently feel that way, too, as evidenced by the unusual level of labor discontent that surfaced in 1994.
In November, 2,600 employees in nine unions walked off their jobs at the jointly operated San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner.
The bitter, two-week strike was fought using both low and high-tech tactics. For instance, management and the unions each published an online electronic paper during the work stoppage.
More traditionally, each side accused the other of violence, and several vehicles were vandalized.
A striker also was killed, electrocuted while apparently trying to cut power to a newspaper distribution center.
Additionally, in November, pressmen at Southam Inc.’s Vancouver Sun and the Province in Vancouver, B.C., walked off their jobs, leading to a lockout of more than 1,000 other unionized workers.
After nine days, the dispute was settled with a new, five-year agreement.
Chicago Sun-Times Newspaper Guild members took their paper to the brink of a strike Nov. 7, but reached an agreement on a new, three-year contract with the tabloid’s new owners.
In St. Louis, Guild members reached agreement with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in December on a new contract, after more than 18 months of glacially paced negotiations. Eschewing strike votes or more traditional tactics, the Guild hired an activist experienced in “corporate campaigns” and held information pickets at high-profile community events.
Guild members at the Providence Journal-Bulletin continued their negotiations as the year ended. In September, members overwhelmingly rejected the company’s “last and final offer.” Guild president Frank Santafede said in late December that management had made a “second final offer” and that some progress was being made.
If this union activity signaled a new restiveness in the newsroom, it certainly wasn’t scaring off new owners.
Newspapers were hot properties in 1994, and there were some blockbuster sales.
In the year’s biggest maneuver, family-owned Park Communications Inc. was sold during 1994.
Two investors with no experience in newspapers, Donald Tomlin and Gary Knapp, bought the Ithaca, N.Y.-based chain for a whopping $711 million, a multiple of about 22 times earnings that recalled the heyday of newspaper’s prices in the mid-1980s.
Park publishes 106 papers in 21 states and owns 22 radio stations and nine television stations.
Morris Communications of Augusta, Ga., spent $275 million to buy another historic, family-owned chain, Stauffer Communications.
Stauffer owned 20 daily newspapers in 12 states, including the flagship 63,500-circulation Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal. The sale also included eight weeklies and shoppers, and the nationally circulated papers Grit and Capper’s. Stauffer owned extensive broadcasting properties, including seven television stations, four radio stations and several radio networks.
After buying smaller, monopoly papers in the Midwest, Hollinger Inc.’s American Publishing Co. unit entered a big-city competitive market, with the $180-million cash purchase March 31 of the 535,000-circulation Chicago Sun-Times.
Then, nearly nine months later, on Dec. 23, American bought from Pulitzer Publishing Co. the 56,000-circulation Chicago Daily Southtown, its 400,000-circulation, free-distribution shopper and its commercial printing operation. The price was $39.1 million in cash, before post-closing adjustments.
Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Ltd. in February sold the Boston Herald to its publisher, Patrick Purcell.
Terms were not disclosed, although published reports put the price between $10 million and $20 million. The sale allowed Murdoch to acquire WFXT-TV in Boston for his expanding Fox television network.
Also in the Boston area, Fidelity Capital announced in December that it had agreed to buy three dailies and 11 weeklies from Harte-Hanks Communications Inc. Terms were not disclosed.
Gannett, an active buyer of newspapers in the boom years of the 1980s, sold a paper in 1994. The Omaha World-Herald Co. bought the Record in Stockton, Calif., for a reported $75 million in cash.
And, in 1994, Roseanne and Tom Arnold ? the entertainers whose celebrated marriage broke up noisily during the year ? got out of the newspaper business.
They sold the chain of five small Iowa weeklies they bought in 1993 to a company run by his family.
As impressive as these sales were, even more industry attention was focused on creating, or forging alliances with, electronic information services.
Big chains such as Knight-Ridder Inc. and Tribune Co. continued to invest in ? or buy outright ? electronic services, ranging from encyclopedias on CD-ROM to grocery-ordering services to country music videos to cable TV properties.
The biggest of these transactions took place between two newspaper companies when Cox Enterprises Inc. agreed in June to buy Times Mirror Co.’s cable television operations in a cash and stock transaction valued at $2.3 billion.
Cox, publisher of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution newspapers, was also in the middle of one of the year’s biggest multimedia disappointments.
In April, Cox and Southwestern Bell Corp. called off their deal to create a $4.9-billion cable television partnership.
The merger between a newspaper company and a regional Bell operating company (RBOC) ? natural enemies in the mythology of a dwindling number of newspaper industry leaders ? foundered because of indications the federal government intends to tighten cable regulations that had been growing looser.
But electronic publishing is not just for media giants.
Newspapers such as the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Gazette and the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer are among the many small and medium-sized papers that offer online versions of their printed product.
And the New York Times, which now earns just 10% of its revenue from electronic media, announced late in the year that it, too, would become much more involved in electronics.
As a first step, the paper in December announced it had renegotiated its agreement with Mead Data Central to allow the newspaper to package its information in more electronic forms.
Going online was just one of the ways newspapers attempted to stay in touch with their changing markets in 1994.
One especially popular strategy was to adopt a movement that has become known as public journalism or civic journalism.
In public journalism, newspapers become directly involved in trying to solve community problems.
For instance, in North Carolina, the Charlotte Observer, in news coverage and community meetings, attempted to resolve a local dispute over teenagers who cruised their cars in a park.
In Norfolk, Va., the Virginian-Pilot and Ledger-Star newspapers appointed a “public editor” and sponsored a series of community meetings to talk about crime.
This kind of journalism is seen by its proponents as a way to combat a growing public perception that newspapers have a different agenda from their readers.
In fact, a Times Mirror survey during 1994 found that 71% of Americans believe that newspapers “get in the way” of people solving their problems.
“This is a marvelous role for newspapers to play ? to make these things happen. Otherwise, various groups will bicker among themselves and not come to the table and learn how to resolve whole community problems,” said one advocate, Boise Idaho Statesman publisher Pamela Meals.
Other journalists, however, think public journalism is just so much hype.
“Too much of what’s called public journalism appears to be what our promotion department does, only with a different kind of name and a fancy, evangelistic fervor,” Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie said at this year’s Associated Press Managing Editors (APME) convention.
Similarly, Philadelphia Daily News editorial page editor Richard Aregood argued that it is journalists ? not panels of readers ? who are responsible for producing newspapers.
“We are abandoning a piece of our own jobs if what we are doing is asking people what we should do,” Aregood said. “Are we to draw up panels of our readers and ask them what they want and put them in the newspaper? We may as well go into the mirror business.”
In another sometimes controversial approach to increasing press credibility, APME in 1994 finally reached agreement on a new ethics code after rejecting a detailed and restrictive proposal.
Strength in ‘Unity’
There was much more agreement in the industry about the need to develop a diverse workforce.
And if, in 1994, there was no dramatic increase in numbers of minorities working in newspapers, there was a palpable sense of pride and hope.
The main reason was the stunning success of Unity ’94, the first-ever joint meeting of the major minority journalists’ groups: the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the Asian American Journalists Association and the Native American Journalists Association.
More than 5,000 journalists attended the meeting in Atlanta in late July ? and at times in the sprawling job fair it seemed as if an equal number of recruiters were pursuing them.
Not long after Unity ’94, the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association met on its own ? attracting 400 journalists and signing up its 1,000th member.
Not all progress was smooth along these lines, however.
For instance, for the second year in a row, the New York Daily News found itself the recipient of the “Thumbs Down” award from the black journalists’ group.
NABJ was irritated at the tabloid’s treatment of former columnist Earl Caldwell, who either resigned or was fired after the paper killed a column alleging a white police officer was a serial rapist who had victimized six black males. And the Sacramento Bee apologized for using the word “nigger” in a Feb. 4 editorial cartoon that was intended to be anti racist.
It was not only winds of change that buffeted newspapers in 1994, however. Real wind ? and earth and fire, too ? caused problems.
Natural disasters hit early and often in 1994. On Jan. 17, an earthquake that registered 6.6 on the Richter scale and was centered in California’s San Fernando Valley disrupted newspapers throughout the Los Angeles area.
Damage to the Los Angeles Daily News headquarters in Woodland Hills and its production facility in Santa Clarita Valley was so severe that editorial and production staffs were forced out.
The Pasadena Star-News opened its newsroom so Daily News reporters could cover the quake. Power was knocked out at the Los Angeles Times, the Simi Valley Enterprise and the Thousand Oaks News-Chronicle.
La Opinion, the Spanish-language paper, lost electrical power and the microwave link to its production facility.
The year ended with a battering in South Florida by tropical storm Gordon, which caused floods that disrupted delivery at numerous papers.
On the go
There were some major personnel changes at newspapers in 1994.
Joseph Lelyveld succeeded Max Frankel as the executive editor of the New York Times on July 1, and the Times surprised some by naming newspaper legend Eugene Roberts as managing editor.
Newsday announced the departure of its longtime publisher, president and chief executive officer, Robert Johnson, on the same day that the Audit Bureau of Circulations released figures showing the Long Island tabloid and its New York version had the steepest circulation drop of the nation’s biggest papers.
Gannett Co. removed Frank Vega from its Gannett Newspaper Operating Committee after the executive paid more than $98,000 to settle federal Securities and Exchange (SEC) charges that he and another Gannett executive used illegal insider information to make a profit, trading on the stock of an upstate New York bank.
However, Gannett retained Vega as head of Detroit Newspapers, the joint operating agency that runs the business and production operations of Gannett’s Detroit News and Knight-Ridder Inc.’s Detroit Free Press. Gannett placed the other executive, Gannett News Media Group president Thomas J. Farrell, on administrative leave. The SEC charged that Farrell, an outside director of the bank, initiated the insider trading scheme by tipping off friends.
In Warren, Ohio, newspaper reporter Lisa Abraham wound up in jail, but for far nobler reasons than insider trading.
Abraham, a reporter at the Tribune Chronicle, was jailed for three weeks for refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating a county official. She was released when the grand jury’s term lapsed.
?( It was not only winds of change that buffeted newspapers in 1994, however. Real wind-and earth and fire, too-caused problems. Natural disasters hit early and often in 1994.) [Photo & Caption]
?( At times, O.J. Simpson trial judge Lance Ito seemed by his comments and threats to be presiding over a trial of the press, and not that of a former football star.) [Photo & Caption]
?(In a speech to the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association convention last fall, former Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein said the mainstream press had become “bastardized and dominated by…Idiot Culture.”) [Photo & Caption]
?(In November, Newsday announced the departure of its longtime publisher, president and chief executive officer, Robert Johnson, on the same day that the Audit Bureau of Circulations released figures showing the Long Island tabloid and its New York version had the steepest circulation drop of the nation’s biggest papers.)[Photo & Caption]
?(Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Ltd. in February sold the Boston Herald to its publisher, Patrick Purcell.)[Photo & Caption]