By: Mark Fitzgerald
IT WAS A year of falling circulation and of eroding public credibility that prompted an almost eschatological introspection in the newsroom ? yet it was a year full of smiles.
It was a year of booming profits, of galloping stock prices and newspaper sales that set records in both numbers and prices ? yet it was a year full of weeping and gnashing of teeth.
No year in any industry as sprawling as newspapers ever brings unalloyed joy or grief. Still, 1997 was an unusually volatile mix of the giddy and the grim.
Seven days in November, the 6th through the 13th, neatly symbolized the entire year in newspapering: On the first day, the Committee for Concerned Journalists kicked off a yearlong “period of national reflection” on the state of journalism with conference speakers who managed to paint newspapers as addicted to celebrity sensationalism and at the same time as bland and passionless.
On the last day, the 387,412-circulation Star Tribune in Minneapolis/St. Paul fetched $1.4 billion.
Wall Street debated whether the price McClatchy Newspapers paid was too high. Nevertheless, the fact remains that nobody pays anywhere near that kind of money for a business in a dying industry.
And in fact, the Star Tribune’s sale to McClatchy Newspapers was not even the biggest blockbuster of 1997. That honor belonged to Knight-Ridder Inc., which in April agreed to spend $1.65 billion for the Kansas City (Mo.) Star, Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram and two smaller dailies from the Walt Disney Co. Nor were these singular events. In May, E.W. Scripps Co. agreed to buy six dailies in Texas and South Carolina from Harte-Hanks Communications in a $775 million deal that includes a television and a radio station in San Antonio.
In 1996, broadcast properties were the real attraction in many big sales that included newspapers. But 1997 saw many more pure print deals. For instance, four months after A.H. Belo Corp. closed on its $1.5 billion purchase of the Providence (R.I.) Journal ? a deal that included nine TV stations ? Belo, publisher of the Dallas Morning News, bought outright the Press-Enterprise in Riverside, Calif. Belo had earlier acquired minority shares in the 163,000-circulation paper.
And in July, it was a cable television operator, Tele-Communications Inc., that acquired a newspaper publisher, Kearns-Tribune Co., owner of the Salt Lake Tribune in Salt Lake City, Utah. The stock transaction, which included four other papers in Idaho and Nevada, was valued at $731 million. Beyond the big deals, 1997’s newspaper transactions were clear signs that the industry is rationalizing. Many papers were bought, sold and swapped so chains could arrange their properties in sensible marketing “clusters.” Thus, for example, Hollinger International in October bought the Post-Tribune in Gary, Ind., from Knight-Ridder to extend the reach of its Chicago dailies and weeklies in a crescent along Lake Michigan from Wisconsin to northwestern Indiana. And for the same reason, Hollinger soon after shed 160 of the small-town papers that had been the foundation of its American chain.
There were ready buyers for all sorts of papers in 1997. “You’ve got cheap money, lots of buyers, a strong economy, and newsprint prices that are in check. Plus you have an intangible element: a new bullishness about newspapers,” said Owen Van Essen of the Santa Fe, N.M.-based newspaper broker Dirks, Van Essen & Associates.
In 1997, 16 years after Ted Turner’s famous boast at a publishers convention that “the newspaper as we know it will be dead in 10 years,” the newspaper was not simply alive and kicking ? it was flourishing.
On the other hand, plenty of newspaper people had plenty of occasions during the year to wonder if perhaps Ted Turner wasn’t on to something back then. After all, he predicted the death of the newspaper “as we know it” ? and by 1997 the old newspaper model and its “new paradigm” were not exactly twins.
Certain events during the year fueled newspaper journalists’ long-held ? indeed, almost Jungian ? fears that corporate business interests were overrunning the lovingly built Great Wall around the newsroom.
No single event exercised these journalists more than the changes Times Mirror Co. CEO Mark H. Willes wrought at the company’s flagship Los Angeles Times in October.
Announcing his intention to add 500,000 copies to the paper’s 1,050,000 average daily circulation, Willes introduced a radical reorganization giving each section of the paper not only its own editor ? but advertising, promotion and circulation executives as well. Each section, in other words, becomes an integrated business unit.
Willes scoffed at critics who said the structure threatened the integrity of news coverage. “In spite of what some have asserted,” he wrote in a memo to the newsroom, “we have no interest in reducing editorial quality, standards or independence . . . . If we ever broke trust with our readers, we would lose them and all the dollars our advertisers directed to them.”
Willes will personally oversee these changes: A couple of weeks earlier he named himself publisher, after the unexpected departure of Richard T. Schlosberg III, who took retirement at age 53. Editor Shelby Coffey III departed in October and was succeeded by managing editor Michael Parks.
Business and editorial management also merged at the top of the paper. Jeffrey S. Klein, senior vice president of consumer marketing, was given the added responsibilities of overseeing business planning for almost all Times news sections. His new title: senior vice president and general manager, news.
Times Mirror, however, was hardly alone in its open dedication to improving its bottom line. Having invested $1.65 billion in the Walt Disney newspapers, Knight-Ridder also served notice that its properties have to pull their weight. Five dailies that the chain said were not meeting profit standards were put up for sale in June.
And Knight-Ridder, too, lost a top editor when Maxwell E.P. King resigned at the Philadelphia Inquirer.
The paper has been under a mandate to double its profit margin, from 8% in 1995.
To some in the industry this trend is not good.
Longtime newspaper consultant Leo Bogart, for instance, sees a slippery slope: “If it’s OK to give readers what they want, then why not give advertisers whatever they want? That’s never been what journalism is about.”
However, at least one major study in 1997 suggested that what readers like most about their local paper is not its news ? but its advertising.
Respondents to a big and detailed media usage study said that in general ads in newspapers better meet their expectations than does the quality of news coverage. The study was sponsored by the Newspaper Association of America (NAA) and the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE).
ASNE in July launched a three-year, $1 million “credibility initiative” to examine fully what makes daily journalism credible ? and determine what can be done to turn around growing public distrust and dislike of news organizations.
There was abundant evidence of that dislike in 1997. In March, for instance, a jury returned an astounding $223 million libel verdict against Dow Jones & Co. over a 1993 Wall Street Journal article reporting on practices of the now-defunct Houston investment firm MMAR. Clearly, the jury intended to put punishment in its punitive damage award, which was overturned by the trial judge in May. The “actual” damages of $22.7 million, however, were upheld. Dow Jones is asking for a new trial.
Newspapers did not need juries to challenge their credibility, however: Sometimes papers themselves did it.
A notable 1997 example was an extraordinary May 11 column by San Jose Mercury News executive editor Jerry Ceppos that characterized the California paper’s August 1996 “Dark Alliance” series as flawed and not up to the newspaper’s own standards in several respects.
The series by Gary Webb received national attention ? and unleashed a furious debate among newspapers ? for its allegations that the Central Intelligence Agency helped fuel Los Angeles’ crack cocaine problem by permitting supporters of the Nicaraguan anti-communist contras to sell the drug to raise money for arms.
The Mercury News “fell short at every step of our process ? in the writing, editing and production of our work,” Ceppos wrote. Investigative reporter Webb ? who stoutly defended the series and said he had four more stories ready for publication that “confirms and advances” the story ? was shunted off to the Sacramento news bureau and left the paper in the fall.
But newspapers took the biggest blows to their public image in 1997 because of two tragedies: The Christmas 1996 murder of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey and the Aug. 31 car crash death of Diana, Princess of Wales.
When the supermarket tabloid the Globe published crime-scene photographs from the Ramsey murder, many stores pulled the issue. Circulations of all the supermarket tabloids took a hit during the year, in part because of public revulsion over their journalistic style.
But as newspapers saw in the O.J. Simpson
case, the public is making less and less of a
distinction between the supermarket tabloids and their mainstream counterparts. That was especially true in the rush to blame Diana’s death on the
so-called paparazzi. The car carrying Diana
and her boyfriend was speeding through Paris
in what was thought to be an attempt to elude
the photographers. In Europe especially, but
even in a few spots in the United States, photo-
graphers covering events surrounding Diana’s death were jeered as “murderers.” Though it later emerged
that Diana’s driver was drunk, the incident nevertheless triggered another round of breast-beating by journalists.
In addition to the studies and discussions commissioned by ASNE, the Pew Charitable Trust, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Freedom Forum and others, the old idea of a national news council was periodically revived during 1997. In March, for instance, the Society of Professional Journalists then-president, Steve Geimann, suggested SPJ would be a good venue for a revived national news council.
Labor Peace, Quietly
For all the journalistic restiveness in newsrooms, 1997 was a relatively peaceful year on the labor scene.
For the first time since 1982, the Newspaper Guild at the Chicago Sun-Times agreed to a contract without setting a strike deadline. The four-year deal called for a graduated pay increase of 10.5%.
At the Washington Post, the Newspaper Guild has worked since June without a contract. The local has picketed occasionally and at the end of the year bought radio advertising spots to criticize the newspaper’s negotiating posture.
The Guild clashed with Knight-Ridder when the chain bought the Monterey County (Calif.) Herald in an asset sale that did not include the contract with 130 unionized editorial employees. By year’s end, there had been about a half-dozen fruitless negotiating sessions.
There were virtually no fractious negotiations with production unions reported during the year. The reason for this sudden labor peace can be summarized in one word: Detroit.
On Valentine’s Day ? 584 days after 2,500 workers walked off their jobs at the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press and their joint-operating agency, Detroit Newspapers ? the six striking editorial and production unions unconditionally offered to return to work.
Despite the unions’ attempts to portray the offer as a new strategy for ultimate victory ? and despite the unquestioned damage the strike did to the newspapers’ circulation, advertising and community reputation ? the Detroit strike was widely perceived as a failure, and a cautionary note to unions at other newspapers.
Since that offer, relatively few strikers have actually returned to work. The newspapers and JOA have so far kept their often stated public commitment of continued employment for the 1,300 permanent replacements hired during the strike. But while failing to win on the picket line, the strikers have done relatively well in legal proceedings.
The National Labor Relations Board determined the strike was caused by the newspapers’ unfair labor practices, although a federal judge on Aug. 14 refused to grant an injunction that would have forced the papers to hire back the former strikers.
And in late October, an administrative law judge ruled that the newspapers had permanently replaced workers ? making about 800 strikers eligible for unemployment benefits. The checks began arriving around Thanksgiving, reported the Detroit Sunday Journal, the weekly begun by strikers.
Deaths In The Family
As good as business was, the number of two-newspaper cities declined again in 1997. The afternoon Phoenix Gazette published its last issue Jan. 18 after 116 years of operation in Arizona. And on Oct. 11, E.W. Scripps Co. terminated its joint operating agreement and folded the El Paso Herald-Post. El Paso had been the last Texas city to have two competing daily newspapers.
Death of a far more horrific sort touched the weekly News and Sentinel in Cranbrook, N.H., Aug. 19 when a local troublemaker nurturing an old grudge against a municipal judge went on a killing spree that wound right through the newsroom. Editor Dennis Joos, 51, was shot to death as he struggled to tackle the gunman, 67-year-old Carl Drega.
Californian’s reputation as a forum for responsible discourse.
“Calls for violence against specific individuals, rhetorical or not, present a clear threat to the target’s physical safety when coupled with the person’s physical location.”
Tate said in an interview that Branum later “expressed regret that he had embarrassed the newspaper. He said he was writing tongue-in-cheek. I got the impression that he regretted the column.” The editor added that the column “unfortunately” got by the opinion editor and the night editor. All parties still have their jobs, Tate said.
Branum ? a 22-year-old senior history and political science major who joined the Daily Cal three months ago and was appointed columnist on the basis of samples he submitted in a competition ? contended that the controversy has been “grossly overblown.” He said the column used the president’s daughter as “merely a symbol of an elitist university that prides itself on the number of freshman applicants it turns down. Also, it was written for the university community and was not intended for wide publication. I’m surprised that it got out.”
?(Knight-Ridder chief Tony Ridder was in a buying mood last year. His $1.67 billion acquisition, announced in April, of the Kansas City Star and three other dailies from Walt Disney set a record and the pace of newspaper acquisitions for the rest of the year.) [Photo & Caption]
?(In one of the more unusual acquisition of the year, cable TV operator Tele-Communications Inc. took over Kearns-Tribune Corp., closely held parent company of the Salt Lake Tribune, above, in a stock deal worth $731 million.) [Photo & Caption]
?( W.Dean Singleton, an aggressive newspaper acquirer for a decade, bought Knight-Ridder’s Press-Telegram (circulation 104,000 daily, 125,000 Sunday) in Long Beach, Calif., in November, and the late Jack Kent Cooke’s Los Angeles Daily News (circulation 202,000 daily, 430,000 Sunday a month later. With the Lowell, Mass., Sun gobbled up earlier in the year, Singleton’s Media News Group is the nation’s eieighth largest chain, with 33 dailies.) [Photo & Caption]
?(MOVED ON-Some of those who have left a mark and left newspaper positions in the past year include (clockwise from top left) Richard Schlosberg, and Shelby Coffey III, resigned as publisher and editor, respectively, of the Los Angeles Times; Dennis Joos, editor fo the weekly News and Sentinel in Calebrook, N.H., was shot and killed trying to protect others from a berserk killer stalking the newsroom; Maxwell E.P. King, resigned as editor, respectively, of the Los Angeles Times; Dennis Joos, editor of the weekly News and Sentinel in Colebrook, N.H., was shot and killed trying to protect others from a berserk killer stalking the newsroom;
Maxwell E.P. King, resigned as editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer to write
editorials; Mike Royko, archetypical Chicago columnist, died of natural causes; Howard H. “Tim” Hays, became chairman emeritus after selling his family’s Riverside Press-Enterprise.) [Photo & Caption]
?( E&P Web Site: http://www.mediainfo. com)
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher January 3, 1998)