Editors Call For Forum On Profits-Quality Question

By: Joe Strupp

A highly charged debate over profit margins versus newspaper quality broke out last week at the annual American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) conference as two of the industry’s top executives — John W. Madigan and Tony Ridder — were called on to explain their strategies for maintaining “core news values” in tight times. ASNE had just reported the loss of nearly 2,000 newsroom jobs in the past year.

The tone was set when outgoing ASNE President Tim McGuire, editor of the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, opened the Wednesday session with a fiery speech decrying the growing push for profits by newspaper companies. “Editors and staff feel scared,” he said. “Editors and staff feel powerless. Editors and staff feel isolated.” He urged editors and publishers to find a solution that helps both the news and business sides of the paper. “We must decide today whether we are going to take newspapers forward with a genuine sense of values and commitment or if we are going to choose the path of milking our companies of every last dime,” said McGuire. “If we do that, we will die.”

McGuire offered a number of practical prescriptions and called for a national convocation of editors and newspaper executives to set priorities for both quality and fair profit levels, earning a standing ovation when he concluded. Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of The Washington Post, had made much the same urgent plea for dialogue when he addressed the ASNE board two days earlier.

On Thursday morning, at a panel discussion on the future of newspapers, Sandra Mims Rowe, editor of The Oregonian in Portland, said that journalists at many papers feel the “culture” at their papers is “driven by profits.” But two of the industry executives on the panel — Ridder, chairman and CEO of Knight Ridder, and Madigan, chairman and CEO of the Tribune Co. — defended their companies’ cost-cutting efforts over the past year, while declaring profits were not their sole interest.

“You can’t take a rubber stamp,” Madigan said, “and say this is what profit margins should be, because each company is different.” Madigan insisted that great journalism and high profits “can go hand-and-hand,” but he reminded editors that “in the end, it is still a business enterprise. It’s fantasy land to think that anyone will keep throwing more and more money at quality.”

Ridder affirmed that he wanted his company to be “a top-tier financial performer.” After tightening his company’s belt during the past year, he feels his papers are now “appropriately” staffed and still producing “great journalism.” While willing to participate in the kind of meetings proposed by McGuire and Downie, he expressed worries that they might result in the setting of profit-level ceilings. “You are not going to get a company to agree that if you reach a certain profit margin, you can’t go above it,” he said.

Madigan declared that newspapers still have “a great future,” and Ridder said he was “very optimistic” about the coming years, despite the continuing advertising shocks.

The panel ended on a barbed note. An audience member, Narda Zacchino, assistant executive editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, said she was looking to fill two editing positions at her paper and that many editors at the convention had suggested she talk to people at Knight Ridder papers who supposedly were anxious to leave that company. Ridder coolly replied that he’d been with his company for 35 years “and we’ve been feeding off the Chronicle” for new staffers all that time. The audience laughed –uncomfortably.

The convention also included appearances by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who defended the Pentagon’s stance on war information; Sen. Tom Daschle, who urged editors to be on the lookout for government efforts to tighten access; and Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge. Before the convention opened, however, organizers had to contend with a broken water pipe that flooded meeting rooms at the JW Marriott Hotel where the annual event was scheduled to take place. ASNE officials moved all events to another hotel.

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