John Carroll Hits Profit Focus, Explores ‘Crisis of the Soul’

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By: Joe Strupp

Former Los Angeles Times Editor John Carroll urged editors Wednesday to guard against what he called a ?milking” of the industry and increased corporate ownership whose only purpose is to make money.

During a luncheon speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors conference here, Carroll, who serves as a guest lecturer at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University, told a roomful of editors that their business needs to defend the ideas of journalism and ?rock-turning? against increased budget-cutting and bottom-line demands.

Under Carroll, the Times won a shelf of Pulitzers a few years back, but he exited the paper in the wake of Tribune Co.-ordered cutbacks.

?Like many of you I have been worrying lately what will become of us. More important, what will become of our newspapers,? Carroll said. ?What will the public know and what will the public not know if our poorly understood craft perishes??

He cited such coverage as the Philadelphia Inquirer?s uncovering of police beatings or the federal government?s spying on U.S. citizens exposed by The New York Times. ?Who will make the checks at city hall, who will go down to the courthouse every day or the police station?? he asked about a non-newspaper world. ?Who will inspect the tens of thousands of politicians who seek to govern?

?I have been thinking about our craft and the commerce that sustains it. I have been standing back from newsroom life trying to take in the entire picture. The big picture is full of complexities and it changes daily,? Carroll said. ?The economic rules that govern the newspaper business have changed,? partly due to the online revolution.

But he said, there is a ?more subtle problem ? a crisis of the soul….

?We know journalists who have lost their jobs on principle. Their first loyalty is to the reader,” Carroll said. ?We work in large organizations that hold a different view of duty. Our corporate superiors are sometimes genuinely perplexed. What makes these people tick, they wonder.? He noted a ?conflict between those who serve the reader and those who serve the shareholder,? adding it “might seem a bit abstract, but it is important.?

Carroll said bluntly that the goal of current newspaper owners is ?money, that?s it….There were times when owners were actually identifiable human beings,? he added. ?Unfortunately, the old owners are gone. If they did return, they?d be amazed at what has happened to the very idea of newspapers. Much of their work, unlike ours, is mathematical.”

He cited a lack of time-honored editors in the business who could focus on news coverage solely, such as Ben Bradlee and Gene Roberts, at top newspapers: ?There is no such ?pride of lions? roaming among us today. It is not entirely our fault, our jobs are harder then they were. Our corporate superiors regard our beliefs as quaint, wasteful. Our mission is more daunting than that of our predecessors. It is to save journalism. You and I know this isn?t going to be easy.?

Carroll then pointed to the movement toward somewhat automated news on the Web, on sites such as Yahoo or Google that often choose stories on the basis of popularity or reader interest rather then news value. ?It is not surprising that there is a backlash today against those who are presumed to be gatekeepers,? he said. ?The question here is whether a newspaper ought to lead or follow.?

He cited the example of a story about a man having sex with a horse in the Seattle area that received widespread Web attention: ?America already has enough cheesy consumer products.? He also recalled seeing a headline on a newspaper that stated, ?Does Jessica Simpson have a butt double?? declaring, ?this is a game we can?t get into.?

Carroll then linked such open decisions to editors being afraid to upset readers and give them what they need, instead of what the want. ?A newspaper ought to be willing to offend even its most loyal readers,? he said, recalling his decision as an editor at the Lexington (Ky) Herald-Leader years ago to expose a scandal at the University of Kentucky basketball team, which drew complaints and cancellations. He said some newspapers take a marketing approach, seeking to make a product without complaints.

?That?s fine if you are making toasters,? he said. ?But a newspaper that gets no complaints is a dead newspaper.?

Carroll then stressed the need for newspapers to continue as news finders, not just news presenters. ?Never before have the American people been so lavishly provided with news. But where does it come from?? he asked ?Some news announces itself, the rest is dug up by reporters. In my day, I almost never saw a television or radio reporter turning over rocks. New media are not creating their own staffs of reporters. Blogs, as noisy as they are, almost never have reporters.? He estimated 80% of news originates in newspapers.

He then turned to the strategy of newspaper leaders. ?We should be lighting candles for McClatchy, and for the families that own the New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal,? he said, noting that too many owners are going for ?milking a dying business for all it is worth. The symptoms of harvesting are staring us in the face.? He added that it is ?most especially, in high profit margins.? He said that the average newspaper profit margin remains 19.5%.

Carroll cited the growing influence of fund managers and investors, such as Bruce Sherman, who pressured Knight Ridder into selling after complaining his investment was not paying off well enough. ?We have seen a narrowing in the purpose of newspapers in the eyes of the owner,? he said. ?Gone is the notion that a newspaper must serve and lead, that it has an obligation to its community.

?To be the editor of a newspaper is still a privilege and often a joy,? Carroll added, then compared newspapers to doctors serving patients. ?I have every confidence that, over time, the doctors will prevail.?

During a question and answer session with the audience, John R. Block, publisher of the Blade in Toledo and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, asked what Carroll thought about the Associated Press selling content to search engines. ?Is it time to think about having the Associated Press pay US?? Block asked.

?The trouble is that the Associated Press is us,? Carroll answered, but added, ?I was troubled that the Associated Press started selling its stuff to Yahoo, I am not sure that is a good idea, it makes me uneasy.?

AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll then jumped up to defend her organization, telling the room that ?AP does sell news to internet providers. In our states, 20% to 70% of any state wire contains copy from your newspapers, about 5% of that ends up on any national wire.? But, she added, only ?10% of the national wires goes to Yahoo and other internet aggregators. Very, very, very little ends up on those Internet wires, and when they do it is often good stories that you have already gotten credit for.?

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