Newspaper Through the Rearview Mirror

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Former editors would seem to be ideal newspaper customers. After all, they’ve proven themselves loyal to an embattled industry. They’re interested in news. They’ve been in the hot seat themselves, so they’re unlikely to think newspapers are just another cog in the biased mainstream media. Surely, they are also more forgiving of a paper’s lapses.

Think again.

In separate interviews with seven former editors who ran newsrooms, E&P conducted a focus group of sorts on their newspaper-reading habits, now that picking up a paper is a choice, not a job.

Some ex-editors, it turns out, think that their local paper is pretty mediocre, with one or two good writers on the staff, tops. They’re not much more likely to be subscribers than their neighbors, and it’s not because they’re reading newspaper Web sites.

Forget the mantra of “local, local, local” that they preached back in the newsroom. A few former editors now confess they never follow their local news, and they don’t pick up the local community weekly.

And those big Sunday packages they greenlighted for years? Now that they’re readers, they find them way too long, too obvious, and maddeningly, eye-glazingly dull.

Walker Lundy, former top editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer and the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press, recalled one of those Sunday series that ran earlier this year in The Charlotte Observer, the paper he buys since retiring to North Carolina. It was about the rising cost of treating the increasing number of elderly prisoners. “Now, I suppose if I thought about it without reading this piece, I could have thought, yes, there’s more older prisoners and, yes, it must be expensive to treat them,” he says. “Did I really need this piece to tell me something this obvious?”

Lundy adds that these days, he never reads big Sunday projects all the way to the end.

In newsrooms, Lundy spent a solid hour and a half every day reading newspapers, and says he looked down his nose at people who weren’t similarly well-informed. But now? “I’d have to say the biggest surprise [about retirement] is how quickly I stopped being a news junkie,” he admits.

Other former editors may not go quite that far, but they are clearly more selective in what they read. (All of them are men; until recent years, few women got a chance to serve as editor or executive editor.)

Jim Squires, the former Chicago Tribune editor who now breeds thoroughbreds in Kentucky, still describes himself as a news junkie, but he’s got a long list of stories he assiduously avoids. Features sections and people sections seem to be filled with celebrity news, he says: “I could give a [hoot] less who Britney Spears is with. And consumer self-help, that ‘how-am-I-going-to-help-myself’ stuff? Never read it.”

Former Detroit Free Press Executive Editor Heath J. Meriwether, who also served as publisher during his 16 years at the paper, makes a point of reading columnists such as Tom Friedman of The New York Times and Mitch Albom at his old paper. But by e-mail from his home on the Hudson River in New York, he adds: “As a reader and consumer of news, it’s remarkable to me how selfish my newspaper reading has become. I’m not willing to plunge into every government story out of a sense of duty.”

Back in Detroit, Meriwether recalls, the staff would joke about “DBIs,” the dull but important stories that “take the story a quarter-turn further without offering anything new.” Now he finds his eyes glazing over at a succession of stories about, say, filibusters over judicial nominees: “Editors need to give readers a break on some of this stuff.”

Some Rude Awakenings

Now that they’re on the other side of the paper, nearly every editor confesses to some regret or other about his own news judgment.

“That nagging little voice that used to be in the back of my head that I often ignored when I was an editor — the one that said, these stories are too long and too boring — that little voice has come to the fore,” says Lundy. “I see a lot of stories that I read and go, ‘Well, duh,’ and I remember assigning these stories. If it rained two inches, well, we had a story that said it rained two inches.”

When he was editor and executive vice president of The Philadelphia Daily News, Zachary Stalberg, who stepped down just last year, says he was “probably the leader of the pack” when it came to jumping on big stories that were playing out to a highly interested public. “Now I find I like a paper if I’m reading something that I know I’m not going to get anywhere else,” he says. “If I were suddenly thrown back into the business, I would focus a lot more on material only my paper had, and less on the softer stuff.”

David Burgin would make even more radical changes. As an industry consultant, he recently worked on a free-paper project in California that was ultimately scrapped by MediaNews Group. Burgin has been the top editor at papers including the Orlando Sentinel, the old Houston Post and the San Francisco Examiner, but as he talks about his idea for a new paper, it’s as if all that experience was being tossed out the window.

“Look at the home page for AOL or Yahoo,” he says. “Stare at it for 20 minutes. That’s what [a newspaper] has to look like. We have to use the same kind of language, we need a different lexicon.” Burgin is openly contemptuous of the industry’s efforts so far in reaching younger readers: “Just kind of … condescendingly putting out a tabloid and saying, ‘Here’ — that’s not going to do anything.”

On the other hand, Roy Bode, who was the final Dallas Times Herald editor when it folded in 1991, thinks Quick, the weekday tabloid published by The Dallas Morning News, is “on to something.” He likes that Quick is “rethinking what a newspaper is all about, and not just repackaging the Morning News into a tab.”

Like much of the industry itself, the former editors waver between optimism and pessimism about the future of newspapers. Eddie Sears, who retired earlier this year as editor of The Palm Beach Post in West Palm Beach, Fla., takes some comfort in what he sees as the abysmal quality of the various 24-hour cable news operations. Faced with that kind of competition, he says, “Newspapers need to keep doing what they’re doing.” He then adds, “maybe I’ll feel differently in five years.”

Zach Stalberg already feels differently about what might be ahead for papers. “I was worried about the future of newspapers before, and I’m more worried now,” he says. Stalberg heads up the Committee of Seventy, a longtime Philadelphia non-partisan political watchdog group that takes a special interest in preserving voter rights. Even in a position like that, he says, he only rarely hears people talking about something they read in the paper. “I get not quite enough validation that people are really reading the paper,” he says.

Out in California, David Burgin sees the same declining interest in the paper. “The romance of what you and I fell in love with, it’s gone,” he says. “The old-timers are about to die, and then Baby Boomers are next, and then comes — nobody.”

Zach Stalberg

Now & then:

President & CEO, the Committee of Seventy. Former editor, The Philadelphia Daily News.

Daily reading habit:

The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Philadelphia Daily News, The New York Times, Philadelphia-area community papers and alternatives. He’s not a big fan of online newspapers: “I’m of a certain generation, I do some of it, but don’t enjoy it. Mostly, I stick with print.”

Hits & misses:

As head of a non-profit political watchdog organization, he’s reading even more local news than he did as editor. As a frequent story subject, he’s also appalled by the poor quality of reporters’ interview techniques. “I get a lot of extremely vague questions, and often they’re not even questions at all … you can drive a truck through [the questions] and manipulate [an interview] any way you want.”

What he’d do differently:

“I wish I had focused more on exclusive material, and a little less on the sort of ‘me too’ journalism you have a tendency to get into, ganging up on people. And if I were suddenly thrown back into the business, I would focus a lot more on material only my paper had, and less on the softer stuff.”

Outlook on newspapers:

Pessimistic: “I’m more worried about the future of newspapers now that I’m out of them than I was when I was in them. I hear too little chatter from people about what they read in the newspaper; I don’t get enough validation that people really are reading [it]. And that goes across every demographic I can think of. In fact, the more educated and affluent the circles, the less they seem to read the paper.”

Eddie Sears

Now & then:

Retired and traveling extensively. Former editor, The Palm Beach Post, West Palm Beach, Fla.

Daily reading habit:

Subscribes to the Palm Beach Post, and walks to the neighborhood 7-Eleven three to four times a week to pick up The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

Hits & misses:

If anything, now reads more of the paper, with more time devoted to offbeat stories he might have skipped as editor.

Newspapers vs. TV:

Watching more cable TV news, mostly on his computer screen, has not been a pleasant retirement experience. “I can watch CNN or CNBC and the rest, and they’re even more horrible than I thought when I was at the newspaper. It is just dreadful [coverage].” The seemingly endless hours devoted to the missing co-ed in Aruba or the Runaway Bride “makes me really look forward to settling back with a newspaper.”

Bottom line:

“Newspapers need to keep doing what they’re doing. Maybe I’ll feel differently in five years, but that’s my feeling now.”

Walker Lundy

Now & then:

Retired and living in North Carolina. Executive Editor, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Senior Vice President/Editor, St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press.

Daily reading habits:

The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer. Subscribes to the local weekly, but not for long: “I think I’m going to drop it, there’s nothing in it.” Subscribed to The New York Times online, but dropped it when they billed his credit card without asking him. “They told me it was in the subscription agreement, and I told them I didn’t think the Times was the kind of paper where you had to read the fine print.”

Hits & misses:

Reads Time magazine these days because it does a better job than newspapers do of putting news in perspective. “Too often newspapers say, ‘Here’s what happened yesterday,’ and it’s up to me to put it into context.”

An ex-editor’s moment of Zen:

“We were about to go out somewhere, so I had 15 minutes to read. The newspaper was there, and so was a travel magazine. I picked up the magazine, and in the afternoon I realized, ‘I haven’t read a newspaper today.'”

Jim Hoge

Now & then:

Editor of Foreign Affairs magazine. Former editor, New York Daily News, Chicago Sun-Times.

Daily reading habit:

Each day he reads The New York Times, Financial Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the New York Sun. Picks up the Daily News and Post at newsstands. Occasionally goes online to read the Los Angeles Times and various foreign newspapers.

Hits & misses:

Think global, skip local: “I read international and national news, editorials, Op-Eds and top local, business and cultural stories. The tilt is more toward international news and less toward local than when I was with the Daily News or the Sun-Times.”

How newspapers are doing:

“I find news judgments generally to be sound.” But there’s room for improvement, like more international coverage and “concise, no-jump accounts,” a la the Financial Times.

David Burgin

Now & then:

Newspaper industry consultant. Top editor at 15 dailies, including the Orlando Sentinel, Oakland Tribune, The Dallas Times Herald, Houston Post, The Examiner, in San Francisco.

Daily reading habit:

The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle: “If they’re not there in the morning, I go and find them. I’m just hooked.” Rarely visits newspaper Web sites.

What he skips:

Feature stories. They’re dull, unchallenging, one-sided. “I never used to say to a reporter, ‘Do a feature story,’ for fear he’d come back with one.”

Outlook for newspapers:

Burgin’s a pessimist. He reads newspapers out of habit, but says, “essentially, the generation under 40 does not have that habit. They’re gone — and the changes to the newspaper industry are going to come in like a train, and there’ll be no whistle blowing. I think editors are in for a real shock.”

Jim Squires

Now & then:

On a Kentucky farm, breeds thoroughbred racing horses, including the 2001 Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos. Former editor, Chicago Tribune, Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel.

Daily reading habit:

Reads The New York Times and Los Angeles Times online every day, and buys two Kentucky papers, The Courier-Journal in Louisville and the Lexington Herald-Leader. Skips the local weekly: “It’s pathetic.”

Hits & misses:

Forget features. “I just don’t read the stuff I used to hate but had to read anyway: the gossip, celebrity [coverage], self-help.”

Outlook on newspapers:

“Newspapers are still the best place to find journalism — but you have to look harder for it now. I think it is the allocations of resources that bothered me when I quit that bother me even more now.

“Newspapers have only so much space and only so much talent to allocate, and they allocate so much of it, it seems to me, to crap. We spend too much time and effort entertaining our readers. Newspapers’ aim seems to be to aim at an audience and entertain it and attract it in basically the same way that beer commercials do. And that’s a totally different mission than newspapers’ traditional mission. You don’t find them nearly as serious-minded and persistent in what I always thought was the main goal of newspapers — and that is to keep the government honest.”

So do you like any paper?

“There are two or three serious big papers, still run by families.” One exception: “I think the Los Angeles Times is doing a great job. They haven’t been ‘Tribune-ized’ yet.”

Roy Bode

Now & then:

Vice president/ public affairs, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Former editor, The Dallas Times Herald.

Daily reading habits:

Bode reads The Dallas Morning News, The New York Times, the Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and Quick. He scans several newspaper Web sites, but says he does not check any of them regularly. Bode also says that he’s reading so many papers not simply because of his PR work, but because he’s still got the newspaper bug, and is looking to buy some papers to get back into the business.

Hits & misses:

“Now I don’t feel an obligation to go much beyond the front page of the metro section or business,” Bode says. He admits that he almost never reads big projects all the way to the end. Reads the Times thoroughly, and front-page articles of the Journal: “I’m a big fan of the Journal’s Friday section.” Also likes Quick, the Morning News’ youth-oriented tabloid. “Quick is going to be quite effective in attracting people who might not otherwise be reading a newspaper of any kind,” he notes. “I think it’s a better alternative than getting news from a 10-second radio item or a 30-second TV piece.”

Praise for an old rival:

Likes the “radical changes” at the Morning News, which won the bitter Dallas newspaper war. “I like to see the different kind of content they’ve got at the Morning News … I think they’ve been changes for the better. The worst thing a newspaper can possibly do is feel they’ve discovered a formula, and to stick to it. The world changes, and newspapers have to change to meet its demands.”

Heath Meriwether

Now & then:

Advocate for early education and family-friendly bike trails. Former publisher and executive editor, Detroit Free Press.

Daily reading habit:

Subscribes to The New York Times, occasionally buys The Journal News of Westchester-Rockland, N.Y., for local news. Reads the Free Press online.

Hits & misses:

Follows several columnists at the Times, including Tom Friedman and former and current ombudsmen Daniel Okrent and Barney Calame. “Devours” Times arts and culture coverage, and loves its real estate section for coverage of New York City’s modern-day version of Tulip Mania: “The real estate phenomenon in New York City is something the Times captures exquisitely.” Follows the Free Press investigative reporting on the mayor, and is “addicted” to sports columnists Drew Sharp, Mitch Albom, and Michael Rosenberg.

Categorically against categorization:

“I think too many of our newspapers think compartmentally rather than organically. You know, this is ‘local news,’ this is ‘business news,’ this is ‘entertainment news.’ As a result, a reader has a much harder time seeing himself or herself in the newspaper.” More papers should define local news more broadly, as the Times does. “I come away from the Times feeling more like I understand what life is really like because the paper doesn’t approach its coverage in such an incremental and compartmentalized way.”

Missing coverage:

“As someone who is passionate about the importance of early childhood education, I don’t think any of the papers I’ve read do as strong a job as they should. … Having said that, at least I understand even better how readers must’ve felt reading the papers I led and edited.”

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