By: Tony Case
Miami Herald publisher tells newspaper execs to ‘stop feeling sorry’ for themselves and to get more bullish about the industry
DAVID LAWRENCE JR. has grown weary of the prophecies of gloom and doom being bandied about the newspaper business ? even as publishers are faced with increasing competition, skyrocketing newsprint prices and diminishing profits.
“I think we’re spending an extraordinary amount of time, quite frankly, feeling sorry for ourselves,” the straight-talking Miami Herald publisher said this month at the 72nd annual convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE).
“I feel that pessimistic people don’t accomplish much worth a damn in this world,” Lawrence told some of the 600-plus editors who had gathered in Dallas. “I don’t think I ought to be naive, but I think there’s every reason to be optimistic.”
Lawrence says it’s no surprise many people in the industry are worried about their livelihood, when newspapers are so often portrayed as dinosaurs. But newspapers aren’t on the road to extinction, he maintained, and they could use fewer curmudgeons and more individuals with a sunny outlook.
“If we don’t have our own people who are genuinely and honestly bullish about the future of newspapers and can articulate it to our own staffs, then I don’t think we ought to be surprised when those who work for us are scared, wondering if there’s a future,” he said.
Noting that newspapers are into their fifth year of belt-tightening, media analyst John Morton said it’s understandable employees “are starting to wonder just how much tighter the belt can be cinched.”
But the headache resulting from soaring newsprint costs is but a temporary condition, Morton held during a panel discussion called “The Crunch of ’95: Just a Bad Year or the New Reality?” He predicted the current phase of fiscal prudence would last at least through next year, possibly into 1997.
The price of newsprint has climbed steadily, and steeply, in past months, but that has hardly spelled a calamity for publishers, Morton said.
Last year, the 22 newspaper companies whose financial data he followed kept an average 15? of every dollar they brought in. While 1995 results might be off by a cent or two, “that’s still a very profitable business,” according to the analyst.
Meanwhile, a number of newspapers have responded to the newsprint situation, as they have past economic crises, by hitting the panic button ? slashing budgets, instituting hiring freezes, playing pauper when it comes time for raises.
The Herald is among those papers that have buckled down, cutting its staff by about 40.
“We chronicle change everyday in the newspaper,” Lawrence said. “Why do we think we’re immune from it?”
But the publisher is quick to point out that over the last five years, 25 news positions have been added at the Herald, and another 25 at the Spanish-language El Nuevo Herald.
Lawrence regrets that so much newspaper management is based on a “because I told you so” philosophy. He believes publishers would create a happier atmosphere if they’d simply treat their employees like adults.
“I think people who work for us are pretty damn smart, and they’re entitled to know what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and to be asked for their opinion,” he told the audience. “If there were a lot more inclusion in this business at every level, I think we would dramatically cut down the problem of worker burnout.”
Newark Star-Ledger editorial page editor Richard Aregood ? who quit the Philadelphia Daily News two months ago, after 32 distinguished years at the paper because, he said at the time, he was frustrated by having to do “more with less” ? fears newspapers are falling prey to the “quarterly-results disease.”
Regardless of the state of the balance sheet, “there is a certain minimum under which good journalism is not possible,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor insisted.
While Aregood doesn’t fault newspapers for adopting a leaner-and-meaner approach, considering current conditions, “there comes a point when you’ve not only done the liposuction, you’ve started to take out the tibia as well,” he quipped.
Former Austin American-Statesman editor Maggie Balough also voiced concern that profits, not journalistic priorities, are driving the industry.
She said a colleague recently told her he spent 85% of his time on marketing matters. “Journalism? I didn’t have time for that today,” he groused.
“There’s really nothing evil about profits ? in fact, one of the greatest strengths of our freedom is our economic independence. It’s very important for us to be free and aggressive,” Balough told her fellow editors. “But the financial health of journalism is equally important to us.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune publisher Joel Kramer argued that newspeople shouldn’t look at marketing as a foe but as a function of journalism.
Real leaders in newspapering are interested not only in fulfilling their mission to the public but also in getting money into the business to keep it thriving, he contended.
At the Star Tribune, top editor Tim McGuire isn’t just responsible for planning budgets and filling the news hole ? he’s also senior vice president in charge of the reader customer unit, and, as such, accountable for promotion, sales and service.
“He can spend more money on news, as long as he can figure out how to generate more money from the reader side of the business,” Kramer related.
The publisher, who joined the Minneapolis paper as executive editor in 1983, told the ASNE members he and his associates are trying to put an end to the scenario in which “you have the editors doing God’s work over here, and they have to go over there to beg for the dollars to do it with ? and then, if they don’t get the dollars, they rail about the decline in commitment to public service.”
Owners of newspaper companies “have an expectation that, on average, over time, there will be increases in profit,” Kramer noted. “I think the challenge is to figure out how to do that, and produce quality journalism at the same time.”
?(Miami Herald publisher tells newspaper execs to ‘stop feeling
sorry’ for themselves and to get more bullish about the industry
“If we don’t have our own people who are genuinely and honestly bullish about the future of newspapers and can articulate it to our own staffs, then I don’t think we ought to be surprised when those who work for us are scared, wondering if there’s a future.”) [Caption]
?(? David Lawrence Jr., Miami Herald publisher) [Photo & Caption]