Downie: Profit Pressures Still a Big Problem at Newspapers

By: Joe Strupp Two years after the book he cowrote, ?The News About The News,? bemoaned a profit-seeking move toward increasingly sensational news coverage and argued that top-quality, serious journalism can also make money for media companies, Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. says that is still the case.

In fact, he says, the good parts of journalism have gotten better, while the problems have gotten worse.

?It is more so on both sides of the scale,? Downie, 62, told E&P during an interview in his office Monday. ?There are newspapers that are dedicated to improving themselves, and doing this good kind of work. At the same time, though, too many newspapers are continuing to shrink.?

Downie, who has headed the Post's newsroom since 1991, made his assessment as hundreds of editors converge this week just blocks away for the American Society of Newspaper Editors' annual conference. Starting Tuesday, the conference will address an array of newspaper issues, from readership declines to freedom of information.

For Downie, there are signs that newspapers are doing some of their best work ever, even in the face of dropping circulations, growing competition, and outrageous profit demands. He cited the recent Pulitzer Prizes, in which 13 different newspapers shared the 15 journalism awards that were given.

?There was a wide range of journalism [awarded] in the prizes,? Downie said, settling into his office couch. ?That is positive. Even with [newspaper] chains where the overall level is not what it ought to be, you are seeing significant work. That is due to the editors and reporters who want to do that kind of work.?

Downie declined to name those chains he believed were not performing up to par, but singled out Advance Publications? Newhouse Newspapers and the McClatchy Group as examples of newspaper companies that are keeping standards high.

But Downie criticized newspaper owners for cutting resources in the name of seeking higher profits. ?That continues to worry me,? he said. ?They are doing it to maximize profit in the stock market. Some [editors] resist the pressure, but it is hard.?

Citing average newspaper companies' profit-margin goals of 20% to 30%, Downie said such demands are unnecessarily hurting newspaper resources. He says a 15% return is about all any newspaper should require. ?That is much better than supermarkets or some other businesses,? he said. ?Most of the public is shocked when you tell them what the average profit margin is. You have to better think through how you make money and do the journalism on different platforms newspapers have,? such as the Web and niche products.

Downie also called on newspapers to do a better job explaining themselves to readers, so they can counter the misinformation that builds about the newspaper business, such as claims that papers are elite, liberal, biased outlets. ?Educate the public about what it takes to produce news,? he pleaded. ?I?d like to see the public engaged in more of a discussion about how this business is going to continue to present good journalism.?

In addition, newspapers need to re-think their business approach, Downie said, taking into account the advantages and disadvantage of the Web, and the need to make a profit coupled with a commitment to quality. ?More dialogue about what is a proper profit margin, what is the right business model? is needed, he said. ?Think through how you make money and do good journalism.?

He also called on ASNE to put more focus on demanding better resources for newspapers and to engage publishers and readers in the discussion. He even suggested that ASNE merge with Associated Press Managing Editors, to work together in the fight for better news resources. ?At a time when the newsroom needs a strong voice, a strong leadership,? Downie explained, such a move would make sense. ?They both do good things, and I think together they would do even more. It is silly for them to have two conventions, and it costs newspapers more to go to both.?

When asked about his newspaper, which has seen significant circulation drops in recent years and faces new competition from the recently launched free Washington Examiner, Downie admitted the challenges are great, but he said they're not impossible. ?Our biggest problem is continuing to be vital in our readers? lives,? he said. ?That means quality news coverage on a wide range of issues.?

Downie admitted that ?the Examiner remains a mystery to me, we have to see how it evolves. There is a limit to how much local news they can have with 12 or 15 reporters.? But he said free daily newspapers ?have arrived? and have ?an interesting niche.?

The Post?s other major competitor, the conservative Washington Times, does not worry Downie, he says. ?The Times has the same small audience that it has always had,? he said. ?A loyal following that is very conservative. It doesn?t beat us to too many stories.?

Does that mean the Post is the liberal alternative? No, says Downie, contending that the paper has succeeded in lifting its image as a left-wing paper. ?Not everyone regards us as a liberal newspaper anymore. I don?t regard that as our biggest problem,? he said. ?The editorial page has been criticized for being too conservative on the war, for not being tough on the Bush administration.?

In the two years since the war began, the Post has been at the center of two major war-related controversies. One was the exclusive publication of several photos of Abu Ghraib prison abuse, and the other was a lengthy front-page story by media writer Howard Kurtz in which the Post admitted mistakes in its pre-war coverage.

?The thing that surprised me most is just how polarized the country is,? Downie said, referring to reaction to those two incidents and other war-related and political stories in recent years. ?How strongly people react to coverage that does not reflect their point of view.?

The editor said such views are another reason that newspapers need to beef up resources and be careful to let readers know exactly how they process and report news. Otherwise, ?fair and accurate coverage will not be as appreciated as it should be.?

So does that mean newspapers are on the slow road to eventual death? No, Downie said, but only if they change with the times and remain focused on the good product.

?I don?t think newspapers are going to disappear. No old media disappears; we still have books. But sales are different, books are on tape," he said. ?Newspapers don?t need to disappear. It is now cheaper to produce a newspaper, technologically. But there has to be a will to do it. I?m concerned that too many corporate owners are more concerned about the bottom line.?


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