Corporate ownership affects pages.
I was fortunate to have worked for more than 30 years for the editorial pages of a family-owned newspaper where the number-one priority was to produce a quality paper; profits were secondary, if that.
An example: When I proposed to then-editor Michael Gartner in the late 1970s that we base an editorial writer in Washington to specialize in economics and agricultural policy, his immediate reaction was not to ask about the expense but to phone the Washington bureau's chief to inquire about desk space.
To be sure, not all family-owned papers are altruistic. Some of them can be as focused on the bottom line as the most profit-driven newspaper company. I was lucky.
Nowadays, a growing number of editors confront downsizing and belt-tightening as economizing has become the order of the day, regardless of type of ownership. The problems faced by editors at papers owned by publicly traded companies, though, may be especially formidable. The recent three-year study of this segment of the newspaper industry (Taking Stock: Journalism and the Publicly Traded Newspaper Company, Iowa State University Press), which I did with University of Iowa colleagues Randall Bezanson and John Soloski, made it evident that going public, which newspapers began to do in 1963, has had major consequences for journalism. The companies now account for more than 40% of daily and about half of Sunday circulation.
In a nutshell, the problem is that stock price becomes an overwhelming preoccupation of the companies, and people who have no interest in quality journalism are in positions to influence the price. Chief among them are the institutional investors -- pension funds, mutual funds, and the like -- that hold large positions in the companies, and the stock analysts who advise investors. Their concerns are strictly financial.
So what can editorial page editors do in the face of financial pressures, whatever the source, that affect their pages? By definition, they are advocates, and they should use their advocacy skills to advocate for quality journalism. Here are some ways:
* Is pagination taking time from editing, research, and writing?
In our book, we cite evidence that seldom is editorial staff added for pagination. Unless some of the money saved in composing room expense by pagination is invested in editorial rooms, the price will be overburdened editorial staffs and fewer safeguards against error. At least one study shows that, at medium-sized papers, the extra work caused by pagination amounts to the equivalent of a shift a day.
Editorial page editors should document the extra time spent in their departments on pagination, as well as on other mechanical functions shifted to editorial employees, and make the case forcefully to management for more help, if not immediately, then when the current economic crunch eases.
* Is your paper shortchanging readers in the inner city?
Editors who editorialize against redlining by lending institutions and real estate firms should be aware that their own papers may engage in a form of redlining. The drive for ever-greater profits has led papers to segment the audience by shunning low-income readers in favor of the more attluent customers preferred by advertisers. Thus, zoned editions may be confined largely to upscale neighborhoods, newspapers may not be delivered to public housing, and marketing of papers may be precision-targeted mostly or exclusively at the more prosperous. Editors should inquire about their papers' practices and, if only to avoid hypocrisy, vigorously advocate the obligation of a newspaper to serve the whole community.
* Do incentives support good journalism?
We found the incentive structure of newspaper companies weighted heavily in favor of rewarding financial rather than journalistic performance.
Seldom was newspaper quality (or circulation, for that matter) a factor in the salary, bonus, or stock option awards to top management. The quest to align editors with the interests of stockholders has led to similar bottomline based incentives for editorial employees. Editors who receive bonuses, and particularly those who have a voice in formulating the objectives for which bonuses are awarded, should insist that bonuses be tied to achieving journalistic objectives. Inasmuch as many editors told us that they considered circulation to be a measure of newspaper quality, an award for circulation gains would be an appropriate part of an editor's bonus package.
We concluded that stock options, which increasingly are awarded editors, are not appropriate. Options tie compensation to stock price. It's unlikely that an editor can affect a stock's price. Nevertheless, it is wrong in principle for editors to be placed in a position where they can even conceivably profit, or appear to profit, from editorial decisions.
Stock-based awards for editorial employees amount to a conflict of interests. Editorial page editors should use their powers of persuasion in-house to advocate for incentives other than stock.
Editorial page editors are a nosy lot who do not hesitate to tell others how to run their businesses. Newspapers are institutions that the editors know intimately. They should be as willing to speak up in private to management in behalf of quality journalism as they are to sound off to readers on their pages.
NCEW life member Gil Cranberg is former editorial page editor of The Des Moines Register and Tribune. The professor emeritus at the University of Iowa is co-author of Taking Stock: Journalism and the Publicly Traded Newspaper Company.
From a June 9 Cape Cod Times editorial by assistant editorial page editor Tim DeMarce
Looking for a richer brew
You wouldn't know it by the price you pay at the counter, but world coffee prices are scraping along one of their periodic troughs. Raw coffee beans are now below 50 cents a pound - half the cost of just two years ago and an eight-year low. Oversupply is the culprit. More countries are planting coffee, and, like oil producers, big producers like Brazil and Colombia don't always find it in their interests to cooperate on export quotas.
But hurt most by the price drop are the farmers of small plots in Africa, Mexico, and Central America. While the price of a single Starbucks concoction shoots to $3 a cup, and the chain notches a 24 percent revenue gain compared to last year on the growing profit margin, small growers and laborers pull their children out of school and go into debt, or lose their land.
The irony is that the great disparity in the world's coffee connection - the wealth and leisure of the consumer vs. the poverty and labor of the producer - has made coffee a uniquely potent vehicle for promoting social justice.
Besides all the regular Joe sold in quartsized cups, specialty coffee beans support a growing parallel market aimed at upscale buyers with a social conscience. The "Fair Trade" movement has doubled its U.S. volume in the last year.
Some Lutheran and Quaker churches now brew their social-hour coffee with "Fair Trade" beans, supplied through a growing network of suppliers who buy directly from farms and cooperatives where the price is set at a minimum $1.26 per pound.
The Borders bookstore chain and Starbucks now carry and promote Fair Trade....Sara Lee has been licensed to sell Fair Trade coffee by the independent certifier TransFair USA....
As consumers in a privileged land, we're sheltered from the most glaring cruelty the marketplace sometimes inflicts on the powerless. In a global economy with millions of suppliers - all badgering their agents for a rock-bottom price - it's hard to believe our buying choices can be more than symbolic. But the Fair Trade coffee business seems to be a direct response to one cause of poverty, an intervention that makes a new marketplace driven by a value beyond cold price.