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Media Circus: The Trouble with America's Newspapers.

When I came to work at The Charlotte Observer, once one of the finest newspapers in the South, I was assigned to do a story about racial discrimination in apartment complexes. Working with a team of three other reporters, I helped to prove that despite the recent passage of open-housing laws, at least a half dozen of the city's biggest complexes were still unwilling to rent to blacks.

The apartment owners took a dim view of the story and promptly canceled their newspaper advertising. A few days later, Bev Carter, the Observer's business manager, stopped by my desk. "Congratulations, son," he said. "You've been here less than two weeks and you've already cost us $200,000 in revenue." I was casting through my mind for the proper response when Carter smiled down and slapped me on the shoulder. "Good story," he said. "Keep it up."

Carter was a journalist first of all, and he wanted me to know that even on the business side of the company, finances were secondary to the mission of the paper.

All of that happened more than twenty years ago, but I thought of the episode a few weeks back as I was reading two new books on the state of journalism. The books are different in content and tone, but the disturbing picture they paint is the same.

Media Circus, by Howard Kurtz, the respected press critic at The Washington Post, is a chronicle of media shortcomings in the 1990s. Kurtz is not entirely a pessimist, but he believes his industry is in deep trouble.

"The newspaper business," he writes, "battered and bloodied, has come to resemble the steel industry of the late 1970s. Its practitioners, who once felt immune from the shifting economic winds they charted, now find themselves buffeted like so many assembly-line welders."

The result in too many newspapers, he says, has been a timid but dictatorial leadership that has forgotten the ingredients of good journalism. The editors are frightened by an uncertain future and, in their fear, have tried too hard to imitate television - the feel-good fluff of the evening news.

"In the new corporate culture of the newsroom," Kurtz concludes, "editors hold endless meetings and cook up prefabricated story ideas. Prose is squeezed through more and more hands into ever-smaller receptacles. Controversial ideas are pasteurized and homogenized until most of the flavor has been drained. For many, the craft of Hemingway, Mencken, and Reston now has all the romance of a fast-food kitchen stamping out Big Macs."

James D. Squires agrees completely, although in his own new book, Read All About It!, he uses the analogy of fried-chicken franchises. Whatever. Like Kurtz, he offers a chilling indictment of the American press - a confessional memoir from one of the country's great editors, who left his position at the Chicago Tribune convinced that newspapers had fundamentally changed.

Nearly all of them, he writes, "are primarily concerned . . . not with the preservation of the free press or the conduct of democracy, but with development of the information business in its most profitable form, whatever that may be.

"News, whether print or broadcast, must be |info-tainment' in order to reach a generation of visually oriented Americans with the attention span of a flashbulb."

Essentially, Squires argues, the newspaper industry in the last twenty years has fallen into the hands of corporate managers whose primary motive is to maximize profits. Some of them pay lip service to the mission of the press. Others don't bother. But virtually all of them, says Squires, have become obsessed with the corporate bottom line - and in their efforts to hold down costs, they have torn away subtly at the quality and underlying spirit of their papers.

Actually, some of them have torn away blatantly. But in Squires's own experience, the process was gradual. As editor of the Orlando Sentinel and the Chicago Tribune, he made his own bargains with the powers above him. He would do his part in the pursuit of greater profits, holding the line on staff increases and reporters' salaries, serving up fluff from time to time in a continuing attempt to attract new advertisers. In exchange, he demanded full control of the editorial product and the chance for his reporters to do good work.

He succeeded for a while, but the grind never stopped - that fundamental conflict between the corporate bottom line and the costly demands of quality journalism. In 1989, he resigned - forced out by managers who considered him a pain.

He has not been alone. One by one in the past ten years, the most respected editors have begun to disappear - Squires, Bill Kovach of the Atlanta Constitution, Eugene Roberts of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Roberts, especially, was an interesting study. He ran the best paper in the Knight-Ridder chain, winning seventeen Pulitzers in eighteen years. But he spent money freely on gathering the news, and his management critics in the chain said his margin of profit was simply too small.

Squires quotes publisher Rolfe Neill of The Charlotte Observer (another Knight-Ridder paper): "I think it is fair and accurate to say that however great Gene Roberts is as a journalist, as an editor he was a negative factor to the profitability and circulation of the Inquirer. In today's world, a great editor cannot be an obstacle to profitability."

Roberts retired in 1990, and the people at the top of the Knight-Ridder empire were relieved to see him go - seventeen Pulitzer Prizes and all.

The irony is that, at least in the view of Howard Kurtz, Roberts was exactly what newspapers need: their last, best hope for long-term survival. In the final chapter of Media Circus, the most interesting section of a very long book, Kurtz cites Roberts's Philadelphia Inquirer as a "prosperous paper that has outlasted the competition" - a place where spending money paid off.

Kurtz thinks other papers should learn from that example.

"There is no reason for people to buy newspapers," he concludes, "unless they provide detailed, compelling material that can't be found elsewhere."

But the problem, of course, as Kurtz understands, "is that in-depth journalism . . . costs money. At a time when editors and publishers are struggling with profits far below the giddy levels of the late 1980s, spending money is not a popular prescription. It is cheaper, and undoubtedly safer, to crank out what-happened-yesterday stories, toss in some canned lifestyle features, and spruce up the package with fancy graphics."

It is also more profitable for the editors themselves. In his book full of passion and tight-lipped rage, Jim Squires points out that editors at many of the country's biggest papers have been paid huge bonuses for cutting the size and salaries of their staffs - a Faustian reward that has undermined morale and taken its toll on the quality of the product.

Squires doesn't see much reason for hope. With newspaper managers running scared - terrified by the power of television - they have behaved with the same short-sighted timidity that once nearly killed the auto industry. Both financially and spiritually, they have failed to reinvest in the future.

Kurtz believes that can still be changed, though his optimism is guarded at best. He calls for a dose of journalistic passion - the kind that first lured him into the profession.

Maybe we'll see it again one day. Maybe these two fair-minded critiques will produce a needed wave of introspection and shame. But for many refugees from the daily press, it's hard to escape deep feelings of gloom.
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Article Details
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Author:Gaillard, Frye
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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