GEYER: Undermining newspapers

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COMMENTARY:

The next time someone tells me, and it is usually smugly, that he or she “reads news only on the Internet,” I may just take a slug at the miscreant. People like this seem to think it is all quite amusing. Probably, such people also think the financial collapse that the country is undergoing is amusing. Why on Earth can it be that I do not?

Unfortunately, my lack of good spirit about the decline of the newspaper business — perhaps “world” would be a better description of it — has been sadly justified over these last few winter weeks.

First, a paper I have been honored to be published in for some years now, the Chicago Tribune, saddled with $13 billion in debt to international creditors, filed for bankruptcy. Then, almost immediately on top of that terrible news came the announcement that the “old gray lady,” the New York Times Co., would borrow $225 million against its Manhattan headquarters to stay afloat. The Rocky Mountain News and the Miami Herald were put up for sale, while the current total number of layoffs in American newspapers alone has topped 15,000 this year.

Every time we journalists get together here in Washington, as for instance at meetings of the Gridiron Club, which puts on the hilarious annual parody of American politics (and provides an enormous humorous relief to the realities around us), we learn that another bureau has been closed. Fifteen people here, five people there. The bureaus, which served local papers “out there” with specialty reporting (and necessary special reporting, one might add!), are disappearing at a disturbingly rapid rate.

Everybody “knows” the reasons, of course. The two major ones most often listed are (1) the readers’ switch from newspapers to Internet news, and (2) the general financial collapse of the country, with the withdrawal of financing and advertising that leaves papers without a prosperous income. But from my experience, these aren’t the primary problems at all.

Six years ago, I was at one of the spring meetings of the International Press Institute, a group of leading editors, publishers and journalists from across the globe, and I took the opportunity at one of the receptions to ask six leading American editors what was going wrong with American journalism. Newspapers had been making lots of money — 25 percent, 28 percent. The financial argument didn’t hold water.

Every one of them gave me the same answer. The problems started when the papers began to “go public,” to issue public stock, usually in the 1980s, and thus became beholden not to the professional and moral commitments of the old newspaper families, like the McCormicks of the Chicago Tribune or the Chandlers of the Los Angeles Times or the Sulzbergers of the New York Times, but to the same greedy and voracious investment counselors who have given us the present Wall Street collapse.

Shelby Coffey, former editor of the L.A. Times, regaled me with stories of how, once public stock became essentially the controller of the newspaper, he and the other editors would be forced to sit there while the Wall Street investors hectored them: “But 25 percent isn’t enough. What have you done for us this year?” Soon the Times was sold to Chicago’s Tribune Co. and is now part of the bankruptcy deal there.

Philip Gailey, editor of editorials at the St. Petersburg Times and a member of the board of directors of Times Publishing Co., then told me how the Times had done it a different way — and succeeded beyond all expectations. The St. Petersburg paper’s founder, the visionary Nelson Poynter, apparently foreseeing the dangerous future facing newspapers, put the paper under the control of the Poynter Institute, a respected journalism foundation, instead of under public stockholders. In effect, the foundation took the place of the great old family control that, until recently, was emblematic of most papers in America.

By that time, the St. Petersburg paper was the largest and most successful paper in Florida. It had already bypassed the Miami Herald and should stand today as an example for other serious owners. Just this week, I saw the Poynter Institute example extolled by several bloggers as an answer to the New York Times’ problems.

Rick Edmonds, former St. Petersburg Times publisher and now a leading media business analyst at the institute, was recently quoted in the New York Times as saying that the Tribune’s bankruptcy, far from being a harbinger for the newspaper industry, represented only a very specific problem. Speaking of the Tribune ownership, he said that it “took on a huge amount of debt at just the wrong time.”

Here’s my point: The failure of newspapers is not inevitable at all. It is happening because of very specific - and, for the most part, probably wholly avoidable - actions taken by men and women whose greed and arrogance has overtaken them and who obviously think little of what kind of country they are providing for the future.

My quarrel with my friends who brag about reading news on the Internet is that they are taking an active step in the formation of a country without a civic conscience. Only newspapers can provide this, with their multitalented staffs and with the scope of their reporting. Without them, welcome to a truly depressing future - and please, don’t let anyone tell you it had to be.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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