Newspapers Are Businesses, After All

PETER A. JAY

October 11, 1992|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. Some years back, when I was editing a newspaper here, a lady from Perryville called up to complain that the club notice she had sent in hadn't been published in its entirety.

We'd had to condense it for reasons of space, I explained, but she wasn't mollified. "I have a right to get my news in the paper," she said with some heat. "I'm a taxpayer."

People used to feel fiercely possessive about their newspapers, and although that proprietary passion seems to have cooled, it hasn't gone away. It bubbles up in the form of outrage when newspapers change their formats or drop what they thought were little-read features, and it contributes to the widespread anger at the press as an institution that poll after poll now reflects.

One problem is that newspapers are businesses, but have tended to present themselves -- and to an extent think of themselves -- as more like public utilities. It is a point of pride for editors that they decide what to say and what to print on the merits, untainted by anything as crassly mercantile as concern about their company's revenues.

This attitude has been reinforced by the rise of the monopoly newspaper, a trend that accelerated in the 1970s and 1980s. By the late 1980s, nearly every city of any size was down to a single, highly-profitable daily newspaper, often owned by a chain. These papers frequently cited their own editorial impartiality.

The literature of journalism is filled with tales of brave editors and publishers who stood firm in the face of threats by advertisers, and who printed the truth even if it hurt them in the pocketbook. Many of these tales are true. But newspapers are still businesses, just as they were in the days when a little publisher's survival might hang on one powerful customer's goodwill, and they still act like it.

Earlier this month, The Sun and other newspapers published full-page advertisements slamming the various Bell telephone companies for seeking Congressional approval to provide electronic information services. A little note said the ad was published "on behalf of the Consumer Federation of America, the Newspaper Association of America, and more than 1,600 other consumer organizations and small and large businesses."

That sounded ordinary enough. Newspapers often contain political advertisements urging a vote for this or that candidate, or support for this or that piece of legislation. But usually these ads say who paid for the space, and I noticed that this one didn't. When I called The Sun's advertising department, I was told that it was a free ad.

The Sun and many other newspapers are horrified, corporately and often editorially, at the idea that the Bell companies might start making information available electronically to consumers. This shouldn't be surprising. The easier it gets to dial up news and read it on a screen in your home, the less essential a newspaper becomes. And for those who feel themselves the captives of newspapers they don't much like, electronic information services can offer a chance to escape. That prospect gives circulation directors heartburn.

Personally, as a voracious information consumer, I think it makes sense to bar the Bells -- or anyone else -- from the information business. As a Sun editorial soundly observed last week, in support of encouraging other companies to compete with the Bells in delivering telephone services, "the jockeying usually works out to the consumer's advantage."

The free anti-Bell ad published in The Sun takes a different view of another kind of competition and worries that if the Bells "bully their way" into the information business, they might "abuse their position as monopolies." But bite your tongue before you make the obvious tart response. Let's leave aside the merits of the free ad's argument and think a moment about the propriety of its publication.

When I first read it, and then when I learned that it hadn't been paid for, I was irritated. It seemed to me that something duplicitous was going on. If the various newspapers publishing this ad wanted to espouse this point of view, which is certainly their right, why didn't they do it openly? It just looked sneaky.

But that's an over-reaction. There have been free ads around as long as there have been newspapers. As a publisher, I used to give away space to charities I considered deserving and never thought twice about it.

The newspaper industry's anti-Bell ad is just a useful reminder to all of us, as readers, that most newspapers are businesses, and like other businesses they have to look out for their economic interests in order to survive. All the space in a newspaper belongs to the newspaper company, which has the right to sell it, put news in it or give it away. We may not like that, but it's a fact.

When I told the lady from Perryville that the newspaper was a business and didn't have to publish her news if it didn't choose to, I'm sure I didn't surprise her. She knew it wasn't really her paper; she just liked to think of it that way. I don't blame her, having felt the same way myself about newspapers I liked, but we both should have known better.

Peter A. Jay's column appears here each week.

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