Ex-editor turns grim reader as newspapers undergo 'Corporate Takeover'

February 21, 1993|By Neal Lipschutz

READ ALL ABOUT IT!: THE

CORPORATE TAKEOVER OF

AMERICA'S NEWSPAPERS.

James D. Squires.

Times Books.

244 pages. $20.

"It's a good, solid business. But it's not being run now by financial people. We're financial people. We operate businesses. understand how to make a business move forward."

So spoke businessman Steven Hoffenberg recently about his possible rescue of the ailing New York Post. Later in the same news report, he is quoted as acknowledging, "I don't know the newspaper business."

Newspapers run by business people who focus only on the bottom line and don't care much about the headlines: That's the crux of the problem with the print media in America, James D. Squires, former editor of the Chicago Tribune, forcefully argues here. Once a public trust in private hands, newspapers are now like other businesses, interested only in profit, he maintains.

What raises his ire, and has led him to a most morbid view of newspapering in America, is a different type of ownership.

He sees the death of quality newspapers via ownership by MBA-infested public companies that count newspapers among

their many and varied holdings. Companies whose leadership feels beholden only to shareholders and Wall Street analysts. Managers who demand continual earnings growth and who won't be moved by arguments about the high cost of seeking the truth and promoting democracy. Newspapers that operate almost exclusively in monopoly markets and see no incentive to better their news departments.

Sure, there are exceptions, even among the public publishing companies, Mr. Squires notes, but here's a typical bold and unequivocal assertion: "Journalistic quality and financial success went hand in hand only when the ownership of the press was willing to temper its financial success in the interest of journalistic quality . . . The reality today, however, is that most newspapers in the United States are owned by corporations whose management makes no distinction between their business and any other."

(In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that I'm employed by a publicly traded publishing company mentioned in this book. The Sun and its parent, Times Mirror Co., also are mentioned.)

Mr. Squires is a bit too nostalgic about newspapers under larger-than-life publishing titans. These owners could be as tight-fisted as any spread-sheet-addicted executive, and often a lot pushier about getting their own agendas into print. But he maintains that even at their worst, the proprietor-publishers were preferable to modern corporate managers. Because the old school was interested in ideas and power (in addition to money), it was willing to take a few down quarters without eviscerating the newsroom.

To support his thesis, Mr. Squires takes us on an entertaining journey through his own career. Drawn to reporting by notions of doing goodand exposing wrong, Mr. Squires concentrates his story on his tenures as editor of Tribune Co.'s Orlando Sentinel and then its flagship, the Tribune, from which he resigned in 1989. He lingers on his fight for editorial integrity and control within the management ranks of Tribune Co., but the book is best when he uses his broad experience to make informed observations about an industry in the midst of powerful change.

In both his editorships, Mr. Squires seems to have solved the dilemma he describes so well. Newspaper quality was improved as costs were cut and earnings increased. He didn't live in an ivory tower, did not hold himself above and aloof from business concerns. But he now says it was an unwinnable game as long as he desired more resources to create a better newspaper.

Constant budget constraints are not the only ingredient in his bleak outlook for newspapers. As they cope with a readership decline, Mr. Squires sees the abandonment of so-called serious news (investigations of government, lengthy pieces on public policy issues) in favor of the short, the breezy, the entertaining.

Some would argue that a shift in news values that takes more into account readers' interests and attention spans democratizes the media and represents newspapers' best chance to keep people reading the serious, as well as the not-so-serious. Why should a small group of editors at the top of the nation's most prestigious newspapers be the only ones allowed to define news and, thus, what's important?

But Mr. Squires sees no bright side in this shift, only a less informed populace less capable of participating in our democracy.

Mr. Squires, who served as media adviser for Ross Perot's presidential campaign, offers a powerful and insightful indictment of the business of newspapers. One can only hope that as long as people are drawn to the ranks of reporter and editor, as he was, by the desire to do good and shed light on whatever needs exposing, the picture will not turn out quite as dark as the one painted here.

Mr. Lipschutz is a writer who lives in New York.

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