The corporatization of the American press

Monday Book Review

February 22, 1993|By John F. Kelly


SOBERING may be too mild a word to describe "Read All About It!" James D. Squires' indictment of the "corporatization" of the American press.

Disturbing may be a better word. Or even frightening, if you're among those who believe, as many of us still do (and as Jim Squires obviously does), that newspapers should, in the words of Joseph Pulitzer, "always remain devoted to the public welfare."

"Read All About It!" is an insider's story of the deterioration of a once-indomitable institution, the American newspaper, which, far from remaining devoted to the public welfare, has sold out to Wall Street.

Mr. Squires is the former editor of the Chicago Tribune and a vice president of Tribune Company. He was also Ross Perot's media adviser in the presidential campaign. Under Mr. Squires' leadership, the Tribune's staff won seven Pulitzer Prizes in nine years. But things were changing. The Tribune and scores of other papers were already trading public responsibility for whatever would make a buck.

Anyone who spent time in a newsroom during the 1970s and 1980s could see it coming. First came the budget cuts. Then the space cuts. Finally the staff cuts. Editorial departments, once off-limits to business-side employees, suddenly were crawling with ad types. Certain stories were discouraged, especially if they might offend an advertiser. Entire news sections were turned over to advertisers. Certain reporters were sent into exile (or sent packing). The news took a distinctly entertaining tilt. The peccadillos of U.S. senators and congressmen competed with arms reduction talks for space on the front page.

What happened? Newspapers discovered the bottom line. Where once they were dominated by journalist-proprietors like William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer and Robert McCormick, petty despots who nevertheless set editorial policies unrelated to profits, they suddenly fell into the hands of men trained in the law and accounting. These men (and most were -- and are -- men) coined a new definition of "quality."

"To the new management team," Mr. Squires writes, "quality newspapers were not necessarily those that served up the best journalism to their communities, or that won prestige and respect within the journalism fraternity, but rather those whose profits would earn them the distinction on Wall Street as a 'quality' business." Most of them headed for public ownership as soon as their profitability reached levels necessary to be considered "quality" stock investments.

Mr. Squires says, "The numbers-oriented, professional profit makers" began entering the temple of journalism in the early 1970s, led by Allen H. Neuharth, second in command of the Gannett Company. Until Mr. Neuharth, who later launched USA Today, took Gannett public in 1967 (billing it "a dependable profit machine in good times or bad"), only two newspaper companies had preceded him: Dow Jones, publisher of the Wall Street Journal, and Times Mirror, publisher of the Los Angeles Times.

Today, only a smattering of independent daily papers are left. Among those that are owned by corporations, fewer still have clung to their journalistic integrity. Mr. Squires numbers Times Mirror, which owns the Baltimore Sun, among those that have. Significantly, he excludes the Tribune Company, from which he resigned in 1989.

To his credit, he takes his share of the blame for turning the Tribune into a profit machine. He urged his editors "to get into bed" with advertisers. He himself had climbed in with them long before (and when he finally climbed out, he walked away with about $1 million in severance pay).

Meanwhile, the profitability of newspapers, which routinely control costs and enhance profits by cutting off unprofitable (read low-income) circulation, has "increased as fast as [market] penetration has declined." Mr. Squires assumes profit margins were somewhere between eight and 12 percent in 1969. By 1990, he says, they had almost doubled. It took two straight years of recession and the near-collapse of the retail department store industry, Mr. Squires says, "before average newspaper profits fell back into line with what other industries made in their very best years."

So there we have it. Where once the business of American journalism was to be, in Walter Lippmann's words, "the beam of a searchlight that moved restlessly about bringing one episode and then another out of the darkness into vision," today that business is to attract and entertain consumers because that's where the bucks are.

Mr. Squires, unfortunately, doesn't offer any solutions to the problem. He doesn't even offer any hope.

"The camel," he says, "is in the tent for good. Corporate news media are here to stay. It is unrealistic to think that the new professional managers will ever accept smaller profits in the interest of better and more traditional journalism. Nor will the trend suddenly reverse itself and restore the purpose and priorities of the old press.

"The pressure to do so is ever so gradually being eased."

John F. Kelly, a former Sun reporter and editor, writes from Baltimore.

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