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At Sam Zell's Chicago Tribune reporters and editors are being taught marketing and packaging, and serious stories are downplayed in favor of softer ones. (AP)

Of course we'll have newspapers. But will there be any news in them?

COMMENTARY | December 01, 2008

James O’Shea, ex-editor of the LA Times, sees pandering to readers as a current danger and says newspapers aren’t going to solve their problems by lay-offs or closing bureaus. Journalists need to persuade people that we “once again are a public trust,” he writes.

By James O’Shea

With all the reports about huge layoffs and financial troubles in the news business, it’s no wonder that many journalists and caring Americans question whether we will continue to have newspapers.

But those concerned about the fate of these fabled institutions are asking the wrong question. Of course we will have newspapers. Communist China has newspapers; Russia under the Soviets had newspapers. Serbia had newspapers under dictator Slobadan Milosevic.

The real question is what kind of journalism will we have in the newspapers that manage to survive the current wave of circulation and advertising declines plaguing the industry.

Will we have the rich, hard-hitting storytelling that gives the news its infrastructure of shoe-leather journalism from courthouses, police stations, legislatures and war zones, the kind of reporting that gives bloggers, broadcasters and others something to write and talk about?

Or will the surviving newspapers become vessels for “panderism” instead of journalism, flimsy content organized around the age-old principle of luring dog owners to stories in the paper so you can sell them some dog food?

I’ve been wondering about this question ever since I left the newsroom of the Los Angeles Times earlier this year over what has come to be commonly known as “a disagreement over the future direction of the paper.” But it really came home to me recently after I read Portfolio editor Joanne Lippman’s interview with Sam Zell, the real estate billionaire who seized control the company that owned the Times just before I was told it would be a good idea to spend more time with my family.  

With his typical flair for controversy, Zell slammed newspapers BZ (Before Zell) for acting more like charitable trusts than businesses driven by the trusty capitalist principal of giving your investors something in return for their money.

“I think the newspaper industry truly still doesn’t understand that it is in a business with customers,” Zell told Lippman and others at a media conference, “and the business must reflect the needs and demands of the customer. And to the extent that we don’t do that, we will disappear.

“If you want to be a charitable trust, be a charitable trust,” he continued in a dismissive reference to Arthur Sulzberger’s New York Times. “But if you don’t want to be a charitable trust, then you’ve got to focus on producing a return for investors capital. It’s just that simple.”

I have a few problems with what Zell says. Sulzberger currently sells the New York Times, an excellent newspaper, for $1.50 a day, the same price that Zell’s acolytes are asking for four days of the Chicago Tribune in a special offer to win back readers who quit the paper after he took control. So I guess I would question who is running the “charitable trust.”

On the surface, though, much of what Zell says seems to make sense. There’s a pragmatic allure to his vision of challenging every newspaper cost and every decision through the prism of a cost-benefit analysis “just like our government is supposed to do when it raises our taxes.” Who would criticize him for suggesting we listen to our customers?

Speaking as someone who spent the last 30 years in a newsroom, I think he’s also probably right when he says journalists often refused to accept much responsibility for the industry’s declining readership and circulation problems, or that we cared more about our drive to excel journalistically than the serious problems in our business model.

The problem I have with Zell’s philosophy – and the questions it raises about the kind of journalism we will have in print and digital newspapers – is how that vision is applied in newsrooms he controls.

One of the journalistic Petri dishes for his experiments is the Chicago Tribune, a place, in the interest of full disclosure, where I worked for more than 25 years, including five in which I had the honor of being its managing editor. 

The paper currently is in the throes of a massive redesign of its pages driven by people that Zell brought in from the radio industry to “reinvent” the daily newspaper.

Reporters and editors are being schooled in the art of marketing and packaging in an effort to reverse circulation declines at the paper and present “content” in new and visually arresting ways.

Instead of scanning the events, policies, tragedies and joys of the world and giving readers a balanced. in-depth, report on what is important, significant and interesting, editors now place a premium on stories that will appeal to “frenzied families” or “carefree couples.”   These are categories of readers that the paper’s marketing studies suggest are turned off by reports of war, corruption and complex issues like financial calamity.

Accompanying the redesign were all-but-mandatory staff meetings run by a newly-minted masthead editor in which the paper’s journalists received lectures on how to reach their “target audiences” from a marketing department employee who long has tried to downplay serious, in-depth journalism in favor of softer stories that she insists readers really want. Write about disease, she told Tribune journalists, because that’s what “frenzied families” want to read about, not some bomb going off in Beirut.

What the Tribune is doing is like trying to improve education by replacing the teachers and giving the students only the books they want to read. I doubt it will happen, although the company is now out in the Chicago market aggressively discounting the price of the paper, presumably so it can claim victory in the months ahead. 

In fairness, the Tribune points out in its written appeal to win back readers turned off by its new design that it still does serious journalism, citing three recent stories, including one on domestic violence. But the truth is the paper regularly produces fewer weighty stories on significant issues, and those that it does often are relegated to the confusing inside pages of the paper. At one news meeting, an investigative report on the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) was rejected for page one because, as one ranking editor put it, the CHA “is not our demographic.”

As anyone who has spent any time in a newsroom can attest, reporters aim for stories that will land them on page one because that’s how they increase their journalistic capital, win the favor or their editors and enhance their careers. An editor who puts soft on page one will get plenty of soft.

In his remarks, Zell also took journalists and journalism to task for ignoring the desires of their readers. I spent many a day and night in my years as an editor talking to and interacting with hundreds of readers, something I really enjoyed.

Most often they were smart, thoughtful people who cared about the news and the future of our craft. Frankly, I never heard one of them tell me they wanted panderized pap in their newspaper organized around the principal of selling ads. They wanted news about the significant issues of the day organized and written in a way that helped them understand an increasingly complicated world. 

There’s no question that we have some serious problems in our business, and from what I can determine, Zell and his aides do understand that revenue losses are a far bigger problem in the industry than readership. So even if they resolve the financial problems, reporters and editors will still face a thorny question about how we can practice journalism in the newspapers of the future, be they print and ink or digital.

If journalists want serious journalism to survive and thrive, journalists, and only journalists, will have to resolve the central problem we face: The public finds little economic value in what we do. Otherwise they would gladly pay for the news rather than rely on our increasingly unreliable partners in advertising to foot the bill.

Why is that? I don’t know, and, I would venture to add, I’d bet most other journalists don’t either, because few of us have looked very hard for an answer. This lack of intelligence about ourselves is understandable; newsrooms are busy places and few people have the luxury I’ve enjoyed over the past few months – some time to think.

I’ve come to realize that, as a journalist, I’ve not given enough real thought to how we got into this mess.

Zell says the newspaper industry’s problem is that it is living in the past, when its monopoly status allowed it to play the role of a public trust. “It worked in the old days,” he said, “because you could be a public trust and you could do well for your shareholders because you had a monopoly.” Now, he says, newspapers have to act like a business and do what their customers tell them.

The monopoly stuff may have been true about the classified ad business, where advertisers had few alternatives for reaching a mass market and little choice but to pay whatever rates newspapers charged them. But I had enough journalistic competitors on my heels to question his premise about the news side of the business. I really wonder, though, whether the problem we have is that simple.

If all we had to do was ask readers what they wanted in a newspaper and then give it to them, wouldn’t someone have done that years ago?  Had they, and had they been successful, I can guarantee you everyone would have copied them and we would have no problem. Despite what  Zell says, I’ve seen dozens of papers march down that road to no success.

I wonder if, contrary to Zell’s prescription, our problems aren’t related to our pursuit of our business interests at the expense of journalism.

It seems to me that the main problem journalism now faces is the lack of public trust in journalists. I don’t have to repeat the numerous studies that document the level of public esteem for journalists to be a cut above – or below – politicians and used car salesmen. And if people lack respect for you and your work, doesn’t it stand to reason that they don’t value what you do and won’t pay for it?

Why is public regard for journalists so low? There is no shortage of theories. Studies show that many disaffected people accuse journalists of political bias, an unfortunate if understandable view in a society that has become politically polarized over the last two decades, with people increasingly looking to print and television news to validate the opinions they already hold.

People tend to lump all media into one category, failing to differentiate between cable TV shoutfests, sensational celebrity-driven television, magazine and tabloid coverage and the more serious journalism traditionally practiced by established, big-city daily newspapers. To the extent we blur the differences between these once-distinct voices with pandering coverage that resembles advertorial and not editorial we play right into this trap.

I doubt there is any one reason that anyone can really point to for sure, but I suspect the lack of regard for our profession has something to do with the way we have operated as a business.

As Zell says, in the old days, we subordinated our goals for profit to our obligation to be a public trust. Newspaper families and owners remained intensely interested in profit, but not at the levels demanded once those families started selling out to professionally managed chains. As public esteem for journalists plunged, pressure from Wall Street to increase profits, often to unsustainable margins of 20 percent or more, also soared.

Newspapers did all sort of things to live up to Wall Street expectations over the years. They cut expenses, cut staff, eliminated sections of the paper and, like the Tribune Company, acquired other more profitable assets such as television stations.

Soon Tribune journalists, many only too willingly, started preening for the TV cameras and spouting their opinions and becoming minor celebrities. I really wonder how much that sort of thing, not only at Tribune Company but all over the nation, undermined our most precious asset, the integrity of our news reports.

Business considerations also drove the decision to give away content on the Internet. Once one news organization did it, almost all others followed. Is is any wonder that the public places little value on something that our own industry thought so little of that it gave it away for free? 

Obviously, many other factors are no doubt involved. Any investigation of what went wrong would have to go far beyond a piece like this. The decline of readership is a complex problem that also involves sweeping social and cultural changes that have been given far too little attention and study. But if journalists don’t figure out how they got into this mess, they will never figure a way to get out. And that would be the true tragedy.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, readership of newspapers is not really the problem. If you combine the print and on-line audiences of the Chicago Tribune or the Los Angeles Times, they both reach more readers than at any time in their history.

But the system that financed the news that they provide readers for less than the price of a cup of coffee is crumbling, and there’s nothing on the horizon to replace it.

At some point, readers are going to have to pay for the information, which will be a staggering change to the way we live and an even more fundamental change for journalists.

Newspapers across the country are not going to resolve that problem by laying off journalists, closing bureaus and even abandoning print editions for on-line papers. Tribune just slashed its Washington bureau severely at a time when interest in Washington is soaring because of a newly elected president from Chicago, Barack Obama. I suspect we will soon see newspaper bankruptcies.

Democracy, and indeed, Zell’s cherished capitalism, must have a vibrant and free press to survive and prosper. And you are not going to get that kind of press by simply listening to your customer and giving him what he or she wants. That’s what Detroit did when everyone told them they wanted an SUV. And look where that got them, and all of us.

I suspect that once again our future is at least in part in our past. To thrive and prosper, newspapers have to figure out how to deliver journalism that makes the public believe we once again are a public trust, something of value and something they won’t hesitate to pay for.  Instead many papers today are trying to give readers entertainment, without the drama and without the laughs.

coupon book
Posted by Bettina Kozlowski
12/11/2008, 04:53 PM

The redesign that was so euphemistically pitched by the Tribune's new marketing-uhm-managing editor as a fresh look "giving readers what they want" resulted in a very nice coupon book!
But why waste precious space and cut a sixteenth of a page from the wine-and superstore-blowout sales ads! Do we really need an eighty-word "headline story" in the national section purchased from AP? That fussy AP is too expensive and it's not "news you can use."
I suggest renaming the Trib's sections"National Coupon Section" and "Local Coupon Section" and the business section "Cooking For Less."
You want local community newspaper? At 25 cents a copy, the Chicago Tribune is just that!
It'll compete well with The (bankrupt)Reader, because its owner has no ambition and now no money left to squeeze from layoffs to hire an Evan Osnos as its international correspondent. Want a gripping account of how Ukraine and Poland are competing to be part of the new Europe? Just read it online! What’s that, yahoo doesn’t send journalists abroad?
I feel cynical and helpless as I watch the work of great journalists, such as Mr. Osnos, fade into atavistic irrelevance, thanks to the attitudes of great businessmen, like Mr.Zell.
Oh, I know of great offers to spruce up websites pro-bono, or work as an unpaid intern for the Tribune. Lately, I have also fielded part-time, corporate job offers for editor with a salary range from $13 to $16 an hour, "depending on experience…”
I propose It's time for a collective career change for all journalists: We'll join the stuffed ranks of MBAs, CEOs, executives et al to further our own economic interests, instead of clinging to the vestiges of idealism with the surefire prospect of a steadily deteriorating, substandard quality of life.
Though I for one cherish leaving my house and computer behind once in a while and pulling out my NYT - the real thing, made of recycled paper!- on a park bench,bus or in a long checkout line. I love reading well crafted sentences that convey new insight and opinion that arouses my passions in a way no pundit on cable news, or no yahoo article could ever do. By respecting my intelligence and giving me more than I expected.
Too bad those of us who think sponsoring an Evan Osnos to reveal what's going on farther than 30 miles away through his home-away-from-home lens, are over. Excuse me, "must loop outta hear", as I have ten more coupons to cut out from the Trib and study the P/E ratios of industrials!

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