by Tim J. McGuire, Editor - Minneapolis Star Tribune
I do not want this speech to be another "woe is us" screed against some mysterious Wall Street Devil. I do not want it to be idealistic or impractical. I believe in capitalism as much as the next person. It's no secret that the equity aspects of the newspaper business have been very good to this son of a Mid-Michigan car salesman and hospital admitting clerk. Profit is good.
But the basic values of news have also shaped my life. There was the day 27 years ago in Ypsilanti when a distraught young father wanted to choke me because we had written a story about his child's crib death. There was the week in Ypsilanti that our little newspaper that could, told the nation that patients in an Ann Arbor veterans hospital were dying at an alarming rate. Those events and others taught me early some great lessons about a newspaper's power to destroy and to save.
Each one of you has a score of stories about how your newspaper work made a fundamental difference in your community, in your nation, or even in one individual's life.
Len Downie and Bob Kaiser in their new book "The News about the News" eloquently describe how great storytelling, fueled by great reporting, can make "a palpable difference in the community, sometimes in the entire country or even the world." Then Downie and Kaiser deliver the clincher. "The best such journalism is often produced by reporters and editors who have the luxury of pursuing topics they think are important without having to worry excessively about how much it may cost to report a story or whom the story may offend."
Juxtapose that quote with one from Polk Laffoon, a spokesman for Knight Ridder. He said this about newsroom staff cuts to Rick Edmonds from Poynter, "How deep is too deep? I suppose it's when you can't get the paper out. An awful lot of papers that get very thin still sell just fine."
So, there's the collision, and in recent months it's been a violent one.
On one side are CEOs and publishers of newspapers. They cite the "efficiency of the markets" and tell us the "market" demands profit margins in the 20 to 35 percent range They say they need to grow those profits consistently.
On the other side, journalists, academics and pundits say journalism is not a business like any other. They say it's a sacred trust fueled by the First Amendment and to fulfill that public mission, news resources matter-a lot.
Hovering above the debate is the Wall Street devil. Call it the market, the shareholder, the street, or the analysts. All the terms imply that someone else insists we produce ever-larger short-term profits. If we don't, that devil will come take our business away from us. That has always been the horrible threat-someone even more evil will snatch your business. Then you'll really be sorry.
I do not believe in the Wall Street devil. I think the devil is us. Scott Cooley, a senior analyst at Morningstar, was correct when he said in the March issue of American Journalism Review that "pressure for strong financial performance comes ultimately from individual investors who are looking for the best returns on their pension plans or other financial holdings."
The devil made me do it argument must die. Here. Today. Every publisher, editor an d newspaper CEO in America is an independent human being with free will, values, morals and ethics.
It is high time we show some courage.
It is time we dig deep and tap into those values and morals and allow them to guide us in our leadership of American journalism.
We must stop wringing our hands and ruing our fate. No more ruing!!
I said this was not going to be an idealistic speech so I propose five practical prescriptions to create a future in which news values and profits can co-exist in the same sentence.
- Establish our own personal value base and live it courageously.
- Buy into, promote and live the values of the First Amendment.
- Tell our story better to investors.
- Publishers and editors must make a personal contract to create a sound business AND serve the public interest.
- We need an industry-wide leader to galvanize the national discussion on news values and profits.
I've been thrilled recently to see the word stewardship used next to the word journalism. At a Poynter conference in January, Howell Raines talked about the Methodist stewardship he learned as a child. He says it reminded him that the most important thing is to be a good steward of the New York Times.
When Jerry Roberts resigned as managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle he said, "I want to offer two words of unsolicited advice that I believe shapes all great newspaper people - practice stewardship. The Chronicle is a living, breathing thing. It was here long before any of us arrived and it'll be here long after all of us have gone. We're all stewards of a great and historic institution that defines our community.
Being on the paper is a privilege and a public trust and we should go about our work with reverence, caring and passion that honors the paper's past, builds its future and above all else, serves its readers."
This talk of stewardship is uplifting and essential. Stewardship needs to be at the heart of our values. Stewardship instills and personalizes the sense of obligation we should all feel if we are to find the right blend of profit and public service.
This discussion of our own personal value base is all about looking in the mirror and looking into your soul at the same time. Do you like what you see? Do you see courage? Do you see fear? Do you see resignation? Are you proud of that person you see, and what you do for a living and how you do it? To paraphrase an old cliché, when you die are you going to be proudest of the margins your newspaper produced or d o you want to be known for the way your values permeated your newspaper?
We must engage in this discussion about values and profits with a courageous and deep sense of commitment to our own personal set of values and ethics.
My second prescription is that we must buy into, understand and live according to the values of the First Amendment. We do not make Wheaties and we do not make car bumpers. We make newspapers for a free society.
Our forefathers protected the press and the courts have expanded that protection because news is essential to our society. Free and open discussion of ideas and of the behavior of the powerful is essential to our democracy. That's why Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach, in their book "The Elements of Journalism," conclude that journalists really work for citizens and not for the corporate behemoths.
It becomes the responsibility of all of us to make sure that the Rosenstiel/Kovach concept does not become a quaint and idealistic statement. We have to make our obligation to the citizens and the First Amendment genuine and palpable. Our information and journalism has to add ever-greater value to the reader and the community. Now is not the time to be stinting on resources to gather news or on adding value to the news and information we gather. We must be responsible, relevant, important, useful and interesting. Above all, we must have the courage to fulfill the dreams of the framers of the First Amendment.
My third prescription is th at we must tell our story better to investors.
I would suggest, an underrating of the true long-term value of our franchise.
This is a subject that is getting a lot of much-needed attention. An incredibly bright an d engaging Ph.D. candidate at the University of Missouri named Eleanor Farnen has developed a fascinating hypothesis. It is this. "Media companies tend to focus on the financial goals of their organizations. Non-media companies will take a more balanced approach by focusing not only on financial issues but also on the value of their products, the importance of their customers and suppliers and the future of their brands."
When she's finished, Farnen thinks she may find that media executives are setting the financial bar far higher than it needs to be set.
My good friend, Dan Sullivan, the Cowles Professor of Media Management and Economics at the University of Minnesota, finds it incredibly telling that not a single newspaper company appears in the portfolio of prominent Public Interest mutual funds. These are funds set up to invest in companies with admirable social behavior or companies with great social responsibility.
We need to start asking why companies dedicated to enhancing the public debate are not on such investment lists.
We need to develop performance measures that reflect our investment in the communities we serve.
We need to sell our public service mission, the long-term prospects of our business and the social value of our product to investors rather than obsessing on profit margins.
My fourth prescription is that publishers and editors make a personal contract to create a sound business AND serve the public interest.
This opposing side stuff is not going to work. Our news franchises are not going to survive if publishers and editors are squabbling, or worse, not talking at all.
We're not going to create cooperation and partnership by wiggling our noses and wishing it so, but a genuine contract between publishers and editors could help. I'd say the contract should have these essential elements.
- The reader/citizen is the primary customer. Not advertisers. Not corporate. Not an elite few. If the publisher and editor can agree on that simple target, and behave as if it is unequivocally true, many arguments will be eliminated.
- Business and profits are not automatically bad and the editor will not assume they are. In return, the publisher will not view the editor as disloyal if the editor questions the levels of those profits or the rate of profit growth.
- Grow or die must be the motto of both the editor and the publisher. The franchise must grow, not just the bottom-line. If operating earnings are growing on the back of cost cuts the franchise is dying and you're milking it. If the editor and publisher are committed to growing readership, circulation and the entire franchise, the debate would be reshaped in countless companies.
- Newsrooms are going to have to grow and grow significantly. This is a hard one and I am well aware it is the one business people may well use to scoff at this entire speech. If newsrooms are going to become more multi-media and they must; if newsrooms are going to better serve more target markets and they must; if newsrooms are going to develop better experts on complex topics and they must; if newsrooms are going to fulfill the mandates of the Readership Institute study and they must; if newsrooms are going to do more great journalism which makes newspapers vital to citizens and they must--then newsrooms are going to need more people. Efficiency is a noble goal and we should be smarter about how we use our resources, but newsrooms are going to have to grow.
- The editor and publisher must always assume the best about each other. They must agree to never denigrate the other's position in front of other people. They must never lie to each other. They must talk out every issue in a respectful way. As parents we all know that telling our kids they can't do something "just because I said so" is not very fruitful. The same applies to the editor/publisher relationship.
My fifth prescription is that we need an industry-wide leader to bring CEO's, publishers and editors together to lead the national discussion on news values and profits.
There has been some important discussion on this matter, but it is too diffused.
There are lots of disparate efforts right now at universities, foundations and think tanks to find effective ways to center this problem-solving conversation. What we need now is a galvanizing force to take charge. We need dynamic leadership to mobilize editors and publishers to work this problem to solution.
We're going to need money. We're going to need vision. We're going to need dynamism. Most of all we're going to need unity. All the groups who want to figure out how newspapers can be profitable and remain true to core news values are going to have to be effectively harnessed, focused and energized.
Len Downie suggested to the ASNE board of directors Monday night that ASNE should lead this effort. Len's thoughts were provocative and ASNE needs to be a major player in the effort. But I don't believe ASNE's governance allows ASNE to lead this effort. A one-year president with full-time work obligations simply could not produce the creativity, the energy or the leadership required.
Poynter, Knight Foundation, Pew, a major university or API would also be hard-pressed to lead this process alone.
I think perhaps the best solution is a coalition of all of these organizations along with NAA, the McCormick Foundation, APME, SPJ, the Committee f or Concerned Journalists, Unity, the Council of Presidents and many others, led by a powerful individual with the skills I've talked about. I can easily think of five or six outstanding people who might be willing to get their hands dirty to make such an effort a success.
I believe we are at a crucial juncture in our profession and in our industry. We must decide today whether we're going to take newspapers forward with a genuine sense of values and commitment or if we are going to choose the path of milking our companies of every last dime. If we do that, we will die.
I recently read the excellent Pulitzer Prize winning book by Joseph Ellis, "Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation." I was struck by Ellis' contention that the voices of the revolutionary heroes speak to us so eloquently "because they knew we would be looking and listening." Ellis says, "All the vanguard members of the revolutionary generation developed a keen sense of their historical significance even while they were still making history on which their reputations would rest."
Every editor, every publisher and every newspaper company CEO in America is living at a special, critical moment for American journalism. We need to find the personal courage to overcome our feelings of isolation, fear and powerlessness so we can live that moment in a way that would make Casper Yost and all of his ASNE founding brothers proud. We must act as if history is watching.