There’s no business like your own newspaper’s business

There’s no business like your own newspaper’s business

Overholser, Geneva

Quick: Name a business that newspapers cover really badly. You’re thinking maybe something very new, a trade we know little about? How about a different candidate: us. When it comes to businesses that get skimpy, even cowardly, business coverage, the newspaper industry – our own newspapers in particular – surely belongs among the candidates.

Think about it. In any town, by any measure, the newspaper is an important business. It shapes its community in many different ways every day. It is largely responsible for what people know and don’t know. And it has a huge impact on other businesses, too, through its advertising practices as well as through its reporting on them.

Given all that, would you say your business staff is as dogged about chasing down information from your publisher and corporate executives as it is about chasing down that same information from your town’s utility execs, bankers, department store managers, and car dealers? Think how often we remind ourselves to “follow the money” in our reporting, whether it’s on businesses, politics, or almost any institution. But put “money” together with “us,” and what’s our instinct? “Avert your eyes.” When it comes to other important businesses in town, we hound the c.e.o. to tell us whatever he will about any change in business priorities. Or about the grounds on which an important investment decision was made. Or about profit levels, or executive salary packages. But when it comes to us? We don’t even break our own paper’s profit margins out of the indecipherable corporate annual report – assuming we run the annual report at all.

Show me the newspaper that explains how much of the executive editor’s salary-and-benefits package is now tied to the newspaper’s financial performance. Isn’t that a subject of some interest to the public, given the editor’s impact on their lives?

Or how about a good, in-depth look at the decision-making process a newspaper goes through when it raises ad rates? Picture a story rich with detail on how the paper’s executives balance newsprint price hikes, circulation goals – and of course those profit numbers, looming over everything. Most unlikely, right? But not because the ad rates don’t have considerable power over other businesses’ plans and performance. And certainly not because it wouldn’t be of terrific interest to the community.

Or how about newsroom workforce stories? Chances are we’re all pretty thorough in covering teachers’ salaries, a subject of importance to the community, since teachers determine what our kids learn. Well, don’t reporters and editors determine, in large part, what all of us learn? How many papers have taken a thorough look at what’s been happening with journalism salaries? For example, several years ago, when Michigan State University surveyed starting pay in thirty-nine occupations, did we take note that journalism came in thirty-seventh, below even the oft-lamented salaries of kindergarten teachers?

Or take the shape of the newspaper itself. If we redesign the paper, we’re only too happy to talk about it – often in a full-blown separate section. But nip and tuck the newshole, and we probably don’t feel the need to let readers know. The same sort of thing occurs when we go to a new page size. We’re eager to tell them about the sleek modern look of it, the greater convenience for mass-transit riders. The fact that they won’t be getting quite as much news today as yesterday – or that the company will save millions next year on newsprint – doesn’t get quite the same prominence.

If we’re poor at covering ourselves, do others fill in the gaps? I recently spoke to a group of reporters from business publications in cities up and down the East Coast, and asked them if they were giving newspapers in their towns coverage anywhere near comparable to that given other large businesses. Almost all said they cover the paper only very rarely. A couple of them said that they had occasionally tried, but found news executives among the most secretive and resistant to news coverage that they ever encountered.

Increasingly it seems to be local alternative publications that are covering newspapers most aggressively. The New Times in Phoenix, say, writing about what’s going on with The Arizona Republic, or the New Jersey Monthly on the Asbury Park Press. And, interestingly enough, this coverage is far more widely disseminated than it has ever been, thanks to the Internet. On Web sites like www. poynter.org/medianews and www. journalism.org, stories about staff cuts or the addition of front-page ads get picked up from publications that would never before have been read beyond their city or state boundaries – and they are eagerly passed around and gossiped over.

You could call this a kind of samizdat, after the Soviet-era self-published information that made the rounds in the days when anything not officially sanctioned had to travel underground. Whenever I write in my syndicated column about the effects of corporatization, waves of “downsizing,” the manner in which papers handle page-size or the like, the number of papers that actually publish the column seems to plummet. But then I hear from news staffers across the country that the column was posted on their newsroom bulletin board, or spread like wildfire on the computer system.

Why is what gets into our newspapers so narrow? Sometimes the cause is obvious: Corporate executives don’t want news about a new printing plant affecting the real estate market before the land is bought.

Editors don’t want to make life miserable for the publisher. Publishers don’t want to tick off corporate. What editor wants to send out word on a decrease in her training budget, or the fact that all the new newshole is going to subjects tied to classified ads? And perhaps we let ourselves off the hook by telling each other we don’t have any credibility when reporting on ourselves anyway.

Why then should we be doing it? Because the public is affected by what we do. Because informing others keeps us (and our owners) honest, and befits a trade that prides itself on truth-telling. Because it would be consistent with the way we treat others. And also because it’s a smart thing to do. When we conduct our own business undercover, we lack some of the information we’d get if we were more open. We decide minority markets aren’t desirable to advertisers and find out after we’ve made some poor choices that in fact minority markets tend to have high proportions of consumer-goods purchasers. Soft news becomes the faddish prescription for winning new readers – until years later, when we realize we’ve been disappointing the real franchise, hard-news consumers. Opening ourselves to scrutiny could produce the debate that would make us better and stronger, faster. This is the kind of thing we tell others all the time. If we acted on it within our own businesses, perhaps we’d see how right we are.

Geneva Overholser (genevaoh@aol. com), a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group, writes regularly for CJR about newspapers. Among positions she has held are editorial writer for The New York Times, editor of The Des Moines Register, and ombudsman for The Washington Post. She also served nine years on the Pulitzer Prize board.

Copyright Columbia University, Graduate School of Journalism Mar/Apr 2001

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