Save us from the newspaper CEOs

While talking this week with Christine Lopes, executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island, I asked her -- just for fun -- whether she had any bright ideas to stop the bleeding that's rampant in the newspaper industry.

This is a matter of no small import for Rhode Islanders, and even the ProJo-haters among the commenters on RI's Future and Anchor Rising. While blogs can take up some of the slack from newspapers and do some fine work of their own, they generally can't replace the serious investigative reporting done by newspapers. Here in the Ocean State, the ProJo has long led the way in rooting out official wrongdoing and fighting for the public's right to know.

Which is why anyone concerned about civic culture should read this Eric Alterman piece in the Nation. An excerpt:

Corporate responses have also included: asking an already dispirited staff to take a 10 percent pay cut (the Boston Globe); raising the newsstand price by 33 to 50 percent (Gannett, the Wall Street Journal); drastically reducing the newspaper's news/advertising ratio (all Tribune papers); turning the paper's Sunday magazine over to the business staff (the Los Angeles Times); reducing the physical size of the newspaper and cutting down on the news hole (everyone); buying out experienced, knowledgeable staff members and replacing them with underpaid novices (everyone); and closing foreign and national bureaus (almost everyone).

Virtually the only expense still intact is executive pay. On the Recovering Journalist blog, Mark Potts notes that the average compensation among the thirteen public-company newspaper CEOs was just under $6 million a year in 2007, according to corporate proxy filings with the SEC. These figures, one can only conclude, are entirely unrelated to performance.

The dearth of decent ideas designed to save newspapers -- or reinvent them for the digital age in ways that preserve their crucial democratic functions -- is curious and depressing. It's curious because some of the smartest, most ambitious and most civic-minded people in America are deeply engaged with the problem. It is depressing because the only ones with the self-confidence to undertake radical measures appear to be completely off their respective rockers.

Take the example of the Tribune Company's new owner, Sam Zell. Leaving aside his penchant for potty-mouth rejoinders for those who question his judgment, Zell has done nothing to slow the slide in the company's fortunes and much to accelerate it. Scrambling like mad for cash to service the company's debt, Zell sold off the profitable Newsday and borrowed $300 million against future earnings, a clear sign of panic. To advise him on long-term strategy, he has appointed as "chief innovation officer" Lee Abrams, a man who was apparently surprised to learn that reports datelined "Baghdad" are actually produced by reporters in Baghdad. His suggestion: "photos of the reporter with Iraqi kids" to advertise this fact.

Writing on his blog, Abrams mused that newspapers were "TOO NPR," (caps in original), which he found "a bit elitist." He would rather have newspapers "study the feel of a well honed All News Radio station," which he defines as "being INTELLIGENT... not intellectual."

The more one listens to the men and women at the top of the industry, the more it becomes obvious that the survival of the newspaper -- the primary information-gathering and knowledge-disseminating instrument of American democracy -- is going to have to come from somewhere else. Sure, the blogosphere makes some invaluable contributions and a few foundations are rising to the challenge of funding investigative journalism. Carnegie Corporation president Vartan Gregorian recently suggested to me that universities might attach a small fee to their students' tuition -- like an activities fee -- to pay for the newspaper subscription of their choice. This would improve the newspapers' bottom line, give their advertisers access to a coveted demographic and, if successful, would inculcate in the students the habit of newspaper reading as they approach maturity as voting citizens. It's a great idea, and unlike most of what one hears at these conferences, it is on scale with the problem. Unfortunately, young people do not appear to want to pick up a newspaper, even for free. They often leave them lying around, even at journalism schools, where they are distributed gratis.

In response to my question, Lopes didn't have much of an answer -- not that she should (it's not her job). But it remains a concern for all of us. The ProJo is getting ready to roll out a much ballyhooed and perhaps dubious "women's intiative." If it can help RI's big daily to make money, maybe that's not a bad thing. The bottom line, though, is that the erosion of newspapers hurts us all.

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