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Corporate Media and the Media Log Mail Bag

Several years ago, Jay Harris delivered a very loud message to the news business when he resigned as publisher of the San Jose Mercury News in reaction to budget cuts planned by corporate parent Knight Ridder. In a memo to staffers, Harris warned that "profit targets" could risk "signficant and lasting harm to the Mercury News -- as a journalistic enterprise and as the special place to work that it is."


Given his sacrifice, Harris became an important voice warning of the dangers of increasing bottom line pressures on journalism. Jay Harris


In the wake of Harris's resignation, a group of media heavyweights formed a group called "The Alliance for Journalism" in an effort to seize the moment and fight against newsroom downsizing. What actually happened to the well-intentioned Alliance is anyone's guess.

In any event, John Caroll, the very highly regarded Los Angeles Times editor who suddenly resigned this week, is no Jay Harris. But it's worth reading this interview with him on CJRDaily.Org. CJR

Here's the most interesting part.

Question: It's generally acknowledged that the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post are the four premier newspapers in the country in terms of resources that they throw into reporting and presenting the news. Three of those four are essentially family-held enterprises, in that a majority of voting stock remains in private hands. The fourth -- your employer -- is a publicly-held company. Is it possible for a great newspaper to thrive under the umbrella of a publicly traded corporation?

Carroll: This is one of the penetrating questions about our business. Can corporations that are not family-controlled produce excellent newspapers? The returns aren't in, but it's not looking good. Newspaper-owning corporations -- and I mean all of them, not just my own employer -- have an unwritten pact with Wall Street that requires unsustainably high profit levels. Each year, newspapers shed reporters, editors, photographers, designers and newshole. Each year, readers get less. Each year many of those readers turn elsewhere for their news. Professor Phil Meyer has plotted our oblivion, which, as I recall, comes in less than two generations. As I say, we are on an unsustainable course. The old family-owned papers had their flaws, but at least the owners tried to preserve them for their children and grandchildren.

It's important that the Los Angeles Times remain firmly in the top tier -- important to the community, important to journalism, important to the national conversation. There's no other newsgathering engine this formidable west of Manhattan. The nation's voice should not be monopolized by New York and Washington.


Just one other point about Carroll that may or may not be worth remembering. Before he took the Times job in 2000, he had been on the verge of accepting a post as curator of Harvard's Nieman Foundation, a job that ended up going to the current curator Bob Giles whose tenure has been marked by some controversy.

*****

Judging by the reaction of those who posted responses to the item about new Boston Globe ombudsman Richard Chacon, there seems to be some public skepticism about ombudsmen and how they do their jobs. Fair enough. Perhaps the idea that they often dubbed "the readers' representative" raises unreachable expectations. Or maybe there's concern about how someone on a news organization's payroll can be counted on to monitor that organization. It's not a perfect system by any means, but in my view, it's still one worth having.

Reaction was mixed to the recent WBUR decision to ax "The Connection," with some epxressions of regret that "Inside Out" correspondent Michael Goldfarb was also among the station casualties. I'll say one thing, though. People who follow the machinations at the BU-owned public radio station really pay close attention to the inner workings of the place. And there'll be a lot of scrutiny of the new general manager, whenever one is appointed.
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