Plain Dealing independent quality coverage of toxic issues is the key to real NEO's future

Submitted by Norm Roulet on Thu, 07/13/2006 - 01:49.

Over the next many years and decades, NEO will need quality "independent" journalism to cover lead poisoning, air and water polluters, and other toxic conditions here, which are caused by globally-dominant corporate interests like Jones Day and Sherwin Williams, which have significant influence on the economy on their "home field" of NEO. While I don't see transformational impact coming from any current independent NEO media forces, I came across a 2000 article in the Columbia Journalism Review that offered a best case perspective on Newhouse, the Plain Dealer owners, which should be revisited as we welcome a new publisher... the premise: "When good editors come together with the Newhouse management philosophy, better newspapers result." What about the impact of new publishers?

The purported independent Newhouse management philosophy and Plain Dealer transition to new, non-NEO publishing-leadership suggest the PD is well positioned and may be ready and able to address the issue of lead poisoning and other environmental crises here, even as the PD and Newhouse depend on polluters for significant advertising revenues, and have big business connections with polluters' attorneys, and have political agendas themselves. In fact, I believe for the future it will prove to be an advantage for NEO that we have one monopoly print newspaper, which is part of an independently-owned publishing conglomerate managed from afar, staffed with editors and a publisher from afar, as it is unlikely any of that may be corrupted by local political or business interests. The White House is an entirely different matter, for different analysis.

But, it occurs to me, the Newhouse family made a bold move in selecting Doug Clifton as editor of the PD, some six years ago, and NEO has been rewarded with better journalism. Now, we have a new publisher and that opens up more opportunities for progress in our community. Say what you may, but print is not dead, and the daily Plain Dealer has a very strong influence on all aspects of daily life in NEO. And, like a law firm, the PD should include with every article whether they have a conflict of interest covering that subject... if they make money from advertising from this drug company, or that big box retail chain, or a journalist lives in a township they cover, or a newspaper publisher is on the board of this hospital or that university... all that should be disclosed, with intelligence. In fact, I'd like to know the religious orientation of journalists - denomination and degree of practice - especially if they are covering politics and influencing votors. All this should be registered in thorough, standardized profiles, available on-line, and mapped and linked to the journalists' published print and electronic material for coninuous disclosure.

If NEO is to become at all desirable and attractive as a new economy community, throughout the years and decades ahead, we need radical change regarding pollution and toxins in our environment, promoting recovery from past industrial policies that have contaminated our community and society. For that to occur, the Plain Dealer must help educate the people on the realities of today's dangerous state here, and point leaders and followers toward a cleaner future, without concern for any other conflicts of interest. The Newhouse family seems to allow such independence of their papers and staff, so it seems entirely up to the Plain Dealer leadership and journalists themselves to control the health of their readers and the public at large. That is an immense responsibility, as our lives are literally in their hands. Read more about who own their hands, below:

 

CJRColumbia Journalism ReviewJanuary/February 2000 | Contents

 

 

by Brent Cunningham
Brent Cunningham is an assistant editor at CJR.

 

See Also: A Closer Look: The Four Largest Newhouse Newspapers

After nearly thirty years at publicly owned Knight Ridder, Doug Clifton, the new editor of Cleveland's Plain Dealer, was blissfully out of sorts last year. Summer had turned to fall and he hadn't shifted into "budget preparation mode." Clifton now runs a Newhouse paper, and he is discovering the Newhouse Way.

Suddenly, he had no real budget to prepare. There was no five-year plan, no mission statement, no threat of "mid-course corrections" if revenue estimates don't pan out. There were no corporate financial folks tracking his full-time equivalents and wincing at his travel requests. No analysts pointing the way to ever-higher investor returns. "The difference is enormous," says Clifton, who was executive editor of The Miami Herald for eight years before coming to Cleveland. "It's extremely liberating to work in an environment where nearly 100 percent of my creative energy is spent on covering the news and getting people excited about covering the news."

 Top Newhouse Editors

In short, the Newhouse Way means something rare for editors now that most newspapers answer to Wall Street: freedom to shape a paper without measuring everything against the bottom line.

It means John Kirkpatrick, editor and publisher of The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, can turn his staff loose on a thirty-two-page special section on central Pennsylvania schools without selling a single ad.

It means Deborah Howell, who edits the Newhouse News Service and heads the Washington bureau, can boost travel beyond the Beltway and add a photography and graphics department.

It means the Mobile Register can spend two years investigating environmental degradation in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, and still muster the manpower and money to send someone to Honduras to cover the legacy of Hurricane Mitch. The Newhouse Way allows Sandy Rowe, editor of The Oregonian, to give one reporter six months to follow a french fry from a potato farm in eastern Washington to a McDonald's in Indonesia, while another spends eight months traveling the world and writing about persecution of Christians. It means Clifton, if he decides it makes sense, can add a Monday business tab at The Plain Dealer, even though it would require hiring more staff and buying more newsprint.

Newhouse editors don't share ideas. They don't even pay attention to what other Newhouse editors are doing. They are encouraged -- required, really -- to develop their own vision for their paper and implement as they see fit. "They are independent, which is how we want them to be," says Donald Newhouse, who has headed the family's newspapers for the last twenty years. "And they are different, which is how we want them to be." Stan Tiner, who left the Mobile Register last year after seven years as editor to take over The Daily Oklahoman, says he once suggested to Mark Newhouse, the family overseer in charge of his paper, that the Newhouse News Service pick up The Times-Picayune's coverage of the New Orleans Saints football team. "We were looking to get some Saints coverage in our paper, and it seemed like an efficient use of resources," says Tiner. Efficient maybe, but not Newhousian. "He told me if I wanted more Saints coverage, I should hire another sportswriter and send him to New Orleans to cover the games. So I did."

Ever since Samuel I. Newhouse Sr. bought the Staten Island Advance in 1922, the Newhouse family has given its editors great freedom as it went about building one of the country's largest and most prosperous privately held media empires. Today that empire, Advance Publications, is home to twenty-three daily newspapers of varying size, location, and quality; Condé Nast magazines, including Vanity Fair and The New Yorker; Fairchild Publications; Parade magazine; a chain of suburban weeklies; another of business tabs; a cable television partnership with Time Warner; and a growing online operation. Last year, Advertising Age ranked Advance the tenth largest U.S. media company, with estimated 1998 revenue of nearly $4 billion, more than half coming from its newspapers.

One reason Newhouse newspapers can give editors such freedom and still make money is because most are dominant in their market. In Cleveland, for instance, Advance endured a 1985 grand jury investigation into allegations that it conspired to kill the Cleveland Press, which closed in 1982, giving The Plain Dealer what amounts to a metropolitan daily newspaper monopoly. Then, in 1998, Advance tightened its grip on northern Ohio with the purchase of Sun Newspapers, a chain of twenty-three zoned weeklies in suburban Cleveland.

The Newhouses are clannish and tight-lipped about the family business. Family members are scattered throughout Advance, and each paper is assigned to a Newhouse overseer who visits monthly. Samuel I. Sr., who died in 1979, turned the operation over to his sons -- Samuel I. Jr., or Si, who handles the magazines, and Donald, who takes care of the newspapers. They are now gradually bringing in the next generation.

For most of the media company's seventy-eight-year history, however, the Newhouse Way was synonymous with benign neglect. The family had a reputation -- it claims unwarranted -- for running a chain of cash cow newspapers, where profits were primary and editorial excellence rare and coincidental. "Before Gannett, Newhouse was the model for what the modern newspaper has become," says Thomas Maier, a reporter at Newsday who wrote about the family and its business in a 1994 book. "Out-of-town ownership, bottom-line journalism; not a soapbox, but a printing press for cash."

But in the last ten years, that has changed. "My impression is that the surprising newspapers out there today are Newhouse newspapers," says Bill Kovach, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. "There is more improvement there and more interesting things going on than at other papers, and I have to credit that to the willingness to let the editor run the show." The Newhouses insist there has been no magical transformation. "The truth is, we haven't changed," says David Starr, president of the Union-News in Springfield, Massachusetts, and senior editor of Newhouse Newspapers, who has worked for the family since 1939. "It's simply that the outside world has started to recognize the value of what we do."

Many would beg to differ. A number of current and former Newhouse employees, and other observers of the family and its papers, say that sometime in the last decade or so, the Newhouses decided profitable newspapers weren't enough. They say the new approach was fueled by the rise of the next generation, and that it was spearheaded by Steve, Donald's son, who is editor-in-chief of The Jersey Journal. In his book, Maier described Steve as having "the sensibilities of a journalist." Even Starr says Steve has become "much more involved with the newspapers on the editorial side." Steve Newhouse calls this a fantasy. "It's revisionist coverage that says now we care about editorial quality because I care about editorial quality," he says from his small, third-floor office in Jersey City. "While that is literally true -- I do care about editorial quality -- it is not true in the sense that I have no contact with Newhouse editors except at the Journal, the Washington bureau, which I oversee, and The Plain Dealer, where I go once a month with my father. I don't speak to Jim Amoss (editor of The Times-Picayune) except socially."

Unlike some scions, Steve learned the family business in the trenches. He sold classified ads at sixteen, had an internship at the Staten Island Advance while at Yale, wrote obits as a summer intern at The Oregonian, and then was trained by Starr as a reporter and editor in Springfield. After a brief stint as a copy editor at Parade, he took over as editor-in-chief of The Jersey Journal at twenty-six. Within six months, he discovered one of his reporters was on the city payroll. "I was woefully unprepared to be editor," he says. He knew enough, however, to fire the wayward reporter. But he relied on the wisdom of Starr, Mort Pye, the long-time editor of Newark's Star-Ledger, and others in the extended Newhouse newspaper family. Pye, in particular, influenced Steve's editorial outlook. "Mort was a news guy," he says. "I believe the most important things for an editor are integrity, credibility, and never forgetting you're only as good as the news you're putting in your paper. That came from Mort."

Whatever the reasons, evidence of the recent success of the Newhouse Way is hard to ignore. Until 1990, Newhouse papers had won two Pulitzers, the last one in 1969. In the last ten years they have won five and were finalists for more than a dozen others. cjr's recent ranking of America's best newspapers -- done by a poll of editors around the country -- had The Oregonian at number twelve, and two other Newhouse papers -- The Star-Ledger and The Times-Picayune -- as "ones to watch." Indeed, the '90s have been a coming out party for Newhouse newspapers, a time to emerge from the glitzier shadow of the magazine side. The new era began on a high with the family's massive victory over the IRS in 1990 -- described at the time as the largest tax-estate case ever -- that saved the Newhouses more than $500 million in taxes on Samuel Sr.'s estate. Then, Donald Newhouse served a stint as chairman of the Newspaper Association of America and was elected to The Associated Press board of directors, two rather public seats for such a private man. "This was something new," says Fred Stickel, long-time publisher of The Oregonian. "It brought Newhouse newspapers into the public eye." Then came the move that some consider central in turning the papers around. In a break with tradition, Newhouse hired several prominent editors from outside the organization: Rowe at The Oregonian; Jim Willse at The Star-Ledger; first David Hall and now Clifton at The Plain Dealer; Howell in the Washington bureau; Tiner at the Mobile Register; Kirkpatrick at the Patriot-News. Amoss was promoted at The Times-Picayune. Simultaneously, hundreds of millions of dollars were sunk into new facilities at many of these papers. The Oregonian, for example, got a new newsroom and now has approval for a $200 million printing plant. In Cleveland, the printing plant came in 1994 and a new $38 million headquarters is on its way. The Mobile Register is awaiting final approval on a newsroom and printing plant.

Now, the Newhouse Way has cachet. These are editors with reputations for excellence, and, given the freedom and support, they can be expected to create great newspapers. "It was clear to me that a commitment had been made -- from the Newhouses to the publisher, and from the publisher to the rest of us in the newsroom -- that we wanted to be, in short order, the best newspaper in Alabama and one of the best in America," says Tiner. Tiner's replacement in Mobile, Mike Marshall, started at the Register as a copy boy twenty-five years ago. "The difference between then and now is that now we have people leading this paper who are insisting on us being the best we can be," he says.

Keith Woods, a reporter and editor at The Times-Picayune for sixteen years who now teaches at The Poynter Institute for Media Studies, says it has taken "visionary leadership" to take advantage of the unusual editorial freedom at Newhouse. And that in the last decade, the family went out and got that leadership. "The opportunity to be better has always been there," he says. "But the family has in fact stepped up its demands for better journalism at its newspapers. And my sense is that it really has been a matter of the people who moved in and took over in the last ten years."

In his own circumspect way, Steve Newhouse acknowledges that the Newhouse Way has allowed the talented new crop of editors to flourish, but that it also left unchecked the shortcomings of some past Newhouse editors who were not as good. "A strong corporate structure can cover up for editors who are not up to snuff," he says. "The lack of such a system may not have served us well with editors who were less than great. But I'm certainly not going to name names."