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Jewish World Review April 6, 2001 / 13 Nissan, 5761

Dan K. Thomasson

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Consumer Reports

Bad news about the news business -- TO most of us who hack out a living by practicing this haphazard craft, the annual meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors is sort of a "Green River rendezvous" where we meet to hobnob, network, preen, listen to world leaders and spend endless hours discussing how to improve the nation's newspapers - the latter performed with less and less conviction today. Is it a bit elitist? Probably. But it is well-intentioned just the same.

In the old days, attendance at ASNE was on every editor's must list as a necessary renewal of his credential as a legitimate custodian of journalism dedicated, rather arrogantly I concede, to protecting our communities, states and nation from Philistines and despots of every stripe. Even the owners of the country's largest media companies made certain they showed up to fly the flag of editorial liberty.

But no longer. Over the last decades participation in the society's gathering has dwindled steadily (down 20 percent this year over last) in the face of a blight that is eating away at the very fabric of what our forefathers envisioned when they assured us of a free press.

The blight of course, is Wall Street, (or to the hip just "the Street"). Its voracious appetite for ever increasing profit margins and improved financial reporting periods has diminished what we do to a degree that government intervention and control never could. It is literally true that the major threat to the First Amendment is greed reflected in dwindling circulation, sagging influence and our growing inability to keep the public informed.

There was a time when newspaper publishers actually cared about their responsibilities to their readers and realized that while sacrificing quality might increase their profits in the short term, it would undermine them over the long haul. And although it may seem odd in this day when success is measured only in terms of the bottom line, most of them were driven by motives other than just profits, old fashioned ones, like public service, to which they paid more than just lip service.

A dear, old friend, the late Edgar A. Poe, used to tell of the owner of the New Orleans newspaper who during the Great Depression of the 1930s found himself unable to pay his help. Determined to preserve the paper's editorial voice and independence, he hocked everything he and his wife owned, including her jewelry and managed to stave off bankruptcy.

The history of this business is replete with these kinds of acts: William Randolph Hearst's great empire saved by his paramour, actress Marian Davies, who gave him the money to continue as he teetered on insolvency; Roy W. Howard and Robert Scripps subsidizing unprofitable newspapers for years to provide their communities with another point of view and the competition so important to honest, worthwhile journalism.

But that was before the days when shareholder value had replaced reader value and "going public" became the driving force of the industry; before we sold our souls to a stock market that has utterly no understanding of the precious commodity we guard; before we hired faithless bean counters to run our organizations.

It hasn't been all that long ago that the newspapers were private enterprises and immune from the vagaries of a mentality that basically regards every product as though it were a door knob. In those days, owners understood there would be up years and down years, that newspapers by nature are delicate institutions whose survival depends on the trust of their readers cultivated by honesty and quality. A decent profit was enough - more some years, less others.

One is labeled "naive" by the financial managers for espousing these views today. But editors aren't blind to the necessity for "solvency" as ASNE President Richard Oppel put it in his address to the group on opening day of its convention, or to their role in helping to assure a reasonable profit. They just want the emphasis on reasonable.

The demands to cut and cut and cut while charging more and more for less and less has contributed mightily to the loss of readers, pushing them to a growing number of other sources for their daily dose of news and advertising. The debilitating impact on editors constantly besieged by down holds and staff reductions and bombarded by doom and gloom messages has been substantial. They are worn out from the pressures of competing demands.

We can no longer claim to be the first line of defense of a free society, the best source of public information. Maintaining that role just costs the shareholders far too much, as does attending meetings designed to further that aim.

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© 2001, SHNS