Journalists Give Business Priorities a Wary Welcome

Publisher Mark Willes makes his position perfectly clear. When there are dueling viewpoints at the Los Angeles Times over business decisions and editorial needs, "The editorial decisionmaker wins every time," he says.

But in l995, when the Times Mirror Corp. was a publishing enterprise flowing with red ink, Mr. Willes was hired to make swift and tough business decisions. He shut down Newsday's New York City edition, lopped off 1,000 jobs at the Times and other Times Mirror newspapers, closed some regional editions of newspapers, and backed off from entering cable-TV programming.

Willes's business decisions suddenly spotlighted him in a media debate now rattling through newsrooms and TV networks everywhere. Because mergers have led to most media enterprises being owned by large corporations, a central question arises: Can there be a new compatibility between the bottom line and journalists' traditional independence? Will these new relationships dishonor journalism's First Amendment right?

To discuss these topics, nearly two dozen journalists, and newspaper and TV executives, including Willes, gathered recently at Harvard University for a conference sponsored by the Committee for Concerned Journalists.

On a panel, Willes meets the main issues head on, but pinpoints a publisher's challenge today. In a complex and highly competitive media world, he says, Times Mirror has a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders and a journalistic credo.

"Earning a return is not a nasty thing, but a must," he says. "We are long past the point where people read us because they must. If we have to find ways to be compelling to readers in order to attract advertisers to pay bills, then it's not 'Do we have quality journalism or a successful business?' We must find a way to do both. And the greater the journalism, the more compelling [and] successful we will be."

In the months after Willes's cutbacks, Times Mirror stock rose from $22 to $57 a share, a signal that Wall Street and stockholders approved. "People need to understand who Wall Street is," Willes says. "Wall Street is your 401K plan, your retirement plan ... and so Wall Street, at the end of the day, is us."

For Maxwell King, associate editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, the danger comes when newspaper organizations define themselves solely in market terms. "What alarms me," he says, "is to define these companies solely in terms of profitability. This cannot be the only measure for a business that enjoys special amendment protection."

What alarms Phil Balboni, president of New England Cable News Network, is that television news has become so "soft and entertainment" oriented that it is "corrupting the body and soul of our profession." He asks, "Why do all the news [programs] look the same?" His answer is that news has become "a product."

Journalism has traditionally operated with a public trust, a responsibility most journalists still hold dear in a time of celebrity journalism and changing definitions of news. "Day in and day out," Willes says, "our business enterprise depends on this trust, and the First Amendment is critical in telling any and every truth we discover. This is central to our compact with our readers."

To keep reporters and editors alert to the nuances involved in a public trust, Sacramento Bee executive editor George Favre conducts "brown bag ethics lunches" to discuss stories where moral and ethical questions were involved.

But not all publishers see business encroaching into the newsroom. Benjamin Taylor, publisher of The Boston Globe, asserts that the so-called line between between business and editorial content in safe-guarding the public trust is even stronger these days. Ads disappeared from the Globe's front pages in the 1960s, he says, and the first three pages of the newspaper are news with no ads.

Partly what drives change in journalism, say some of the editors at the conference, are cultural shifts resulting in a shrinking base of newspaper readers. Many younger people are either attracted in increasing numbers to other media or they are uninterested in traditional news coverage. Or they go to the Internet for information, the editors say.

To survive, most newspapers are tightening their belts, says John Morton, head of Morton Research Inc., a newspaper consulting firm. Many scramble to be noticed with redesigned sections, some emphasizing lifestyles, and many deemphasizing what sets newspapers apart from electronic media: providing in-depth reporting about complex issues, said an editor.

"The Los Angeles Times penetration in the market is 28 percent," Willes says, "compared to 64 percent for Newsday in Long Island. What this says is that a lot of readers in our base market [in L.A.] don't find us sufficiently compelling."

The Times also discovered that 500,000 women in the L.A. area read the Times on Sunday, but seldom read it during the week. "The ongoing debate we have is how do we change what we put in the paper," Willes says, "and this means the issues and topics we cover, and perhaps even changing the way we write about the problems and issues."

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