Kalb Report discusses role of budget demands in journalism

By Zeb Eckert
U-WIRE Washington Bureau
April 3, 2001

The resignation of San Jose Mercury News Publisher Jay Harris last month should be a reminder to newspapers nationwide of the volatile mix that comes with meeting budget demands and journalistic standards, according to newspaper editors who joined Marvin Kalb for Monday night’s “Kalb Report.”

“The message he (Harris) sent is that it’s foolish for this industry to destroy itself to gain double-digit profits,” said Gregory Moore, executive editor of the Boston Globe during the televised panel at the National Press Club.

Harris resigned March 19 amidst calls from the Mercury News owner Knight-Ridder to increase profit margins to 22.7 percent — a 4 percent increase from last year. Such increases are considered monumental to newspapers, especially in a market now against their favor.

Journalists from Knight-Ridder and other publicly held newspapers — Cox and Media General — joined in the discussion on credibility and leadership in newsrooms.

“As journalists, we have this quasi-public trust,” said Peter Bhatia, executive editor of The Oregonian.”At the same time, we are a business.And that is a fundamental conflict of what we do.”

As the American economy enters a period of economic downturn, newspapers are especially feeling the crunch. With rising newsprint costs and decreased ad revenue, panelists said cutbacks are inevitable.

“In the case of downturns, we have two sets of customers — reader customers and advertising customers,” said Gil Thelen, executive editor of The Tampa Tribune.

That mix combined with expectations from investors can create an atmosphere similar to a”pressure cooker,” Thelen said.

“Thirty or 40 years ago, newspaper owners made a pact with the devil,” he said. “Since they made that decision (to go public), they transferred an extraordinary amount of control to the financial markets.”

Jennie Buckner, editor of Knight-Ridder’s Charlotte Observer, said newspapers must be mindful of their bottoms lines.

“You have to have a way to tighten up,” she said. “But we are more than just a business.”

When it comes to upholding journalistic standards, the editors said they are often on their own.

“The owners of Knight-Ridder are stockholders,” Buckner added. “They really don’t care about the quality of my newspaper or any others.”

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