August 19, 2022

Off the Shelf: Lessons in Communication, for Newspapers Themselves

Rarely will you see displays of this divide more vivid than in James O’Shea’s new book, “The Deal From Hell: How Moguls and Wall Street Plundered Great American Newspapers” (PublicAffairs, $28.99).

The subtitle seems misleading, as do so many these days. Mr. O’Shea, a onetime top editor at both The Chicago Tribune and The Los Angeles Times, tells the story of these two papers’ magnificently botched corporate marriage — a fine tale, though from the subtitle it would appear that his publisher didn’t want to market it as such, perhaps thinking that no one much cared.

And the publisher is probably right. Many Americans may worry deeply about presidential elections, hurricanes and other major news, but I suspect that they care far less about the slow degradation of the newsrooms that provide it.

It’s just as misleading to suggest that the current troubles of “great American newspapers” result from being “plundered” by “moguls and Wall Street.” It’s true in some cases — and Mr. O’Shea trots out some splendid examples.

As evidence of Wall Street’s attitude toward newspapers, the book describes a JPMorgan Chase vice president being congratulated by a colleague for securing the oh-so-profitable task of restructuring The Tribune’s corporate parent. The V.P. responds by e-mail from Aspen: “Tnx dude. Can you say ka-ching?” Next time I hear an investment banker ask in exasperation why the public so hates Wall Street and its minions, I’ll point him to that exchange.

But it wasn’t investment bankers, no matter how irksome their behavior, who caused newspapers’ woes. It was, by and large, newspapers themselves, especially their managements, as Mr. O’Shea makes abundantly clear.

The abysmal state of newspapers today has largely been precipitated by the loss of classified advertising to Craigslist and other online sites; by the mass migration of readers to free online news sites; and, to a degree I hadn’t appreciated, the scandals in the early 2000s that revealed how thoroughly some newspapers had been misstating circulation numbers for years. Once those papers had to issue correct numbers, official circulations fell sharply, with a corresponding loss of credibility among major advertisers.

Mr. O’Shea argues that what’s killing newspapers isn’t the Internet and other forces, but rather the way newspaper executives responded to those forces: “The lack of investment, the greed, incompetence, corruption, hypocrisy and downright arrogance of people who put their interests ahead of the public’s are responsible for the state of the newspaper industry today.” Strong stuff, but Mr. O’Shea can back it up.

The problem, however, goes deeper than that. For years, most large American newspapers were owned by families — the Grahams in Washington, the McCormicks in Chicago, the Chandlers in Los Angeles — but as those families grew and spread, their far-flung members sought greater returns. Beginning in the 1960s, many of the companies began going public, and therein can be found the underlying problem.

The demands placed upon publicly held companies — more profits, a higher stock price — cannot easily be reconciled with the demands of quality journalism, which needs more people and higher salaries than a cut-rate alternative. When newspapers faced any kind of challenge, whether from the Internet or higher newsprint costs, the answer has long been to cut costs, which leads inevitably to lower-quality journalism.

“The Deal From Hell” is chockablock with examples of what happens when bean counters take over newspapers. In the mid-1990’s, Mark Willes, a former General Mills executive, became C.E.O. of Times Mirror, then the parent of The Los Angeles Times. The book describes Mr. Willes bringing in consultants who held a meeting so that executives could literally sniff the paper; they felt that declining circulation might be caused by newsprint that smelled like fish. And this happened even before the Tribune Company bought Times Mirror in 2000.

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