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Heist in Print: How Newspapers Sold Their Soul to Business Brigands

| October 30, 2011

They still have an occcasional use. (Jens Luedicke)

By Donald Kaul

It’s been a little more than 50 years since I first walked into the Des Moines Register newsroom to begin a career in journalism.

It was a beat-up scruffy place filled with beat-up scruffy people, almost all men. They worked in a big room lined with gray steel desks piled high with newspapers, stacks of books, notebooks, and ashtrays overflowing with cigarette stubs. They wrote on manual, black typewriters. The phones, also black, had rotary dials.

This scene right out of The Front Page was a case of love at first sight. “This is my kind of place,” I told myself. And, as it turned out, I was right.

But the most important thing about that room was something you couldn’t see: an invisible wall that protected its inhabitants from interference from the business department. It meant that, if you had the facts on your side, you could annoy the rich and powerful of the city. The wall would protect you from retaliation.

The best newspapers in those days tended to be owned by long-time newspaper families. These owners viewed their papers as profit machines, certainly, but also as a public trust. These families supported the principle that news was news and business was business, and the two should not be confused.

It wasn’t a perfect arrangement. It would have been better, for example, to have had more women and people of color reporting and editing the news. But it worked pretty well for decades.

Things changed in newsrooms as they did everywhere else. Computers arrived on the scene, bringing with them increased efficiency but also competition for readers and advertising dollars. The ranks of the ruling families grew too numerous to be fed by dividends alone. They cashed out, selling at elevated prices to newspaper chains, which then resold the publications to business brigands who had neither understanding nor interest in newspapers as newspapers.

Newspapers were just another kind of dog food to them.

Donald Kaul

The Live Commentary

In city after city, papers were closed down, staffs cut to the bone, and home delivery severely curtailed. The invisible wall? Can something invisible disappear? It did.

Nowhere was that scenario played out more starkly than at the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times companies, home to a half dozen of the nation’s finest papers.

A friend of mine, James O’Shea, a top editor at both the Tribune and the Times, had a ringside seat at the disaster. He’s written a book giving a blow-by-blow account: The Deal from Hell: How Moguls and Wall Street Plundered Great American Newspapers. It’s not a pretty story.

The Chicago Tribune papers and the Los Angeles Times group merged in 2000, a move that made L.A.’s powerful Chandler clan significantly richer and journalism considerably poorer in California’s largest city.

Increasingly the bulwark between the business and news departments was ignored. The business types couldn’t understand the need for it. News should be put at the service of profits and the quicker the better, they thought.

Soon the answer to every problem was to water down the product with brutal staff cuts, domestic and foreign bureau closures, and the pursuit of trivial, celebrity-oriented stories. Give the people what they want was the new mantra.

What was no-brainer logic to business people was anathema to old-fashioned journalists like O’Shea who held the quaint belief that the job of a newspaper is to inform readers. O’Shea and others fought for that creed but couldn’t overcome, in his words, “the greed, incompetence, corruption, hypocrisy…of people who put their interests ahead of the public’s.”

The sad story ends with the sale of the giant corporation to a Chicago real estate tycoon, Sam Zell, a bizarre foul-mouthed figure who makes Donald Trump look couth.

Eventually Zell led the company into bankruptcy, leaving his papers limping along with insupportable debt and ever-shrinking staffs.

I hate to be one of those old crocks who talks about how things were better in the old days. But you know what?

Some things really were better in the old days, including newspapers.

Donald Kaul worked some 30 years as a syndicated Washington columnist for the Des Moines Register before retiring at the dawn of the new century. He is a columnist for Other Words. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Reach him by email.

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4 Responses for “Heist in Print: How Newspapers Sold Their Soul to Business Brigands”

  1. Charles Ericksen, Jr says:

    Newspapers may have sold themselves out, but it did create great opportunities for it’s best employees. They went out on their own, some what recreating themselves, and starting new businesses…that continue to compete with their old employers in continuing to communicate with the public, but in a different tone. One of your frineds wrote a bok, probably ,not his last. You joined a public interest group. A friend of mine started his own local ,successful website , which continues to grow, But there stilll is the “profit” incentive, to keep things going, and produce revenue to grow even bigger. Some of my past employers, merged , and while they cut staff, did create an opportunity to move on and find new ideas ,opportunities and atmospheres. This allowed me tontive, grow personally, and intellectually..Without and incentive, I may have stayed with my original employer and not achieved , what I was capable of. So, out of the profit motive of others, I moved on and made more money that I would have made at the original employers. So, to me, making money by others, allowed me to make more money for my life and family….I have to admit, I did not think of the public, just myself and my family. I suspect you too are experiencing growth and financial gain. and by virtue of this article are letting the public know of your concerns..Good article.

  2. Arthur Woosley says:

    Great article from Mr Kaul, especially liked the following part ” to domestic and foreign bureau closures, and the pursuit of trivial, celebrity-oriented stories. Give the people what they want was the new mantra “.

    Unfortunately, today the major television news networks also operate under that philosophy, carrying the same crap on their stations. Five minutes telling people a starlet got locked up for drunken driving, or had a bar fight etc. for every one minute of real world, or national news.

    Sadly missed by the people who remember, are those very important investigative reporters, all of whom seem to have disappeared from the scene.

    It is evident, that most newspapers now subscribe to a “don’t rock the boat” theory, or in other words steer clear of any sort of controversy, controversy which could effect their bottom line, advertising dollars or special interest support.

    An example of this, is the recent gross mishandling of Flagler Counties own (Tomoka Marsh Aquatic Preserve ) by the DEP, ACOE, as well as several other agencies including Flagler County. All of these bureaucracies rubber stamped, (non- compliant) dock permits in our preserve which in doing so, further helped abuse this very sensitive and special environmental area .

    Our local paper the Daytona News Journal, knew about this story of abuse , but for reasons known only to them, they decided to look the other way. Probably intimidated by these well entrenched powerful state agencies one might guess.

    Because news like this is suppressed, these same state and local agencies can remain off the radar, and not held accountable for their harmful actions.

    Thanks to Flaglerlive for covering Mr. Kaul’s story, please know, that there are still some of us out here that want Real news not trivial fluff !

  3. JIM.R says:

    The Daytona News Journal, was once a great paper, they had a editorial writer that wasn’t afraid to tell the truth ,( can’t recall his name).. Now it’s a boring waste of time to read , but still good for wrapping fish in.

  4. NortonSmitty says:

    Bread the fish first. If you broil it, the ink in the filet will make you sick even backwardson the plate. The profit motive, return on investment, et al, was just bullshit. It was all a plan to control the info to the proles. Can’t come up with the proper link to the proof, but call me on it and I’ll look up the documenting link.

    In the meantime, here’s another good read about an ISW’s* career:

    Read it and weep. “Those were the day’s my friends, We thought they’d never end….”

    James Wolcott about his start at The Village Voice, “Norman Mailer Sent Me” Good Stuff.

    * Ink-Stained Wretch

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