September 16th, 2006 07:01 EST
Is this is it, the debate we deserve?
Two gutsy editors and a publisher may at long last have ignited an overdue debate about how newspapers should respond to the cyberspace era.
A year ago John S. Carroll, a newspaperman whose career started with my own at The Providence Journal, resigned as executive editor of the Los Angeles Times, the nation’s fourth largest newspaper, in part because he thought staff reductions sought by its parent company, The Tribune Company, were ill-advised.
Carroll’s action was duly reported, but the story soon dropped from sight. Now his successor and friend, Dean P. Baquet, with the support of his publisher, Jeffrey M. Johnson, is resisting a new demand from Scott C. Smith, president of Tribune’s publishing division, for further cuts in staff.
The Times has already reduced its news staff by 200 to its present 940 employees. Like all newspapers, it is facing stiff competition for advertising lineage from Internet companies. But there is an array of other factors contributing to declining circulation and revenue.
What is interesting about the current standoff in Los Angeles—we don’t know yet how the Tribune Company will respond—is that the publisher, the man responsible for the newspaper’s business success, is siding with the editor. That is in itself unusual.
Just as interesting is the fact that The New York Times, a newspaper that has made its own news staff reductions in the past year, on Sept., 15 in its business section covered the story in depth. The story by Katharine Q. Seelye quoted Johnson as saying, “Newspapers can’t cut their way into the future.”
With that statement Johnson couched the debate we sorely need. Many in the Southern California business community agree with him. Twenty civic leaders have called on the Tribune Company to increase spending on the paper or sell it to someone who will. Of course there is no guarantee a buyer would increase spending. It is more likely that a buyer would cut spending.
But Johnson and Baquet, putting their careers on the line, as Carroll did before them, made the further decision to publish a story about their defiance of their Tribune bosses.
So here we have the stage set for a debate about whether newspapers can best survive this economical and cultural environment by retrenching or by making bigger and visionary investments in their properties.
That the local business community has weighed in suggests that Americans are waking up to the fact that a weakened, cheapskate press cannot fulfill it’s incalculably important role in our republic.
Now we will see if the Fourth Estate, with its special privileges and responsibilities under the First Amendment, is up to the task of airing its own laundry, as it has so often aired others’ laundry. We will see if the newspaper industry can give us any visionaries. And we will see if it has the grit to spend more, not less, in order to rejuvenate itself.
If I were a bookie, I’d make odds the story will once more drop out of sight, the Tribune will make its cuts, and if it sells The Los Angeles Times, it will sell it to budget-cutting bottom liners. But I’m not a bookie. I’m an idealist and a cock-eyed optimist who loves the industry, so I hope the courage of these Los Angeles newsmen will give us the debate we deserve, and I hope other newspaper people, whether they’re in the newsroom or the business offices, will have the stomach for this long suppressed issue.