Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Just How Good Are Lee's Papers?

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Just How Good Are Lee's Papers?

Article excerpt

Executives at Lee Enterprises' Davenport, Iowa, headquarters are nothing if not unfailingly polite. So when David Stoeffler is asked the inevitable questions about the quality of journalism at Lee newspapers, he doesn't spit out an expletive, or even sigh. It's a sign that he's becoming inured to the query after making the rounds of newsrooms at Lee's new Pulitzer papers. "I hear the question everywhere," says Stoeffler, Lee's vice president of news. "There's usually two versions, soft and hard. The hard version of the question is: 'Lee doesn't have a great reputation for journalism, does it?'"

Partly, the perception comes with the territory for any publisher of small- and mid-sized dailies such as the Ravalli Republic in Hamilton, Mont., or the Fremont (Neb.) Tribune -- papers, in other words, that are way off the radar screen of journalism's chattering class.

But over the years, Lee has also picked up some persistent local critics. Probably the most indefatigable is Nathaniel Blumberg, who was dean of the University of Montana's journalism school from 1956 to 1968. In 1991, Blumberg started the Treasure State Review, an occasional newsletter that announced in its first issue that the "Lee chain has abandoned the excellent performance and high promise that peaked in the 1970s."

It was a theme he would sound repeatedly until the printed newsletter was replaced with a Web site after 1999. In a response to a request from E&P for comment, Blumberg says, "My contempt for Lee Enterprises and what it has done to the journalism profession runs so deep that I prefer not to be quoted at this time."

These days, though, Lee is also gaining some high-placed admirers. "Lee Enterprises is one of the most respected companies for trying to put out quality journalism on the local level," says Richard Cole, since 1979 the dean of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "Obviously they're not The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune. But it is quality journalism on a local level." Cole goes so far as to say he believes the Pulitzer papers will eventually become better papers editorially under Lee's ownership.

Lee executives say the emphasis on improving the chain's journalism begins at the top. …

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