Magazine article Washington Journalism Review

Plundering the Newsroom

Magazine article Washington Journalism Review

Plundering the Newsroom

Article excerpt

HOW THE CULT OF HIGH PROFITS TRIUMPHED AT THE EXPENSE OF QUALITY, STAFFING AND THE PUBLIC TRUST.

The 24-story Gothic monolith Col. Robert McCormick constructed to house his beloved Chicago Tribune on Michigan Avenue was built from the winning plans in a worldwide architecture competition in 1925. The most modern and most unusual newspaper plant of the era, its many extraordinary features include cornerstones from the world's most famous shrines and structures.

Until about 20 years ago, it also featured one of the world's most unusual elevator arrangements. In the Tower and an adjoining annex was a castle systems of elevators: one set accessible only with a special security pass that sped directly to the colonel's old office on the top floor; a second set serving all the floors below except the fourth; and a third set exclusively for the fourth floor, where the editorial department is located.

It was the "fourth floor only" elevators that were extraordinary, because they represented the newspaper's devotion to a phenomenon peculiar to the American press--the separation of business and editorial functions known as "the division between church and state."

When I joined the Tribune as a reporter in 1972, the colonel's rule that business-side employees, especially those from advertising, stay off the fourth floor was still very much in force. By the time I left the Tribune 17 years later, after nearly a decade as its editor, all the annex elevators stopped on every floor. Business-side employees came and went at will. The hallowed separation of church and state was hardly more than a pretense.

For this, no one was more responsible than I. And for the ease with which I let it happen, I can only offer the lamest of excuses, "I really didn't know at the time what I was doing."

Through much of their history, newspapers had been edited for an marketed to specific classes or socioeconomic groups. There were ethnic papers, labor papers, papers for the masses and papers for the ruling class. But then came television. By cutting into advertising revenue and changing people's information-consuming habits, television not only reduced the number of newspapers but forced the survivors to try to appeal to a wide spectrum of readers. By the late 1960s and '70s, newspapers were in enough financial trouble that they began to survey their own markets, using the tools of television marketing. And for the first time, newspaper executives, following in the footsteps of their television and radio counterparts, began to construct audience profiles and share them with advertisers.

Nobody thought much about this at the time because the traditional walls separating editorial from advertising were still firmly in place. But it was a critical development. Except for a few financial ads on business pages around the country, newspaper advertising had been placed without much consideration given to surrounding editorial content or what segment of the population was reading the page.

By the early 1970s, experts were telling uncertain managers of then not-so-profitable urban newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times that perhaps their way of doing things had become obsolete. The Times, as expected, resisted. But almost everywhere else, especially in the profit-conscious corporations whose stock was publicly traded, the policy of business-hands-off-the-editorial-departments began to change. Eventually this business imperative to match up the editor's content with the advertiser's desired audience profile would be the battering ram that broke through the wall between the editorial and the revenue-generating side of the press.

Between the time I went to the Orlando Sentinel as editor in December 1976 and the day I left the Tribune in December 1989, this separation--although still given lip service throughout the industry--had all but disappeared. …

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