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Three Stories: One Theme

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Three stories from today’s Business section in the New York Times:

David Carr notes the decline of the movie studios’ reliance on print to push their pictures. “The shrinking list of movies scheduled for review,” Carr asserts, “is just one more indication that the long marriage between print and film seems to have hit a midlife crisis.” It isn’t that the pictures got smaller, but that “the dialogue over films has increasingly gone digital.” Very bad news for those who work for newspapers.

Then there’s the scandal over circulation, with a story devoted to the “[s]ix people [who] pleaded guilty last week to federal conspiracy charges, admitting they helped inflate circulation figures at Newsday and the Spanish-language publication Hoy.” How many other papers have ticking time bombs in their circulation statements?

And finally a long story on the welcome rescue attempt launched at the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Philadelphia Daily News, and “When a Newsmaker Buys the Newspaper.” This Katherine Q. Seelye story itself contains some clues as to the reasons behind the general decline of papers, reasons which surface in the first two stories as well.

Brian Tierney is the incoming CEO at the Philly newspapers and their online site, and he is from the world of public relations. Seelye condescendingly describes him as “adman, corporate pitchman, part P. T. Barnum, part Little Engine That Could,” and brushes past the enormous energy and effort Tierney put into assembling the buyout that kept Philly’s papers under local control. And Seeyle is careful to warn Tierney that the gods and goddesses of Big Journalism would be watching his every step.

Here’s Seelye’s concise statement of Tierney’s background:

Mr. Tierney’s own aggressive advocacy has in the past included trying to manage the papers’ coverage of his clients, often bullying reporters, accusing them of unethical behavior and trying to suppress stories. At least once, when he represented the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, he waged a campaign against an Inquirer reporter and sought to have stories killed.

Other clients have included Sunoco and Verizon; he has handled public relations for noncorporate clients, including Nancy Schultz, whose husband, David, a wrestler, was shot and killed in 1996 by John E. du Pont, heir to the chemical fortune.

Mr. Tierney has worked actively with the Republican Party and, according to The Inquirer, has donated more than $200,000 to state and national campaigns in the last decade.

Seelye makes it clear that the editorial staff of the papers are holding their noses having to deal with this, this Republican:

Considering the alternative ‘” and their limited options ‘” many have decided to give the team a chance.

But not without a warning. Actually, many warnings from the journalists whose jobs Tierney and Co. may have just saved:

At the same time, The Inquirer is trying to put some safeguards in place. For one thing, Ms. Bennett said she was presenting Mr. Tierney and others with a copy of Wednesday’s front page announcing the news that he bought the papers ‘” a front page that features his pledge against interference.

“If they start to mess with us, we’ll be the first ones out the door, and Brian Tierney will be proved right ‘” that there’s no better way to destroy a great institution than to compromise its integrity,” Ms. Bennett said.

The paper is also forming an internal committee to air issues involving the new owners. For example, there are discussions of how to refer to the new owners when they are mentioned in future articles. The Inquirer is also considering hiring an ombudsman who would keep an eye on internal operations at the paper and explain them to readers.

Seeyle dutifully trots out the reign of terror of Mark Willes at the Los Angeles Times that began in the mid-90s:

Not too long ago, many journalists would have found it inconceivable to welcome an adman who calls the newspaper a “product” and talks of “branding.”

This approach did not work out well in 1995, when Times Mirror hired Mark H. Willes, who had marketed breakfast foods for General Mills, as its chief executive to improve the bottom line. Called “the cereal killer,” he squeezed budgets, laid off hundreds of employees and shut down the New York edition of Newsday. His tenure culminated with a major breach of ethics when The Los Angeles Times magazine published a special section on the Staples Center ‘” and, unbeknownst to readers, shared the advertising revenue from the section with the Staples Center.

Two observations are in order about these paragraphs.

First, Willes “tenure” did not culminate with the absurd hysteria over the Staples “major breach of ethics,” but with the sale of the paper to The Tribune Company. Willes’ “approach” was not so much about “branding” as it was rejecting change even as it became impossible to deny the revolution in media. Given that Tierney’s one remark on the media company’s direction involved emphasis on new media, it is very unlikely he’ll be Willes 2.0:

“ has been starved,” [Tierney] said. “There are 18 people out of 2,700 who are working for That’s ridiculous.”

Perhaps it is Tierney’s obvios focus on the new media component of journalism’s revival that has some of the old guard upset.

The article closes with one more shot at Tierney:

Some aspects of the culture are still unfamiliar. He was describing himself as a “zealous advocate” and added, “I hope our reporters will be zealous advocates for what they’re trying to do as well.” When it was pointed out that reporters are not supposed to be advocates for anything, he amended his comment.

“Zealous advocates for finding the truth,” he said. “They shouldn’t just be willing ‘” if they believe in something, they should fight for it.”

To which one is tempted to reply: How much of a dying culture do you want to absorb? The circulation fraud? The preening? The overwhelming bias to the left?

Carr’s column underscores one small part of the massive shift underway. The guilty pleas in the second story do not indicate an industry-wide failing, but do suggest that the pressures on the newspaper busienss are so extraordinary as to push people over the edge.

And what the Tierney profile demonstrates is that some of the old guard, still safe in their still-profitable citidals, are willing to watch their colleagues in less flush major papers and in mid- to small-size markets fade away rather than allow new media to remark on the emperor’s new clothes.

It reminds me of the heart-transplant patient lecturing his surgeon on the patient’s intolerance of music in the OR.

Journalists all over the country ought to be celebrating Tierney’s desire to save some old media and help blend it into a new media company. Instead he’s catching javelins from the news aristocracy threatened by its rapid decline.


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