Thursday, April 17, 2008

As the Sagebrush Rolls

Tony Davis' essay in American Journalism Review on the death of the Albuquerque Tribune encapsulates why the problems facing American newspapers aren't just problems about journalism.

Many people knew of the Tribune as a little paper that could; my ACES colleague Jim Montalbano worked there happily. The p.m. paper had been saved in a JOA and for years Scripps was happy enough to let it continue with a fully funded newsroom and reap the profits from the larger partner, the Albuquerque Journal, even as Tribune circulation fell toward its end point of 10,000 in a metro area of more than a million.

As Davis notes, the Tribune in its heyday was run like this:

"It was a simple management philosophy that carried power far beyond its words: Hire the best people you can and let them do their jobs.

"The brainchild of our editor Tim Gallagher, this mantra sounds like a cliché, but it made the Tribune a laboratory for innovation. One former Trib reporter, John Hill, said he was impressed 'by how much they let the inmates run the asylum.' Another, Pulitzer-winner Eileen Welsome, likened the atmosphere to anarchy.

"Sounds a bit much, but think about it. You're a crusader, wishing to bust heads and take prisoners, or you're intrigued by a quirky tale that nobody has told. What's the first thing you need? Not a fat salary or big staff, but an editor who will tell you to take a couple of weeks or months and don't come back without the story. Even in the best of times in the newspaper business, such editors were rare. But we had them.

"Today, attitudes like Gallagher's are seen as an anachronism in what's left of our business. Editors can't afford not to micromanage. They operate from fear: of continued circulation declines and ad losses to the Web, of offending readers or giving them more than they can handle."

Aux barricades! Over the next hill! Mount your steed, put your notebook in a case marked "This Machine Kills Fascists," and it's off to save America. We all grew up believing this. And as a result, the paper "won prestigious honors: the Selden Ring Award for investigative reporting, two George Polk Awards, the IRE Award, the National Headliners Award (three times), the Roy W. Howard Award for public service reporting (four times), the Edward J. Meeman Award for conservation writing and the Sigma Delta Chi public service award."

But there was a darker side as well:

"The cost of this experimentation was that we missed, briefed or buried the meat and potatoes: meetings, budget hearings and government pronouncements. Gallagher dismissed such material as 'agenda journalism.' We got away with it because we were in a joint operating agreement–the country's first–with the more traditional Albuquerque Journal, which had a staff of well over 100 and a circulation more than three times ours. We sneered at them, citing anecdotes like the day [reporter Dennis] Domrzalski was finishing a lengthy probe of the county assessor and walked into a meeting room where his competitor was sitting through a budget hearing. "I felt like I was in heaven," Domrzalski says.

"The Trib cost itself with other lapses, like the time a consultant persuaded the paper ... to junk the sports section. That move lost us 6,000 subscribers, many of whom never returned ..."

Nothing worked. But could anything have worked? The Tribune was a p.m. paper in an a.m. world.

The Tribune offered Albuquerque some stories of superior journalism, there's no doubt. It apparently didn't offer dependable day to day coverage. It didn't offer delivery when people wanted it. For a while it didn't even offer them sports. (One suspects it didn't offer them pet pictures.) Albuquerque increasingly said thanks but no thanks. The Journal may not have reached the journalistic peaks, but it was dependable, covered the bases, and was there in the morning.

We are always told that journalism is full of stories where superior journalistic quality trumped inferior rivals. These stories tend to be: the New York Times vs. the New York Herald Tribune in World War II; the Boston Globe vs. the Boston Post in the 1950s; Newsday in the 1950s and 1960s; in the 1970s, the Philadelphia Inquirer vs. the Bulletin and the Washington Post vs. the Washington Star.

We tend not to remember as well the failure of the Chicago Daily News, or the Chattanooga Times losing to the Chattanooga News-Free Press, or the Arkansas Gazette losing to the Arkansas Democrat, and a number of other occasions on which the product regarded as the greater journalistically did not prevail. Now we have Albuquerque as well. There are always reasons -- JOA imbalances or strikes or whatever -- but "special circumstances" apply in many cases where the winner was the higher-quality paper as well, such as the 1960s strike that ruined the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. I'm reminded that Roy McDonald said the key to his success in Chattanooga was to run everyone's name in the paper once a year. Journalists hooted. His paper won.

Editors like Tim Gallagher were rare then, and are rare now, because in the end it didn't matter to the owners if the Albuquerque Tribune made money or grew readership. Doing so would have been nice, but as long as the Journal was rolling in the bucks, everyone's wallet was filled. Having the Tribune around let the JOA charge a premium for morning-evening advertising over just what would have been charged for the Journal, until things got to the point that literally almost no one read the Tribune. That being the case, let the boys and girls at the Tribune have their fun. Had quality journalism been the sole answer, readers would have flocked to the Tribune. Instead, the Journal got its community to reward it through circulation dominance, and Tribune reporters sneered at its reporters for being drones. There really is a lesson here, no matter how much journalists don't want to hear it. A business model needs to support good journalism, but good journalism is not a business model.

No comments: