Private local ownership has flaws, too

The market - or karma, if you prefer - has a funny way of tempering expectations. The media are particularly prone to such acute reminders.

The market - or karma, if you prefer - has a funny way of tempering expectations. The media are particularly prone to such acute reminders.

Take, for example, the wondrous world of private ownership of newspapers. With so much Wall Street pressure on newspapers to cut costs by all means necessary, many journalists and readers alike have pined for the good old days when prominent local citizens controlled their own local papers, establishing an insulated environment in which reporters could go after big stories and editors could muster all the resources they wished for, free of the controlling hand of distant outside investors.

Santa Barbara, CA, now says: Hold that thought. Its local newspaper, the 43,000-circulation News-Press, exposed the pitfalls of private local ownership earlier this month, when six senior staffers walked off the job following what they said were gross incidents of meddling and breaches of journalistic ethics by top management, including owner Wendy McCaw.

McCaw, a wealthy local citizen, was seen as the paper's savior when she purchased it from the New York Times Co. in 2000. But editors who departed told news outlets that she dictated newsroom policy from on high, reprimanded reporters for stories she didn't like, and, in the final coup de grace, put the head of the newspaper's editorial page - who was also the acting publisher - in charge of its newsroom, destroying the fundamental separation between the two functions.

The mass walkout and accompanying back-and-forth sniping brought into focus the unavoidable fact that private ownership poses its own separate set of risks for local papers. As ex-editor Jerry Roberts told Editor & Publisher, "You have this conflict between the audience of the newspaper and the audience of one - the owner."

The issue has particular resonance right now, after The McClatchy Co.'s sale of The Philadelphia Inquirer and its tabloid cousin, the Daily News, to a coalition of local investors in Philadelphia headed by former PR man Brian Tierney.

To his credit, Tierney seems to have made all the right moves so far: making all the new owners sign pledges not to interfere with editorial operations, mending relations (more or less) with some at the paper who hated him from his days as a local attack dog on behalf of his clients, and announcing a whopping $5 million advertising campaign to boost readership at the limping publications.

Time, of course, will tell. McCaw's reign lasted five years before the big meltdown - which, it must be noted, was not managed well at all on the paper's side. Considering just how important community relations - and, indeed, media relations - are to a paper's central purpose, the News-Press' response was decidedly blasé; it consisted of a mere editor's note to readers, even while the incident was becoming worldwide news.

Moreover, the paper's spokesman, veteran California crisis manager and ex-journalist Sam Singer of Singer Associates, has seemed disingenuous in his statements about the incident. Asked if any ethical boundaries were crossed, he replied "none whatsoever," though journalism professors and experts will tell you that a paper that mixes its news and opinion sections and fails to report honestly on itself is being unethical.

Singer also said the departed editors left because they "didn't see eye to eye with ownership" on the issue of local news coverage; in fact, their very public complaints were much larger and more specific than that. He also tried to deflect questions by saying that one departed staffer was "on suspension for having threatened to kill another staff member." After naming that person, he added piously, "So there are some other issues in play here that we would prefer not to discuss in detail."

So, Wall Street has its drawbacks for journalists. But so do clueless private owners who muck up a newsroom and then try to use PR to obscure the situation.

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