Media Circus: Fugitive from a chain gang

New York Times managing editor Gene Roberts blasts the McNews trivializers and bean counters of the newspaper chains.

By Todd Gitlin
Published December 6, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

When an industry leader stands up in public and mournfully declares that he is "truly alarmed" by major trends in his business -- in particular by corporate mergers -- this is remarkable. When the man is widely revered, having been amply decorated for valor by his profession, it's all the more remarkable.

The industry is newspapers and the man is Gene Roberts, managing editor of the Times since May 1994, and before that for 17 years the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. At the Inquirer, it is fair to say, Roberts was responsible for more serious investigations than all of Rupert Murdoch's papers on four continents over their entire lifetimes. The best known of Robert's initiatives was a multi-part series by Donald Barlett and James Steele that blew the whistle on the savings and loan bailout (a multi-hundred-billion dollar detail that's routinely overlooked when the subject of the infernal deficit rears its head). Hundreds of thousands of requests poured in for reprints, and the book version, "America: What Went Wrong?", was a best-seller.

This year's multi-page Times pieces on corporate downsizing, genital mutilation, and New York housing bear the Roberts stamp, reflecting his faith in the curiosity and intelligence of his readers, and his conviction that journalism is a calling, not simply a regrettable investment necessity. Some reporters grumble that these series have been overlong, some readers resent this theft of their breakfast hours, but it is fairest to say that this man gives good value for trees pulped.

Roberts, now 64, is an interim man at the Times, brought back near retirement age and planning to exit next summer. He sounds like a statesman more than a lame duck, though, and if there is anyone who can rally a much-demoralized profession, it is he. Roberts left the Inquirer after chain proprietor Knight-Ridder started squeezing his budget. He had planned to leave anyway, but what concentrated his mind was the incessant budget meetings. "In my last year at the Inquirer," he said during Q. and A. after a lecture at New York University Dec. 3, "we had to go through 9 budget revisions, all downward." Not his idea of the journalism business. "If I'd wanted to be an accountant, I'd have been one."

Roberts, in a baritone Southern drawl that makes Bill Clinton sound like a city slicker, makes a devastating case against the chain newspapers that clank across the land. Absentee managers discover that, in the short run, at least, they can make more money by publishing less news, shallower news, more celebrity puffs. Roberts cites a study of the fate of the Louisville Courier-Journal since it was bought by Gannett, the biggest of chains. The overall news space did go up, but much of the increase consisted of features, soft news, and wire copy. The average local news story shrank. Wire service copy went up by an astounding 76 percent. So it happens that at a time when the Federal government is foisting more power upon the statehouses, coverage of those muck-filled precincts declines. Less scrutiny translates into emboldened lobbies and mindless legislation.

To care about this sort of degradation, of course, you have to care about some fusty-sounding ideals, namely the connection between information and democracy. Roberts, who covered civil rights at the Times in the '60s, finds there his strongest precedent for claiming that newspapers matter. During the civil rights era, he says, "a double handful of Southern newspapers, independently owned, stood up for civil rights, and made an incalculable contribution."

And where have all those flowers of enlightenment gone? Gone to chain gangs, almost every one. Little Rock's now-defunct Arkansas Gazette, which called for Federal intervention to enforce the court order to integrate Central High School in 1957, is now Gannettized, as is the Nashville Tennessean. In Greenville, Mississippi, the Delta Democrat-Times, owned by the Hodding Carter family, which spoke up against the White Citizens Councils at a time when you could get your house burned down for doing that, is now owned by a chain with the perfect Orwellian name of Freedom Newspapers.

When newspapers are yanked around by time-and-motion experts, it's hard not to lapse into small town, Front Page, green-eyeshade nostalgia. Your present-day writer, who happens to have organized Roberts' lecture, stands ever-skeptical about golden ages. But Roberts is a practical fellow who does not seem enamored of gloom and doom simply because the '90s are less noble than the '60s. He does know that the question is not only what is to be done, but who is to do it. He is dubious about government action. "I wish in retrospect that we had limited newspaper ownership in some way to x papers in x towns, but we didn't. I tend to think at this point that [the spread of the chains] is irreversible."

What then? Shame the chains into improving by wielding the instrument of journalism itself: Compare chains the way we compare cars. Roberts proposes that the three journalism reviews -- the American Journalism Review, Columbia Journalism Review, and Nieman Reports -- commission good reporters to make on-site visits to chain papers (and TV stations), stay long enough to assess what they do and how well they do it. They should pay particular attention to local coverage, and publish the results in magazine, pamphlet, and book form.

All very well, Roberts knows, but the erosion of public spirit has taken a toll on the reviews themselves. As he speaks, these publications teeter on the edge of bankruptcy, so they would need an infusion of money to do this work. Foundation executives please note: Roberts, although he is most definitely not an accountant, calculates that the whole venture could be funded for $1.5 million. Marshall Loeb, the just-appointed incoming editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, might find this an interesting way of reviving interest in his bimonthly.

To the question of whether reporters could be expected to bite the hands that pet them, Roberts responded laconically, "If you're in reporting for the right reasons, occasionally you have to put your job on the line." Not every newspaper editor would say those words. They should be emblazoned over every journalism school in the land. For that matter, every school.

Todd Gitlin

Todd Gitlin teaches at Columbia University, writes regularly for and Tablet, and is the author, most recently, of Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street.

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