February 05, 2003

Tony Ridder Defends his DNA

Tony Ridder, chairman and CEO of Knight Ridder, apparently couldn't take the being the poster boy for all that is wrong with corporate journalism any longer.

Ever since his company announced it was doling out millions to company managers after slashing newsroom budgets, he had been subjected to derision from journalistic watchdogs, among them former Washington Post ombudsman Geneva Overholser, who lectured him in her Poynter online column: "If the mantra used to be: 'We've got to be a strong business in order to do strong journalism,' it now seems quite openly to have become: 'We've got to make higher profits than all the others.'"

Overholser turned her next column over to Ridder, who defended his reduction in the number of Knight Ridder employees by 7.3 percent last year in order to produce 31 percent increase in revenue for the Q4 of 2002 (and a 28 percent rise in the KRI stock price from a $51.54 in July to a close of $66.04 yesterday).

"Knight Ridder is a public company. While its successes can be measured in many ways - and we regard first-rate journalism as a critical one - its return to shareholders is another. As our shareholders should, they remind us of this reality frequently ... Other publicly-traded newspaper companies all work under exactly the same pressures."

Ridder maintained that "impact journalism" remains the norm at Knight Ridder newspapers and asserts that "public service projects and investigations in our newspapers is impressive."

Overholser, in her earlier column, was skeptical and pointed to a book entitled "The Big Chill" that found a direct, deleterious relationship between the quest for higher profit margins and investigative journalism. After examining 15 years of reporting at the Chicago Tribune, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Philadelphia Inquirer (a Knight Ridder newspaper) authors Marilyn Greenwald and Joseph Bernt concluded:

"There was less interest in 1995 in targeting private institutions, executives and employees than there had been in 1980. These findings suggest that a change has occurred at these prestigious metropolitan papers -- a change that is affecting content, reducing the investigative reporting so prized by journalism professionals and the watchdog mission journalism educators have long ascribed to the press."

Overholser has been all over the issue of profits vs. quality journalism, citing a report from the Aspen Institute's Conference on Journalism and Society that recommended newspaper companies establish a "journalistic values" committee on media companies' boards of directors.

"It is the rare communication company that specifically regards journalistic excellence as an oversight responsibility of its board. Few feel obliged to name experienced journalists as directors or establish 'journalistic standards' committees comparable to finance, audit and compensation committees. While there are certain reservations to this approach, formally fusing 'journalistic DNA' into the corporate governance fabric is a high-impact initiative worthy of serious exploration."  Read the full report (PDF)

Journalistic DNA. I like that. Maybe Tony Ridder needs a few more strands of it.

 Geneva Overholser What Counts Most in a Newspaper Company
 Geneva Overholser What Does YOUR Media Company's Board Look Like?
 Tony Ridder Tony Ridder Responds
 Aspen Institute Journalism and Commercial Success: Expanding the Business Case for Quality News and Information

Posted by Tim Porter at February 5, 2003 08:44 AM

If you're interested in very thinly veiled ridicule of Tony Ridder, be sure to read Carl Hiaasen's "Basket Case." It's a hoot and sure to please any hardbitten journalist.

Posted by: Joel Abrams on February 5, 2003 11:28 AM

Long-term, I do not believe business and quality journalism are compatible. In the past 30 years or so, the pressures on companies that own media properties to increase profits has only increased, despite the fact that barriers to entry in the marketplace have been lowered dramatically with the popularization of the Internet.

One solution for news organizations interested in quality journalism and long-term survival is to create tax-exempt entities by which to be owned in perpetuity, along the lines of the Poynter Institute's ownership of the St. Petersburg Times and the owners' plans to do something similar for the Birmingham, Ala., paper. But so many large news organizations already are owned by publicly held chains that the damage might already be done.

Posted by: Lex on February 6, 2003 10:17 AM
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