Editor and publisher, The Anchorage Daily News
Let me just say now that looking back at the record of Elijah Parish Lovejoy and the roster of recipients of the Lovejoy award, I am completely awed to be standing before you tonight. So awed in fact, that I doubt if I could have mustered the courage to show up here if it were not for the fact that I know this award belongs to a host of other people beside me. First of all, it belongs to my late husband, Chicago and Anchorage editor Larry Fanning, from whom I learned practically everything I know about the newspaper business, and whose clear vision of what a newspaper ought to be and its role in our society has been an inspiration to us at the Daily News during difficult years. Next it belongs to the team of 12 to 15 staffers who stayed aboard during those years when it often wasn’t clear where the money for the next payroll was coming from, and whose loyalty and sheer excellence have made the Daily News a newspaper to be recognized here.
So what I shall say to you is not just my voice, it is theirs as well.
“As the first Alaskan newspaper honored here at Colby, I was trying to think of a message from an Alaskan newspaper to the “lower 48″ as we call you.”
I guess most people think there’s something rather special about the particular place where they live. And Alaskans are especially prone to this malady. We are fond of mentioning that we have a coast line longer than the whole of the country, that we span four time zones, that if you superimposed our map on the United States map, Alaska will touch the Atlantic, the Pacific, Mexico and Canada. Our mountains are taller, our glaciers are colder, our people younger. . . . . On and on go the superlatives. As the first Alaskan newspaper honored here at Colby, I was trying to think of a message from an Alaskan newspaper to the “lower 48” as we call you. And I thought of the legend on my daughter’s T-shirt. (T-shirts may replace newspapers as communicators one day soon.) It goes like this: Alaska: land of the individual and other endangered species. Of course Alaskans don’t have a monopoly on individualism but there is indeed a frontier sense of bullheaded daring to be themselves, an intensity, a celebration of diversity that makes it one of the most vital places on earth.
It’s much like the spirit of the New Englander. And it’s even the kind of place that could spawn an Elijah Parish Lovejoy, for Lovejoy certainly embodied that frontier spirit. Those of us in the press today, in this country, don’t have to face howling mobs intent on destruction of our papers, but there are other threats, no less real. Lovejoy’s enemy was visible, the threat immediate. He made a dramatic stand for principle. He may have lost his life but he has inspired us to cherish this most precious legacy that we must never take for granted — a free press.
The threats journalists face today are less dramatic, put they are insidious. We face incremental decisions . . . . Small confrontations of large cumulative effect. We stand in danger not from one howling mob but from an increasing plurality of adversaries. To meet them with the courage and integrity of an Elijah Parish Lovejoy requires constant alertness.
Today i’m going to concentrate primarily on challenges to newspapers and particularly those in smaller cities — but of course many of the same dangers confront other media everywhere.
There’s no secret roster of foes faced by newspapers — most have been noted before. But I’d especially like to mention three:
The challenge of recent judicial decisions, the spectre of superficiality, and the economic squeeze with its corollary, the erosion of competition.
To touch briefly on the first:
As we all know, judicial decision is increasingly at odds with the tenants of a free press. A supreme court decision authorizing secret pretrial proceedings threatens to exclude the press from vast areas of our judicial process. New interpretations of libel law and the opening of newsrooms to search and seizure, endanger first amendment rights. The pendulum seems to have swung from the immediate post-Watergate years the press rode proud and tall to the current trend toward muffling press freedoms. We can never stop fighting these incursions, but we must also be wary that we do not overstep our freedoms with irresponsibility.
Those of us who operate newspapers in this country’s smaller cities find ourselves intimately involved in many of these battles with few local resources to fight them. In Alaska we’ve had a number of attempts to close the courtroom to the news media, and only last year we fought off an effort to force one of our reporters to reveal sources for a story on real estate fraud.
The second threat to the press i’d like to consider is subtler but, i believe, no less real. It is what one observer has called the celebration of surface. It results, i think, from the explosion of information sources and the competition for the attention of readers.
The publisher of the Trend Report, in a talk recently in Stockholm, had some provocative thoughts about the increasing role of information in our society. In listing the ten most important emerging trends in the United States, Mr. John Naisbitt of trend report says that “the United States is rapidly shifting from a mass industrial society to an information society, and the final impact will be more profound that the 19th century shift from an agricultural to an industrial society.” Mr. Naisbitt goes on to relate some astounding statistics. He says that in 1950 the number of people in the information sector — or information occupations — was 17 percent, and now it exceed 50 percent. He draws the conclusion that the post-industrial society is going to be an information society.
Now if that is true, the challenge to the press will grow ever greater. Because somehow the individual citizen must make some kind of sense out of this morass of knowledge. And the obvious candidate for that role is his local newspaper. This suggestion is buttressed by Mr. Naisbitt’s second major trend: decentralization rather than centralization. Isn’t it reasonable to assume that this trend is apt to re-emphasize the importance of the localized newspaper?
But with all this information bombarding the public, competition for the attention of readers will continue to escalate. We have learned to live with the traditional competitors of radio, television and general interest magazines, but now we must add cable television, cassette, television, an infinite variety of specialty magazines, trade publications, direct mail, nearly instantaneous world-wide telephone service — even CB radios and home video computers. There are the myriad entertainment and leisure attractions made easily available in a constantly mobile society. There’s a real danger people will become so busy they won’t care any more if they have free press, and before they notice it, those freedoms could have vanished or be abandoned from disuse.
“A newspaper has a character, a personality, a presence that just doesn’t apply to the electronic media.”
In our efforts to please a diverse array of readers, most of whom are in a hurry, we try to cover so many bases, we may lose all real substance. Television can fascinate with the fleeting image, but now we are in danger of raising a generation of non-readers. Could that mean non-thinkers, too? Newspapers have an obligation to provide more than the fleeting. In-depth reporting, made interesting and vital, can to in-depth reading and thinking on a daily basis. In the future, when the very existence of newspapers may be challenged by the proliferation of information, providing real substance can justify the existence of newspapers. They will be the best vehicle to probe the veracity and value of the information barraging us.
Take, for example, a recent story by the Chicago Tribune which took the trouble to check its own reports of the crowd count during the Pope’s visit to Chicago. Press and television accounts put the crowds at over a million. Analysis of pictures by a crowd expert hired by the Tribune revealed no more than 150,000 have stood in the space occupied.
So, I think the press needs to periodically ask itself: are we publishing substance or surface? Are we constantly willing to probe beyond the apparent. And can we afford to?
Which leads me to the third danger I want to focus on tonight: the economic peril that has the potential to eliminate competitive newspapers in this country. There’s nothing particularly new about this, but it’s a challenge with which i’m intimately familiar. And it gives rise to a question I think worth asking: does true freedom of the press as applied to newspapers mandate a multiplicity of viewpoints? Or do we have a free press where a community is treated to but one view of the world; one brand of editors selecting what stories to cover: one kind of reporter interpreting what happens on the local scene: one publisher vetoing the story he doesn’t like. Is that freedom of the press?
It was A. J. Liebling, I believe, who made the familiar remark that “freedom of the press belongs to the person who owns one.” And I do believe that many of the publishers who do own the only press in a town bend over backwards to be responsible and balanced.
Still, that single press is a fact of life in more and more towns. 88 percent of American cities with newspapers have only one. 380 Cities or 12 percent have more than one newspaper, but of those another 126 cities have two newspapers under a single ownership and 19 have two with separate ownerships but a combined publishing arrangement. That leaves, according to the American Newspaper Publishers Association, only 35 cities or two percent of the cities in the United States that have two or more competing newspapers under separate ownerships. Anchorage is one of these 35. There are also 1,115 newspapers published by chains or newspaper groups — many in single newspaper towns — or 63 percent of the nation’s papers are group owned. Is this alarming? Al Neuhart, president of one of the largest newspaper chains, Gannett, and this year’s president of the American Newspaper Publishers Association, thinks not. He told the ANPA convention last spring that there are more than 28,000 media voices in the United States when you include magazines, television radio stations and daily and weekly newspapers. That’s more than twice the number at the turn of the last century. Neuharth claimed that “the noisemakers who criticize newspapers for lack of diversity are trying hopelessly and in some cases recklessly to relate today’s world of news and information services to the romanticized world of the past,” a worm of penny political journals, personalized journalism and cut-throat local competition which often resulted in cut-rate journalism. “The fact is,” says Neuhart, “very little of that kind of journalism contributed to raising the intellectual level of the people of this land.”
Now I wouldn’t presume to argue with Mr. Neuharth, but I do believe that some of the world’s highest quality newspapers did spring from precisely that climate of intense local competition and many of the best still are in competitive cities. And I would also like to at least suggest that the towns with competitive newspapers are among the liveliest and most progressive. It seems to me the competition that destroys is the purely commercial competition — never the competition of ideas.
Because of the multitude of media voices clamoring for attention, I venture to suggest that it is even more necessary for citizens to know who to believe, who to trust. If the local newspaper is doing its job properly, and especially if it has a competitor to serve as its watchdog, it can be a major stabilizing factor in a confusing society.
This is especially true in an isolated area like Alaska or Hawaii where it isn’t possible to find six or eight Daily Newspapers from neighboring towns on the corner newsstand. So, possibly, the Alaskan experience is not valid for the rest of the country. Yet, in spite of 11 radio stations, 4 television stations, pay television by satellite, and 3 weekly shoppers, there are few citizens in and around Anchorage who would argue that the perceptions of the populace have not been shaped by what has been the dominant Daily Newspaper — at least until quite recently when has become a genuinely competitive newspaper town. And despite all these other media, I submit that the Daily Newspaper, more any other single influence, establishes the climate, the mood, the very thought structure of any community.
This is particularly so when the issues are great and complex and the society dealing with them is in a constant flux as in Alaska. Consider for a moment some issues facing a frontier state: the biggest one is the allocation of land — the federal government is converting more than a hundred million acres into national parks and refugees, yet Alaskans are desperate for new lands on which to build a life; there is another pipeline to build — a natural gas pipeline to be the world’s most expensive private construction project (we already hold that record from the last pipeline). There is the confrontation between environment and development so immediate and so emotional on the last frontier because of the starkness of the issues and the small population; and there are new potentials — from bottom fisheries to feed the world, to energy sources to fuel it. Most recently there is the interesting question of how to handle responsibly a projected 3.4 billion dollar state budget surplus through 1981. These great decisions facing only about 400,000 people require a special commitment from the press: enterprising, courageous, in-depth reporting to fully and fairly inform the people so decisions can be made in a climate of reason. There is a special need too, for the investigative report that brings to light some of the excesses and corner cutting that has grown traditional in some circles of a frontier society. The press has described as the “central nervous system of a community.” Sociologist David Riesman emphasized some years ago that the newspaper plays a particularly crucial role in a community by defining the terms in which political and social dialogue take place. A newspaper has a character, a personality, a presence that just doesn’t apply to the electronic media.
If I might be permitted to quote just once from a very distinguished editor who happens to have been my husband — Larry Fanning described it this way in a speech he gave in the 60s at the University of Indiana: “a great newspaper has integrity, a social conscience, a sense of mission, responsibility, a volatile engagement with the real world, a joyous, vigorous, exciting quality…Such newspapers establish and confirm the tone of a community, one of the central responsibilities of a newspaper.” He went on to say that a newspaper’s functions of responsibility to its readers is essential to a self-governing society, that it is a strategically vital institution and that it is and ever must be more than just a business. Anything that weakens the press, that corrupts the press, teat diverts the press from this central function is a peril to the American system.”
That special sense of mission that applies to the newspaper, must never lie lost. We need to sometimes ask ourselves whether the economic realities, the challenge of ever increasing costs and the preoccupation with the bottom line, has obscured the special sense of mission that justifies first amendment freedoms. It is a question I have been forced to consider.
Of course, the first duty of a newspaper must be to survive. No one has experienced any more dramatically than we have at the Daily News the absolute necessity of making ends meet. Somerset maugham tells us “money is like the sixth sense without which you cannot make full use of the other five.” As the Daily News teetered on the edge of oblivion for over two years, we experienced first-hand that in the business as any other, the exercise of those five senses depends on the availability of Maugham’s sixth. But I think we should remind ourselves that a black figure at the bottom line is the means to a free press, not the end.
Our history at the Anchorage Daily News has been as prone to peaks and valleys as our alaskan landscape. Consider that in one year, 1976, the Daily News won the Pulitzer gold medal for its series of articles on the powerful Alaska teamsters union, and five months later announced on page one that the paper was broke and would have to stop publication if help wasn’t immediately forthcoming.
Let me tell you about it briefly because it illustrates, I think, some of these challenges faced by newspapers.
First the peak:
Picture the Alaska of the summer of 1975 at the height of the pipeline building frenzy. The state was teeming with the boomers who had come north to get their slice of the bonanza. The lucky ones who got the nod for a job from the big unions earned vast sums for 12-hour, seven-day weeks whether they did any work or not. That summer everyone in Alaska was whispering about the power of Alaska teamsters union 959 and its burley boss, Jess L. Carr, who was tucking away over a million dollars a week in the teamster pension fund alone. In a short time the union had grown from 1,500 members to 23,000. There were teamster shopping malls, a teamster hospital, dental clinic, recreation centers, a legal clinic, buildings, jet airplanes — all for the use of teamsters. We called this reporting enterprise, “Empire: the Alaskan Teamster Story.” It described the insidious political and financial tentacles of the teamsters reaching into every facet of Alaskan life, of schemes for personal gain by its leader, of the mysterious giant teamster-controlled warehouse through which all the equipment for the pipeline from paperclips to bulldozers had to pass. We discovered that all the top jobs at the warehouse were held by teamsters with criminal records! We made an effort to tell the positive as well as negative aspects of the teamster organization. When the series was finished, I was disappointed. We had committed three reporters to it for three months, but it seemed there was so much more. In fact, we were meeting to plan a follow up when the news came that the teamster series had won the pulitzer prize. You can imagine that newsroom — champagne corks popping, all twelve telephones ringing, calls coming in from all over the world, television and radio interviews, hundreds of telegrams! And then before we could gear up for the next effort, came the money crunch and we were forced to cut the staff by 40%. The follow-up investigative efforts had to be dropped.
But in our case, the community did care. After the front-page call for help, about 50 citizens formed a group called the Committee for Two Newspapers who rang doorbells to sell subscriptions and cajole advertisers. One of the Alaska native corporations comprised of Eskimos and Indians loaned us money just in time to keep the doors open.
“Two newspapers of undisputed quality and financial success, the Washington Post and the New York Times, were, in their formative years, quite spectacular money losers.”
At that time the large financially successful Anchorage Times handled our circulation, advertising and production under a joint operating agreement, an arrangement that in our case didn’t work, but which I support as a tool to keep two viable editorial voices in a community. In many places these arrangements have been spectacularly successful. But Daily News losses had increased and sources that had subsidized the paper were no longer available. For more than two years, during which time a lawsuit was filed, there was no revenue from which to operate our 12-person editorial department and all my own resources had gone into the paper as well as hefty contributions from other members of the family. At that time the paper could show no reasonable expectation of profit; no bank or traditional lending institution was interested in talking to us. So we had no choice but to pass the hat. Happily a series of individuals, in addition to the native corporation, were sufficiently dedicated to the ideas involved, and to supporting a free competitive press in Alaska that, even though they had no visible assurance of ever seeing their money again, lent us more than $600,000 to keep publishing until the lawsuit was settled about a year ago. This grinding experience had a happy ending; all the lenders were paid back in full with interest.
Let me digress here for a moment. A good many newspaper articles have appeared around the country about the Anchorage Daily experience and the point is usually made that the paper has incurred very large financial losses over a number of years. That’s all right as it is a legitimate part of the story. But I used to feel compelled to apologize for those losses, in fact, to feel ashamed of having been responsible for committing several million dollars to what we see as an investment in ideas.
Recently, while reading David Halberstams’ interesting chronicle of some leaders of the press, “the powers that be,” I came across a couple of interesting facts. Two newspapers of undisputed quality and financial success, the Washington Post and the New York Times, were, in their formative years, quite spectacular money losers. According to Halberstam, when Adolph Ochs bought the New York Times in 1896 it was losing $2,500 a week — not bad for dollars in those days. And theWashington Post lost money for 22 years every single year from 1933 when it was purchased by Eugene Meyer (father of Katharine Graham). Some of the great newspapers of quality have had serious financial troubles. The demise of the ChicagoDaily News is one sad chapter and the revival of the London Times, a happier one.
let me return to the Anchorage Daily News story. After the lawsuit was settled October 1 last year, a substantial monetary settlement was paid us and the terms of the settlement included dissolution of the joint publishing arrangement six months later, April 1, 1979. This meant six months to find a building, order and install press and composing equipment, staff advertising, production, circulation and business departments. Starting with only 12 members of the staff — all news people — we found it wasn’t easy to hire key business-side executives, especially in Alaska, for what seemed to still be a financially precarious operation. With the deadline of April 1 beating down on us we were faced with finding our way through the technological maze. What kind of equipment, presses, computer, etc. etc., to order? And before, people helped. TheFairbanks sent us a top consultant on press and technology — no charge. The Lewiston, Idaho Tribune sent us a business-side consultant — no charge. In early December we ordered a press and a computerized editing and typesetting system. There was still no building to put it in and not enough available dollars to finance it. Still, the equipment had to be ordered because even then the experts were skeptical that any of it could be on-line by April 1, the hazards of shipping to Alaska. There some offers of money, too. But unless such offers would enable us to publish the kind of newspaper that would make a positive contribution to the community, it couldn’t be accepted.
By December the situation was desperate. If solid support could not be found by mid-January, there seemed to be no once more but to close the doors.
In early January a small newspaper group, McClatchy Papers from Sacramento, California, expressed interest in our plight. Two weeks later they acquired 80 percent of the Daily News and I kept 20 percent with the understanding I would continue to operate the paper. A week later they bought us a building. By April 1st the press we had ordered in December was in place, the new computerized editing and typesetting system was functioning, the news staff had been doubled and trained on the new equipment, some 60 new wire services, columns and features were available, more than 50 employees in production, advertising and circulation had been hired and the paper completely redesigned. It did come out on April 2nd, and most gratifying of all, was instantly well received in the community. Circulation soared from 12,000 on April 1 to about 30,000 today. There is still a long way to go. The afternoon paper has 45,000 circulation and over three times the advertising linage. But the Daily News is now headed toward becoming a viable business proposition and it will survive. Right now the competition between the two Anchorage newspapers is keen, but they have both improved because of it, and the benefits.
And all this because a perceptive small newspaper group saw value beyond the bottom line. Ours may not be the first instance in modern times that a successful publishing group entered a competitive newspaper market through the smaller paper, but it is certainly among the few. McClatchy is a hard-hitting business operation which believes in operating at a profit. But it also puts the heaviest emphasis on a quality editorial product and on serving the reader.
“What significance does this Alaskan experience have for the press as a whole, or at least in the smaller cities? I think this: it’s impossible to generalize that all single newspaper cities are bad or that all newspaper chains have a negative effect.”
There are two key reasons McClatchy believes the Anchorage investment will be successful: the nationwide trend toward morning papers, and the savings implicit in the new technology. But the third and major reason we are confident of success, and reader acceptance already confirms it, is this enlightened newspaper group’s dedication to quality and substance. The redesign of the paper helps the reader make sense out of the news, labeling and departmentalizing it. Giving the essence of the news in quick digests as well as the indepth report, focusing heavily on local and state news and bringing in the full stock markets and four major news services by satellite directly into our computer. Quite an improvement on a year ago when much material came by mail and was published a week or two after the events being described.
What significance does this Alaskan experience have for the press as a whole, or at least in the smaller cities? I think this: it’s impossible to generalize that all single newspaper cities are bad or that all newspaper chains have a negative effect. Competitive newspaper towns and independent ownerships are perhaps the ideal. But I think it’s a matter of motive and focus. If the driving force behind American newspapering were to become commercial and superficial, geared strictly toward ever-increasing profits, then I think the mission of the press would be obscured and freedom of the press in danger. But if newspaper operators retain an idealogical commitment of an Elijah Parish Lovejoy, a commitment to a free, courageous, probing, diverse, informative press that serves readers and not special interests then we will have a free and profitable press. The first business of the press has traditionally been ideas, not dollars. No one remembers what Elijah Lovejoy’s profit was. In no way am I suggesting profit isn’t desirable. But newspapers have a solemn duty beyond the profit motive and if we let that duty be eclipsed we have lost something very precious. Let’s continue to remember Elijah Parish Lovejoy’s mission and his sacrifice: let’s focus on ideas and substance as the primary commodity of the press and let’s celebrate the achievements of tie enlightened American publishers who have successfully operated in the public interest with profits to follow.
I think the American press can be grateful to Colby College for keeping alive the spirit of Elijah Parish Lovejoy. It can annually remind us that our mission extends to values beyond the bottom line.