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Editor's Lament/Publisher's Mission/Big Numbers/The Clean Hands Paper

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Editor's Lament

Jim Squires, whose new book Read All About It! The Corporate Takeover of America's Newspapers is excerpted here this week, thought the parts the Reader wanted to print made his book sound gossipy and trivial. So he offered us a deal: the Reader could print what it wanted if Hot Type would do justice to Squires's concerns about the state of American newspapering. Those concerns are legitimate and pungently expressed in the book. Newspapers, he argues, are no longer run by larger-than-life press barons such as Hearst or McCormick or their descendents but by corporate bureaucrats, and no longer for the sake of the public but for the stockholders. Newspapers cling to their entitlements, as corporations do to any asset, but they've relinquished their sense of civic obligation.

"Journalism, the mirror through which the society has seen itself, has been drastically distorted," Squires writes, "its practice commercialized and appropriated for a decidedly different purpose. Without much notice, its role as the information provider for the democracy is being diminished and eclipsed by a successor far more efficient at delivering information but one without brand-name credibility, proven conscience or character references."

We told Squires we wished the Reader could run every word of the book. We like his mix of vigorous analysis and score settling. Squires said he didn't write to settle scores at all; he'd had too much fun and made too much money for that.

At any rate, Squires's book goes on at great length about the Tribune Company. One reason is that's the media conglomerate he knows intimately; he worked there from 1972 to 1989 and edited the Tribune from '81 on. A second reason, he says, is that despite the seven Pulitzer Prizes the Tribune won while Squires ran it, his publisher felt he needed to defend his credibility by examining the reasons why he left. Squires explains that he was fired because of a long feud with the new president of the Tribune, John Madigan, and because he didn't fit in.

"When I got married in 1982 in Chicago," Squires said by phone from Kentucky, where he now lives and breeds horses, "I told my new wife that if I lasted five years it would be a miracle. "These people do not like me. I am too blunt, too irreverent, and my interests are not theirs. I want to make money because that is the only thing that will make them happy, but I want to do good with the Tribune."'

He went on, "The people now making the decisions don't have a sense of understanding of what the institution's about, so they don't go about the bargain on the same basis as we used to, as Henry Luce, Colonel McCormick used to. And secondly, they reverse the order of priorities. They used to say, if it gets down to it, in the long-term interest of my community or of truth and right as I see it, I'll put my earnings at the bottom of the list. If these guys make that decision, they can legally be charged with not discharging their fiduciary responsibility and be pitched right out the door.

"The whole discussion of peer pressure in the book might be the most important discussion in it. That might be the most important influence in anyone's life. And we have changed from the peer pressure of ASNE [American Society of Newspaper Editors] that used to dominate this industry. The do-rights had a lot of influence on the industry. Now they don't have any influence at all."

The Tribune Company has circled its wagons, and we weren't able to talk with either Madigan or Jack Fuller, who succeeded Squires as editor. But Fuller is a do-right (who we understand dreaded the publication of Squires's book for the damage it might do to the Tribune's reputation), and we'd expect him to dispute Squires's notion that he's without influence.

Squires supposed Fuller would. "But the question you would have to ask him is, whose decision is it now to go against plan, to go over plan, to change the earnings requirements this year, put more newsprint in the paper, hire more reporters? What Jack Fuller cannot argue with is that those decisions used to be made by editorially minded proprietors. Those decisions are now made by lawyers, accountants, professional managers, owners. Very few editors are CEOs, and even the ones who are now probably won't be replaced by editors."

Squires grabbed the Tribune in 1981 the way Mike Ditka grabbed the Bears a year later and Ross Perot imagined seizing Washington. Convinced the place needed to be turned upside down, a process that was second nature to him anyway, Squires intimidated almost everybody and terrorized many. He never stopped believing in change for the sake of change. When Madigan drove him off, a lot of people who'd worked under Squires were glad to see him go. Yet it's not as if the era of cringing is over.

"I've got execs in the corporation who discreetly called me asking if I had a copy and wanting to meet at some odd location," says Jim Warren, the former Tribune media critic who now edits Tempo. If anyone in the Tower would have put his hands on galleys of the forthcoming book it was Warren, and sure enough he had. "They were calling me in hushed tones and asking that Xeroxed copies not be given them in an open form lest they be considered unloyal. I found that kooky. Few people would have the nerve, even if they believed his analysis was correct, to say so publicly here."

At least Tribune Company CEO Charles Brumback called us back. He allowed that he'd seen "bits and pieces" of Squires's book and understood that Squires wishes the Tribune Company could have stayed the way it used to be, family owned. "We all do," said Brumback. "But he's mixing sentiment with change. Jim was always pretty good with the changes. He knew what was going on."

Squires told us he doubts he'll ever work in journalism again. He didn't help matters last year when he became Ross Perot's media adviser and in the minds of reporters on the trail showed too much respect for Perot and too little for them. If Squires had still been editor last year, we asked him, would the Tribune have endorsed Perot for president?

"If I had been running any newspaper I would have tried to build a consensus for Ross Perot on the editorial board, if only to build a consensus for change," Squires said. "If I knew him as well as an editor as I got to know him working for him, I sure as hell would have. I think he's a terrific fellow. There's not a disingenuous bone in his body.

"I think if Ross Perot wanted to be elected president he'd have to learn to make compromises and to be a little more receptive to criticism than he was. But that was not the goal. I'd give him two sets of advice. Here's what you want to do if you want to win. And here's what you want to do if you want to make a point. And he'd always take the make-a-point advice.

"I'll say one thing for him," Squires went on. "He was not the most difficult man I ever had to work for. Not by a long shot. He might be the nicest though."

Squires said as an afterthought,"He sure cared more about people."

Publisher's Mission

The Tribune's John Madigan spoke recently at a luncheon arranged by the governor's office for officials of the several consulates in Chicago. Naturally enough, the consuls suggested the Tribune might want to do a better job covering their various parts of the world, a proposition Madigan did not receive warmly.

Research has turned up little interest in foreign affairs on the part of the Tribune's readers, explained Madigan, giving his audience the strong impression that the Tribune is much more concerned about what goes on in Chicago's upscale suburbs than anywhere else. The company has a mission, he explained, which is to make money.

Madigan's worldly audience was unastonished by these views. And after all, the Tribune certainly hasn't turned its back on foreign affairs--at the moment a dozen reporters are out of the country. But the consuls thought they might have heard a diplomatic note of regret from Madigan for not doing more. They didn't.

Big Numbers

Under the apt headline "Shuttle's new toilet termed wasteful" the Tribune the other day brought us news of a significant overrun.

The AP story reported: "The GAO noted the cost of the toilet went from an initial estimate of $2.9 million in 1988 to about $30 million in 1991, a 900 percent increase."

Is there an editor in America who'd delete that reference to 900 percent? It's shocking (which is always a good thing for a statistic to be), and can also be defended as helpful (another good thing).

But would it be any less helpful to report that this single overrun amounts to 0.00002 (or 0.002 percent) of the federal budget? No editor in his right mind would allow that paltry number to see print.

The truth is that readers require no help getting a grip on most statistics. The difference between $2.9 million and $30 million could speak for itself if allowed to, just like the difference between $2.9 billion and $30 billion and between a penny and ten cents--a couple of other 900 percent increases. But in the name of solid reporting, the press likes to do the talking.

Yesterday the AP probably would have contented itself with describing the jumps as "a tenfold increase." But the press is smarter now; 900 is a much bigger, fatter, more infuriating figure than 10. It's a stronger editorial comment.

The Clean Hands Paper

We finally paid close attention to the Tribune ad explaining that the paper's worth an extra 15 cents an issue because of its wonderful ink. "What a slogan they've got!" we shouted at our car radio. "'The Tribune--for news that doesn't rub off on you!'"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/copyright Shelly Katz, Black Star.

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