Survey: public wants press to fully describe sources is science stories
CSPI says that the media often fails to disclose the funding sources of apparently independent nonprofit organizations quoted on health and medical issues.
From Editor & Publisher, July 8, 2004
By Charles Geraci
A national survey released today by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) finds that how the media describes the background of health “experts” and organizations directly influences how credible they seem to the average reader or viewer.
Most of the 1,000 randomly selected adults in the survey say that the media should mention whether scientists or organizations quoted in their articles receive grants or funding from corporations.
For example, the survey shows 59 % of respondents had confidence in a hypothetical statement contending a drug is safe when the statement was attributed to a “Harvard professor whose research is government supported.” However, when the statement was merely attributed to “a Harvard professor,” only 48 % had confidence. When it was ascribed to a “Harvard professor whose research is supported by drug companies,” 41 % had confidence. But only 24 % of respondents trusted the statement when it was attributed to a “Harvard professor who owns stock in drug companies.”
“These findings are particularly salient at a time when so many researchers are funded by the very companies whose products they are studying or commenting on,” Michael F. Jacobson, CSPI’s executive director, said in a statement.
CSPI says that the media often fails to disclose the funding sources of apparently independent nonprofit organizations quoted on health and medical issues.
For example, it said, the American Council on Science and Health—largely funded by chemical, food, and agribusiness companies—is often quoted minimizing certain risks to public health or discrediting studies alleging risks to health. CSPI said The New York Times sometimes cites the group as a “science advocacy group” or a “private health education group.” Other times, the newspaper has referred to the organization as a “consumer foundation in Manhattan that is in part financed by industry,” or as a group that is “financed in part by the food industry.”
“If a reporter is going to quote a group like the American Council on Science and Health, that reporter should be sure to identify the corporations that fund it,” Jacobson said. “If a group refuses to disclose its corporate funding, journalists should say so.”
The Center for Science in the Public Interest is a nonprofit organization that supports improved nutrition, food-safety, and pro-health alcohol policies. It is largely funded by subscribers to its Nutrition Action Healthletter and it says it receives no funding from corporations or the government.
“GOOD JOURNALISM, GOOD BUSINESS”
Proving It by Rick Edmonds
It’s an article of faith among editors and reporters, Leo Bogart wrote years ago, that good journalism pays off at the bottom line for a newspaper. But can that be proved?
“Oh, you’ve just been working for Gannett too long,” a jovially confident Gregory Favre, then editor of The Sacramento Bee, told a couple of editors anguishing over profit pressures at a conference outside Chicago in 1997. Four years later, Favre would be leading an initiative at The Poynter Institute focused in large part on the impact of those very pressures on journalism quality throughout America.
And, in quick proximity, a respected Knight Ridder publisher would quit over cost pressures,1 the president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors would make the issue the centerpiece of his convention speech,2 and Favre’s former boss, the CEO of family-dominated McClatchy, would mull the virtues of remaining public versus taking the company private3 as a protection against Wall Street’s unstinting imperatives.
No one was thinking any longer that only Gannett editors knew profit pressures. Thus has the erosion of American journalism’s public service role due to increasing business pressures changed from rarely discussed hot-potato notion to conventional wisdom. It would be pondered at think tanks and industry conventions, within individual newsrooms and in trade publications, books and online discussions.
Against the background of a dozen years ago, this change looks dramatic indeed. As Gannett’s “editor of the year” in 1990, I was invited to speak at the company’s year-end meetings. Commending Gannett’s pioneering move in launching USA Today, I made this suggestion: Here’s my dream for the next risk-taking, history-making endeavor: Let Gannett show how corporate journalism can serve all its constituencies in hard times. As we sweat out the end of the ever-increasing quarterly earnings, as we necessarily attend to the needs and wishes of our shareholders and our advertisers, are we worrying enough about the other three? About our employees, our readers, and our communities?4
It was, after all, Gannett’s indomitable CEO, Al Neuharth — retired by the time of that speech — who had made quarter-by-quarter profit “improvements” the goal for media companies across the nation. Certainly Gannett knew how to make it happen. When the company bought The Des Moines Register in 1985, the paper’s profit before taxes was just under $6 million. Within a year, it was $11 million, then $17 million the next year. By the time I returned to the paper as editor in 1988, it was $20.5 million.
Yet, dramatic as these rapid gains were, their effects were clearly not to be discussed. After that 1990 speech, incredulous executives indignantly asked my publisher if he had approved my remarks in advance. And he, in turn, felt compelled to ask me (if somewhat sheepishly) to write a note to his corporate boss assuring him of my fundamental loyalties to the company.
Nonetheless, by the time of that speech, profit pressures were fast becoming a widespread challenge for editors. That very year, Gene Roberts left his job as executive editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, a paper he had built into one of America’s best. That marked the beginning of the wider journalism world’s understanding that the once eminently admired Knight Ridder was doing its best to emulate Gannett’s business successes.
By 1993, former Chicago Tribune editor Jim Squires had published “Read All About It! The Corporate Takeover of America’s Newspapers,” an early entrant in what would become a spate of books on the subjects. Wrote Squires:
During the last decade, the culture of the press has changed from that of an institution dedicated to the education of the public to that of its rival, television, which is dedicated to entertaining consumers for a profit. At the same time, the new corporate owners of the press have taken the responsibility for “news” content out of the hands of trained, experienced professional journalists whose goal was peer recognition for quality journalism, and put it into the hands of trained, experienced professional business managers whose goal is peer recognition for successful business management.5
Still, the conversation at that early moment remained muted. Roberts didn’t talk openly about the pressures when he left the Inquirer. He didn’t want to poison the well for the editors who would follow him, he told me in a phone call at the time. And Squires’ book, though eagerly noted by many, was rejected by others as the product of infighting at the Tribune.
There was such powerful aversion to this conversation that even in 1997, at that Chicago conference where Favre was so confident that the problem was limited in scope, the topic came out only with great difficulty. The convener of that meeting, Oregonian editor Sandra Mims Rowe, wrote afterward:
The editors dissected the difficult, sticky, and often-avoided question of financial investment in newsrooms at some length, awkwardly at first, but ultimately with a passion and coherence that would surprise many in our newsrooms.6
Why was the topic so difficult? For one thing, journalists have long nursed an aversion to talking about the business side of their operations. This avoidance was part of the old “church/state wall,” traditionally seen as protecting journalism from commercial pressues. Purity seemed best-served through an aversion of the eyes. Indeed, I talked to editors in the early ’80s who did not know what their profit margins were. And those who did weren’t talking.
Then there was the question of loyalty to (or sometimes fear of) the company. Communications companies are notoriously poor at communication, and the very news companies that press other businesses to reveal internal information, including dissension within the ranks, hold their own information exceptionally close to the chest. That year-end Gannett speech was subsequently omitted from the in-house publication in which all such remarks traditionally were printed, though it made its way quickly onto newsroom bulletin boards — prompting a colleague to label it “samizdat,” the old term for repressed literature familiar from Soviet days.
In the end, the discomfort you might cause your publisher (as I found out that day) was, for most, an effective brake on any inclination they might have to raise the difficult issue of how business pressures were weakening their journalism.
Finally, there was an assumption of impotence — a widely-held feeling that, if there’s nothing you can do about a situation, talking about it can only make it worse. Better to buckle down and deal with it. Thus, articles in the trade publications and speeches at industry gatherings bore titles along the lines of “Doing Good Journalism in Bad Times,” or “How Creative Hiring Can Stretch Your Newsroom Dollar,” or, even, “Stop Whining and Focus.”
Many editors understood that being more attuned to readers was an important responsibility. There were added complexities. Many editors understood that being more attuned to readers was an important responsibility. Charges of aloofness and arrogance had hit home. So had the assertion that journalists were more interested in impressing their peers — or beating the competition — than in serving the public. Civic (or public) journalism grew up partly in response to these concerns, as did reader advisory councils and other efforts to make newsrooms more accountable in their communities.
How, editors asked themselves, did one differentiate between these valid efforts to be responsive — and the marketing pressures that were requiring them to spend more time at corporate decision-making tables than in their newsrooms?
These hesitations were destined to be overwhelmed by the power of the facts on the ground. That wall of separation? It was famously reinterpreted in the experience of the Los Angeles Times, whose CEO Mark Willes’s much-watched determination to tear it down culminated in the sale of Times Mirror to Tribune Co. and the forced departure of Willes. The last straw was a special issue of the Times magazine (presented as an editorial product) about the new Staples Center. The Times’ publisher, it emerged, had agreed to share the profits of the magazine with the center itself.
Here was clear evidence of the damage that can be done when the wall comes down, and it came at a time when the impact of the business pressures on the quality of the journalism was ever more evident. As former Philadelphia Inquirer executive editor Jim Naughton wrote in 2001, looking back at the paper he had left in 1995 and recalling the cuts he had had to make: “When I contemplated leaving, we thought we were running out of places to trim without doing lasting damage. We were just cutting capillaries then; now they slash arteries.”7
The old aversion to talking about the business side was largely dissolved. Few were feeling any longer that avoiding it could protect the journalism.
Meanwhile, the old notion that one simply must not address these controversial topics was effectively blasted apart by the much-revered Jay Harris, who resigned as publisher of the San Jose Mercury News. Unlike the editors who had downplayed the reasons for their departure, this publisher spoke at ASNE’s 2001 convention, and he held the hall in the palm of his hand.
Recounting the events that led him, finally, to leave Knight Ridder, the company he had served so well and with such passionate loyalty, he said:
I had watched a long train of abuses against the traditions and core values of a great profession and a great company. I had witnessed enough.
And, he concluded, “The trend threatening newspapers’ historic mission is clear if we are willing to see it.”8 Far fewer editors remained unwilling to see — and speak about — the matter after Harris’ moving speech.
Meanwhile, the feeling faded that having this conversation was pointless, in part because the focus moved from lamentation toward solutions, as discussed below. But it’s important first to note that the changes telescoped here came gradually, and had various causes, as I wrote in an American Journalism Review article in 1998, part of a project on “The State of the American Newspaper”:
Corporatization didn’t rock editors’ lives suddenly. It began with cost-cutting campaigns in the ’70s and ’80s, then gathered speed as computers gave bean-counters new clout to pressure news hole and payroll. As readership fell and bottom lines flattened out (or worse), corporate headquarters in distant cities stepped up their memos and publishers turned up the heat. Bit by bit the editor’s autonomy has eroded: from the overall budget to the news hole from personnel policies to new sections, from job tenure to the shape and size of stories. Stress fractures appeared everywhere along the traditional wall between business and editorial.9
But awareness did grow, however gradually, and so did willingness to speak out — partly because the concerns about the effects of the pressures deepened as those effects grew more visible.
The presumption that the business decisions being made were good — good for the business itself — was increasingly questioned. Thus newspaper analyst John Morton noted, in a 1995 article called “When Newspapers Eat Their Seed Corn,” that “the current wave of cost-cutting could hurt [newspaper companies’] future.”10
By 2001, in a compelling radio program on Boston’s WBUR called “The Connection,” Morton was putting it even more bluntly: “Wall Street takes the view that all they’re interested in is the interests of the shareholder — yet the attitude they take really in the long term undermines the interests of the shareholder.”11
On the same program, McClatchy’s CEO, Gary Pruitt, added, “I think it’s important for management of media companies to take a longer-term view, to transcend the short-term view of Wall Street … I think, by and large, the shareholders of McClatchy understand actions that do not maximize profits in that year, but work for the long-term health of the company.”
Pruitt’s comment highlighted one of the facts emerging in this newly-vibrant debate. It was now widely acknowledged that, as one wag put it, most media companies were having no trouble staying in business; the challenge was staying in journalism.
But it grew clear, too, that some companies were far more likely than others to continue to place high value on the journalism. Among those companies were those — such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and McClatchy — with a two-tiered stock voting structure, with families still dominating.
While most newspaper executives contrive to woo analysts only with financial fireworks, The Washington Post’s Don Graham typically mentions the company’s journalistic strength. Indeed, Graham told a Columbia Journalism Review reporter recently:
We have never done quarterly conference calls describing our earnings. We pay no attention to what Wall Street analysts are estimating we’re going to make for the quarter. We don’t particularly care what we’re going to make for the quarter. And we have told them so.12
But, if the differentiation among companies was increasingly noteworthy, the majority of newspapers, in companies whose stock was publicly traded, were not following the lead that Abe Rosenthal had so lovingly observed on the part of his boss, Punch Sulzberger of The New York Times: “When times get tough, you put more tomatoes into the soup.”
These companies were, instead, dropping the gains to the bottom line. Moreover, observers were noting that, while profits had been going up (despite the cyclical nature of the business), readership had been going steadily downward. Perhaps there was a connection?
Throughout the late ’90s, coverage of the issue gained in strength of tone and in frequency of appearance. Thus the Columbia Journalism Review had a summer 1998 cover piece called “Money Lust: How Pressure for Profits is Perverting Journalism.”13 American Journalism Review’s groundbreaking report on the State of the American Newspaper began in May 1998 and ran through January 2000. And Nieman Reports had a special summer 1999 issue on “The Business of News, the News about Business.”14
With so much evidence of the size of the problem, and widespread acknowledgment of its undermining effect on journalism’s ability to do the job democracy requires of it, the plaint that had taken so long to gather began to move toward the quest for solutions.
Jay Harris’ profession-shaking resignation in early 2001 was a spark for many. In its wake, I e-mailed a dozen or so colleagues and suggested getting together to talk about how we might build on the energy of that moment. The response was powerful, leading to a meeting in the Washington offices of the Committee of Concerned Journalists (CCJ), and then, with the support of the Knight Foundation through New Directions for News, to a second at The Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Achieving a greater understanding of what constitutes good journalism emerged from those meetings as a key aim, along with an understanding of the relationship between journalistic health and business health. At the Poynter sessions, researchers from Tom Rosenstiel’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found that their search for measurements of economic success and newsroom investment, and how the two were linked, had much in common with Poynter researchers’ project on “newsroom capacity,” and the two groups joined forces.
Accumulating knowledge on these and similar topics, and communicating that knowledge to a wider audience — CEOs, analysts and investment advisers, as well as the public — emerged as another goal.
Consequently, scholars whose work was close to these issues joined a third meeting, hosted by the Medill School of Journalism and Northwestern University’s Media Management Center.
That meeting focused on research — how to mine what exists, how to foster more research that makes a difference for the industry, how to get word out about it. As the Nieman Foundation’s Bob Giles said in closing, “We all believe that if you invest in news, you contribute to the long-term stability of the news organizations. Let’s give decision-makers something to work with that counters the quarter-by-quarter mindset.”
Those discussions engendered still more connections — for example with the closely-related work by Phil Meyer at the University of North Carolina. And, by the 2003 ASNE convention, the collaborative work that resulted was ready for presentation. “Quality Journalism and the Bottom Line” — an overview of the findings — brought Poynter’s Rick Edmonds, UNC’s Phil Meyer, PEJ’s Rosenstiel and Missouri Journalism School’s Esther Thorson before the editors — a rare moment in which that oft-spurned (by journalists) creature, academic research, made its way into the center of one of the industry’s pre-eminent conventions.
Is there any way for journalists to speak effectively with one voice? A society that had been loath to discuss the topic at all in 1997 had heard a publisher’s eloquent plea in 2001 and an address by its own president, Tim McGuire, in 2002, had witnessed another remarkable step toward bringing the topic the attention it needed.
That thread traces just one set of meetings and its impact. Other organizations, too, were addressing the topic. An Aspen Institute session — the 2002 meeting was the sixth in a series — managed to bring corporate executives together with journalists in an attempt to discuss the question together.
Though talk was still difficult under those circumstances, several of the participants were happy to conclude that the mere fact of communication was helpful. Shortly after that meeting, a similar gathering was convened by the Carnegie Corporation in New York, bringing together not just media executives and journalists but also journalism school deans. Much of the same ground was covered but with a particular emphasis on the need to bring these issues to public attention. My notes from these meetings reflect the emergence of a number of questions:
• Is there any way for journalists to speak effectively with one voice? The Council of Presidents of Journalism Organizations has made a start on this. Others have recommended establishment of a new national organization. The goal would be better communication with one another, with owners and executives, and with the public, on issues of mutual concern — particularly the impact of business pressures on journalism quality.
• What might effectively be pursued through discussing the increasingly prominent questions of corporate social responsibility and corporate governance? How can the conversation be broadened to include analysts and investment counselors?
• Is there a need for a new national commission to bring this issue to the attention of the public — those who, after all, are the ones ultimately affected?
• How can journalists themselves do a better job of covering these topics? How can journalism organizations do a better job of discussing them? How can we “cross the lines” of organizations such as ASNE and Associated Press Managing Editors, Newspaper Association of America, and Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication to broaden the conversation and deepen its impact?
• How can we engender better research on the effects of business pressures on journalism — and get the word out about that research? Are there differences among companies, depending on ownership? How do their experiences compare over time?
• Should we be thinking about how a mix of kinds of media, and kinds of ownership, can produce journalism that is, overall, serving America’s needs? NPR and the “idea-driven” magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly and Harpers are all essentially nonprofit. Should we be paying more attention to these and other models?
In the meantime, still other conferences were taking place — at Stanford and Harvard, among others — and other publications were addressing these issues. In many people’s minds, the 2002 publication of “The News About the News: American Journalism in Peril,” by prominent Washington Post editors Robert Kaiser and Len Downie, brought the issue to the mainstream.15
Through all these new contributions, additional thoughts about possible solutions emerged. For some, the emphasis fell on emphasizing professionalism in the newsrooms, strengthening journalists to hold firm against the profit pressures. CCJ’s Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel published “The Elements of Journalism” with this in mind, compiled a citizens’ bill of journalism rights, and brought ethics seminars into training-starved newsrooms across the country.
“Taking Stock: Journalism and the Publicly Traded Newspaper Company,” another 2002 book, by scholars Gilbert Cranberg, Randall P. Bezanson and John Soloski, added richly to the understanding of the business situation media companies found themselves in — and also to the quest for solutions. Among the authors’ recommendations:
• That boards of directors should have more than one member who is a retired or active journalist of high repute and who does not work for the company.
• Boards should comprise primarily outsiders, and board members’ compensation should not be tied to stock market performance.
• Executives’ compensation “should be based in significant part on the circulation and journalistic quality of the newspapers.”
Another interesting set of recommendations emerged from a speech by Peter Goldmark, then publisher of the International Herald Tribune, in the summer of 2000. He told a gathering at the Aspen Institute that executives of corporations that included media outlets should fund “an independent council to track, promote, examine and define the independent news function in American and in the world at large.”
“Give it teeth, give it a good budget … Probably $5 million a year minimum,” he said. He recommended an organization comparable to the National Academy of Science — “a prestigious, national, institutionalized advocate for the independence and vitality of the most distinctive non-governmental tradition in our democracy.”16
Goldmark also suggested designating a board member who would have special responsibility to monitor the paper’s editorial performance.
Nine former newspaper editors (Hodding Carter, Bob Giles, Max King, Bill Kovach, Dave Lawrence, Jim Naughton, Gene Patterson, Gene Roberts, and the author) took some of these recommendations forward in a letter to the CEOs and board members of the 14 largest publicly-owned newspaper companies, noting newspaper companies’ “special obligations to the communities they serve,” and urging them to consider adoption of some of the measures. One publisher asked in response if we were “out of our minds” to propose having journalists on the boards of directors — but the topic continues to win support and spark discussion.
The industry has come a long way since the effect of profit pressures on journalism quality was a topic blithely waved away – or nervously quashed.Interestingly, similar themes have arisen again and again. A Ford Foundation gathering in Washington ended in agreement that a “partnership for quality journalism” — to be established with funds from media companies — would be a fine idea. Others have talked about the need to bring the public into the discussion — and perhaps to educate the young regarding the impact of media (for good and ill) in their lives, through literacy education in the schools.
Many of these ideas have yet to produce much in the way of concrete responses. But the need to better understand the issues has been one of the most consistent notes in the discussion — and one upon which more and more people seem inclined to act.
Editor & Publisher had a cover piece in early 2003 called “Profiting from Experience: New studies seek to show that ‘quality’ can pay off. There’s just one problem: No one agrees on what ‘quality’ means.”17
In other words, this discussion — now well along and widely engaged in — still has a distance to go on the question of scholarly underpinnings. There’s broad agreement, at last, that the nation confronts a problem of substantial proportion. But understanding the nature of the problem, and figuring out how to fix it, will require better grounding, deeper knowledge, of the problem than the discussion has enjoyed to date. Happily, scholars and practitioners alike now seem to agree on that need.
The industry has come a long way since the effect of profit pressures on journalism quality was a topic blithely waved away — or nervously quashed. That American journalism is imperiled by short-term business practices in ways that threaten the health of our society is now a commonly discussed concern. Ideas for solutions are emerging. Solving the problem, though, will take a deeper understanding of it. This special edition of the Newspaper Research Journal is a most welcome step in that direction.
Overholser holds the Curtis B. Hurley Chair in Public Affairs Reporting in the Missouri School of Journalism’s Washington bureau. She served previously as editor of The Des Moines Register, ombudsman of The Washington Post, and editorial board member of The New York Times, among other positions. She is a frequent commentator on media, and writes the Journalism Junction column for Poynter Online.
Newsroom employment drops again; diversity gains
Published: April 20, 2004
Last Updated: April 20, 2004
Newsroom employment drops again; diversity gains
WASHINGTON — Newsrooms at U.S. daily newspapers collectively improved their diversity by nearly a half of one percentage point in 2003, but the growth to 12.94 percent lagged behind the 31.7 percent minorities in the U.S. population.
The overall number of professionals working declined by about 500 journalists. Current newsroom employment is an estimated 54,200, according to the 27th annual Newsroom Census of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
All minority groups increased their overall numbers.
The gain in diversity was the third successive increase of nearly a half a percentage point. But the total percentage is still short of the growth rate needed to achieve ASNE’s goal of parity of newsrooms with their communities by 2025.
“The number of minorities in American newspapers continues to grow, which is a good thing,” said ASNE President Peter Bhatia, “But the increase is at a snail’s pace, and the overall total is still woefully low. As the economy improves and hiring increases, it is time for all of us in the industry to step up and move this number more quickly towards parity.”
Diversity Committee chair David Yarnold said, “After all the numbers are digested, the question remains: Are editors encouraging growing numbers of people of color to help change the content of their newspapers to better reflect our changing communities?”
What Did Media Miss in Woodward’s Book?
By E&P Staff
Published: June 10, 2004
NEW YORK So what has the media missed in the massive coverage of Bob Woodward’s best-selling book “Plan of Attack?”
“National intelligence assets spying on Hans Blix,” Woodward told the Council on Foreign Relations on Wednesday, referring to the chief United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq. ”And Bush was getting these reports and felt that there was incongruity between what Blix was saying publicly and what he was actually doing. It makes it very clear we were wiretapping Hans Blix.”
Woodward, of The Washington Post, also charged that the press should have been more “skeptical and inquisitive” about President Bush’s rush to war with Iraq and the dubious intelligence he and others used to justify the invasion. He blamed journalists, including himself, for not being aggressive enough in questioning the intelligence on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. Woodward said one national security source told him the ”the intelligence was skimpy.”
WSJ reporters to conduct byline strike
“The company is demanding we take benefits cuts and paltry wage raises that will leave us behind the cost of living.”
From Associated Press, June 14, 2004
By Seth Sutell
Wall Street Journal reporters plan to withhold their bylines from stories for two days this week as contract negotiations with their employer, Dow Jones & Co., turn increasingly rancorous.
The Independent Association of Publishers Employees, a union representing U.S. reporters at the Journal, called on its members Monday to withhold their bylines from stories in Wednesday and Thursday editions of the paper.
“We do not take this step lightly — bylines are a tremendous source of pride for all,” union representative Tom Lauricella wrote in a note to union members. “But the intransigence of Dow Jones management forces our hand.”
In an interview, Lauricella said that an “overwhelming majority” of union members were supportive of the idea of a byline strike, and he expected wide participation. He noted, however, that overseas reporters for the Journal are not covered by the union, and several managers also write regularly for the paper.
Lauricella said the byline strike, the first in the history of Dow Jones, was being called because the company had threatened to stop negotiating with the union and to impose a “punitive” contract, he said.
“It came to this because Dow Jones continues to refuse to negotiate in good faith,” Lauricella said. “The company is demanding we take benefits cuts and paltry wage raises that will leave us behind the cost of living.”
Dow Jones and the union have requested that a mediator facilitate the talks, which have stalled primarily over wages and a request from the company that employees make contributions to health care costs.
In January, the union’s rank and file overwhelmingly rejected a preliminary contract agreement that was made by the union’s former bargaining committee, which has since been replaced.
So far the byline strike is only expected to affect Journal reporters and not other Dow Jones reporters covered by the IAPE union, such as those working for Dow Jones Newswires or the newspaper’s Web site.
Tensions between Dow Jones and its union have been escalating in recent weeks. A number of reporters picketed in front of the company’s annual meeting in April and spoke up at the meeting itself to make their case directly to the company’s top management and board of directors.
A spokesman for Dow Jones did not return a call seeking comment.
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public information, private profit?
Experts in federal contract law worry that the new system could cripple public scrutiny of federal contracts.
From Mother Jones, June 2004
By Michael Scherer
For 25 years, the clearest window into the murky world of federal contracting has been an obscure public database available to anyone for a nominal fee. No longer. Under a new deal approved by the White House, the government’s voluminous compilation of contracting information has been turned over to a contractor.
Established by an act of Congress in 1979, the Federal Procurement Data System was a rare island of public information, the only complete record of federal contracts. Using the database, journalists, auditors and federal investigators could review the million or so agreements with corporations Uncle Sam signed each year. They could find the companies reaping the largest awards, track the rise in no-bid deals, and measure the recent drive to replace federal employees with corporate employees. But under a new contract, the General Services Administration has now turned over responsibility for collecting and distributing information on government contracts to a beltway company called Global Computer Enterprises, Inc.
In signing the $24 million deal, the Bush Administration has privatized not only the collection and distribution of the data, but the database itself. For the first time since the system was established, the information will not be available directly to the public or subject to the Freedom of Information Act, according to federal officials. “It’s a contractor owned and operated system,” explains Nancy Gunsauls, a project manager at GCE. “We have the data.”
With the compiled database under private control, journalists, corporate consultants, and even federal agencies will be barred from independently searching copies of it. Instead, GCE has pledged only to produce a set of public reports required by the government, and to provide limited access to the entire database for a yet-to-be-determined fee.
“It seems that something quite inappropriate has been done here,” says Angela Styles, who served until last year as President Bush’s chief procurement official, noting that Congress requires the government to compile and share this information. “They have ceded their responsibility.”
Experts in federal contract law worry that the new system could cripple public scrutiny of federal contracts. “This is the ultimate metaphor for the administration’s view of contracting out,” says Paul Light, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who has used the procurement database for his own work. “It insulates the process from inspection, which I think is exactly what this administration prefers. They don’t want people digging. They don’t want people looking.” Similarly, Charles Tiefer, a professor at Baltimore Law School who wrote a textbook on contract law, described the change as a political move. “They are covering up,” he said. “They are making it more difficult to know that we have less competition.”
A federal official close to the contracting process admits that all users — even those seeking limited access — will probably pay more. Just how much more is unclear, as the pricing structure has yet to be established. Under the agreement, GCE can sell unlimited access to clients on an individual basis for “market value.” But Paul Murphy, president of the private consulting firm, Eagle Eye Publishers Inc., says a GCE representative told him he would have to pay $35,000 for data he once got for about $1,500.
“This is very troubling,” says Murphy, who has worked with Mother Jones in the past. His for-profit company was one of the losing bidders for the contract awarded by the GSA, and he now feels that he is being squeezed out of business. Under the terms of the contract, GCE must split its revenue from selling access to the database with the federal government. “When does a partnership become a kickback?” Murphy asks.
Federal officials and GCE executives deny the charges. David Lucas, director of business development at GCE, argues that the private database will feature many improvements over the old federal data, including continuous updates and new features that will cut down on errors and increase the scope and detail of the information. And Lucas insists that GCE doesn’t expect to make much money off the project. “We are bringing a level of usability to federal spending that heretofore has not existed,” Lucas says. “We should be seen as the champions of visibility in this data, and somehow we are being labeled the villain.” David Drabkin, the top procurement official at the General Services Administration, defends the contract with CGE in similar terms. And he insists that his agency has “an interest in the public seeing what we do.”
In fact, the new system appears designed to virtually eliminate unfettered public access. Under the Freedom of Information Act, all records created by federal agencies are available to the public for modest reproduction fee, with a few specific exceptions. By allowing GCE to directly collect contract data from each agency, the Bush Administration has effectively bypassed the Act, because the compiled records are never directly controlled by any government agency. Drabkin, who has already rejected such requests for the data, says the public can still get access to the raw information by approaching each individual agency.
“It’s an insult to the public to tell citizens they must pay to find out the identities of private companies receiving billions of taxpayer dollars,” says Dan Guttman, an expert in federal contracting who teaches at Johns Hopkins University. “That’s like saying that the public will have to pay to find out the names and phone numbers of its federal officials.” Guttman points out that this is not the first time contractors have been used to restrict public access to information. There is no way, for example, to know who is doing most of the reconstruction work in Iraq, because it is being handled by subcontractors, who never work directly for the taxpayers. Rather, they report to companies like Halliburton and Bechtel, which have been awarded giant umbrella contracts, and are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
Without direct access to the raw data, groups like Investigative Reporters and Editors, a popular source of government databases for reporters, may no longer be able to offer the information to its members. “I’m a little bit concerned about the next go-round, and whether we are going to be gouged in terms of cost,” says Jeff Porter, the database editor at IRE. Aron Pilhofer, who manages databases at the Center for Public Integrity, said he was withholding judgment on the new system until he found out the price for non-profits and journalists. “If they plan to charge $35,000 for what we used to pay $500 for, they are in for a lawsuit,” he said.
When contacted by a Mother Jones reporter seeking a copy of the data, a GCE representative suggested a one-on-one meeting at the company’s offices in Reston, Virginia. “We like to meet with folks and find out how they are using the data to provide a real-time access to the database,” Gunsauls explained. She declined to discuss costs over the phone. The first available date she had for an in-person meeting, she said, was two weeks away.
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After the peaks of journalism, budget realities
Wall Street rarely averts its gaze from the profit margins and other financial bellwethers of media companies.
From New York Times, June 14, 2004
By Jacques Steinberg
Late last month, John S. Carroll, the editor of The Los Angeles Times, traveled to New York for a luncheon to celebrate the five Pulitzer Prizes that his paper won this year, one of the high points of his nearly 40-year journalistic career.
Ten days later, on June 4, Mr. Carroll and Dean P. Baquet, the newspaper’s managing editor, drove to Burbank Airport in Southern California for a very different gathering, one that had been hastily arranged.
There, they argued before two senior Tribune Company executives – Dennis J. FitzSimons, the company’s chairman, president and chief executive; and Jack Fuller, the president of Tribune Publishing – that a series of proposed budget cuts threatened to derail some of their plans and to stall the momentum that came with the Pulitzers, according to a person briefed on the conversation.
The two editors lost. Last Monday, Mr. Fuller announced that, because of a shortfall in the newspaper’s advertising revenue in recent months, he had ordered The Times to cut its budget.
Asked about the meeting in Burbank, a spokesman for Mr. Fuller and Mr. Fitz- Simons declined to comment, as did the other principals.
In a memorandum to the newsroom staff on Tuesday, Mr. Carroll wrote that a voluntary buyout program was being offered to newsroom employees. Depending on the response, Mr. Carroll wrote, “an involuntary layoff” of some staff could take place before the end of the month.
Though Mr. Carroll did not identify what other cost-cutting measures might be needed, he and other executives have already postponed plans for a weekly fashion section and for a redesign of the newspaper’s Sunday magazine that would have involved the hiring of more staff. Mr. Carroll, who was previously the editor of The Baltimore Sun and, before that, of The Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky, said in an interview: “This isn’t my first outing on a cost-cutting venture. But I can’t say it’s something I welcome.”
The Times has been steadily winnowing its ranks, mainly on its business side, since Tribune acquired it in a buyout of Times Mirror in 2000. But the prospect of making cuts in the newsroom, so soon after scaling such journalistic heights, has been a stark reminder to The Times of a fact that is central to Tribune’s philosophy: Wall Street rarely averts its gaze from the profit margins and other financial bellwethers of media companies.
Nonetheless, efforts by Tribune senior management to single out The Times highlight the corporate tensions between the company and the former Times Mirror publications.
These include Newsday and The Sun, which also announced plans for staff cutbacks last week. But The Times, with an average weekday circulation of almost a million readers, is by far the largest Tribune paper.
While the Tribune Company emphasized in a news release that similar cuts would be instituted at several of the company’s other 13 daily newspapers over the next few weeks, it emphasized that the primary reason was the ad revenue losses at The Times. Tribune executives also said that the bulk of the reductions – estimated at more than 200 employees, or 1 percent of the publishing division – would be felt at The Times.
As advertising linage has fallen at The Times in recent months – by 4 percent, for example, among advertisements printed throughout the paper’s full run – Tribune’s stock price has fallen as well, from nearly $53 a share in February to $46.90 last week.
“Although journalism is important,” said John Janedis, a research analyst who covers the newspaper industry for Banc of America Securities, “at the end of the day, investors care more about the number of newspapers you sell and the ad rate increases you get, rather than the number of Pulitzer Prizes.
“Look at USA Today; how many Pulitzers have they won?” Mr. Janedis added, singling out the flagship of the Gannett chain, which has yet to win one. “But they sell a lot of advertising and get good rate increases.”
Such indicators had long been more impressive at Tribune than at Times Mirror.
On the eve of the merger, Times Mirror had cash-flow margins of 24.5 percent, according to figures compiled by Merrill Lynch; at Tribune, they were 28.4 percent.
Thus far this year, the cash-flow margins of Tribune’s publishing division, estimated at 25.9 percent, are below those of the publishing divisions of many of Tribune’s competitors, including Gannett (estimated at 32 percent); E. W. Scripps (31.3 percent); Lee (27.4 percent) and Journal Register (27.3 percent), according to figures compiled by Banc of America Securities.
In a statement released through a company spokesman on Friday, Mr. Fuller, the president of Tribune Publishing, said that the reasons for the company’s actions last week were relatively simple.
“The cost-saving initiatives at The Los Angeles Times are a response to an advertising revenue shortfall that came up very quickly during the second quarter,” Mr. Fuller said. “And we reacted very quickly.”
Advertising losses were especially acute in Los Angeles, company executives said, partly because the movie industry has produced few blockbuster films this year and partly because the run-up time to the Academy Awards was shorter than usual. There has also been a falloff in department store spending in Southern California and a sharp rise in housing prices.
Still, within some corners of the original Tribune papers – and even at some of the old Times Mirror papers – some people expressed satisfaction, off the record, that The Times was being knocked down a peg, if only because it had enjoyed a reputation for being a favorite son.
And last Sunday, on the eve of the cuts being announced by the Tribune Company, James Warren, a deputy managing editor at The Chicago Tribune, was quoted in an article in Crain’s Chicago Business as saying that for all its Pulitzers this year, The Times was inferior to The Tribune in some areas. “What’d they win for?” he was quoted as saying, in reference to the Pulitzers. “Editorials. Well, I’d say we have a better editorial page, by and large. They won for photography. I think ours is as good as anybody.
“Front to back,” he added, “I’d argue that our features still remain stronger, day to day.” Reached over the weekend, Mr. Warren confirmed his remarks but said he did not wish to comment further.
In an interview, Mr. Carroll said he was troubled by the perception – he called it a myth – that The Times’s success had come as a result of adding newsroom staff (including an overhaul of its California, Washington and investigative coverage), while other Tribune papers were cutting theirs.
While the newspaper has made several prominent hires in recent months and years – including hiring Mr. Baquet, then the national editor of The New York Times, in 2000; and, more recently, hiring the columnist and television commentator Michael Kinsley to head its editorial page – Mr. Carroll said that the newsroom was smaller than the one he inherited in 2000.
At the end of his first year as editor, Times figures show, the newsroom had 1,200 full-time employees; at the end of last year, it had 1,100, a loss of about 8 percent. Those positions were lost primarily through voluntary buyouts and the closing of several weekly supplements known as “Our Times.”
And yet, the publisher of The Times, John Puerner, was largely able to shield the newsroom from the bulk of the cuts during that period. Outside the newsroom, in the advertising, circulation and other business departments, the full-time staff was reduced by 1,500, to 2,300.
“I do think the business side has been reduced in numbers greatly,” Mr. Carroll said. “I myself have misgivings about further reductions there.”
As to how the new round of cuts would be made, Mr. Carroll said he did not yet know, although the company has set a deadline of June 30 for the paper to put them into effect.
“It’s moving very fast,” he said. “They’re doing this very rapidly. How it will come out, I can’t be sure.”
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