There has been more than a little talk lately about how well the editorial and business sides of journalism work together. Since I am at least in part the cause of some of the ruckus, let me tell you my biases so that you don’t have to worry about trying to figure them out….
I would suggest the world is a little more complex than many people would like to believe. And in the process of trying to oversimplify things, I think we sometimes miss some of the central ideas that we must think about to deal with the issues that we face….
Let me explain how. First, the newspaper business basically spends its time looking at and reporting on the world. It is important, therefore…that we also understand the world as it is. Most organizations, ours included, are publicly held, publicly traded corporations. That implies a fiduciary responsibility to our shareholders. We can say we don’t like that, we can say we wish it were otherwise, but that is the fact. And unless newspapers are purchased by enormously wealthy people who don’t care about the return on their money, that won’t change. Therefore earning an adequate rate of return is not a “nice to do,” it’s a “must do.”
A second part of the world that we face is that it’s a very competitive world. We’re long past the time, if it ever existed, which I doubt, when people read us because they must. They read us because they choose to. They read us because they find what we do is sufficiently important and compelling that they’re willing and anxious to spend their time reading us, rather than doing all of the other things they have the option of doing. Therefore, it’s not nice to find ways to be interesting and compelling to our readers, it is a must do. Otherwise we will cease to exist as an independent enterprise.
I mention those two things because therein lies the complexity and the challenge that we face. If we must earn an adequate rate of return and be compelling to readers in order to attract the advertisers that basically pay the bills of at least most newspapers in this country, then the choice is not, do we have high quality journalism or do we have a successful business. We must find a way to do both, because if we don’t find a way to do both, we will cease to exist as important and independent enterprises.
Therefore, what we’re trying to do is not worry so much about the things we can’t change. We can’t change the fact that we’re publicly traded. We can’t change the fact that we have to earn a decent rate of return. Therefore, we’re not worrying about that. Instead, what we’re spending a lot of time worrying about is how can we balance all of those things.
I happen to be, I suppose, hopelessly naive or hopelessly optimistic. But I think you can do both. I don’t think you have to make a trade-off. I don’t think it either is high quality independent journalism or a very successful business enterprise. In fact, I think just the opposite is true. I think the greater the journalism, the more compelling the journalism, the more successful we’ll be as a business enterprise. And that’s what we’re trying to do….
The answer we are trying to provide consists of several pieces. The first is what you do day in and day out in terms of honoring what I prefer to call the line rather than the wall between the business side and the editorial side…. I absolutely respect the line between the business side and the editorial side. It seems to me that the first way you demonstrate your commitment to high quality independent journalism is to make it absolutely clear that when there’s a different point of view the editorial decision-maker wins every time, and that’s what we do in our organization. There’s never a matter, and there’s never occasion, where editorial judgments are made by anybody other than the editors….
But I think there are a lot of other things you can do. One of the first things I did when I got to Times Mirror was take down a lot of art work that we had around the place and put up a display of our Pulitzer Prize winners. A very small thing, but in my judgment a very important thing, to say what we stand for. We stand for high quality journalism. We have converted our annual meeting basically into a celebration of what great people in our organization do, including journalists. We give Journalist of the Year awards for all kinds of outstanding journalism, and we make that a part of everything we do. We don’t hold a board meeting when we don’t have somebody talking about journalism. We don’t have an annual meeting where we don’t talk about journalism. We don’t have a management meeting where we don’t talk about journalism….
If you really believe fundamentally in what you’re doing, you will invest in it, no matter what the other circumstances are…. It’s important to distinguish what’s causing the bleeding and why. And the fact is, a lot of the things that were causing the bleeding at Times Mirror had to do with the fact that we were in businesses that we shouldn’t have been in. We had a basic cost structure that was too high given the nature of the business we’re in and so on. We fixed most of those things. Therefore, if newsprint goes up and our profits go down temporarily, that’s going to be an unfortunate circumstance and fortunately a temporary circumstance. We will continue to invest in our newspapers.
In fact, it will be the classic example where you will have a divergence in the short run for the sake of the long-run vitality of the enterprise. Will our stock price go down when that happens? Yes, it will. Will it go back up again once we come out of it? Yes, it will. We’re perfectly prepared to stay the course because we believe so deeply and passionately in the future of this business that we intend to get more and more vital, stronger and stronger, and the only way you can do that is to continue to invest in the business.
Remarks made at a public forum sponsored by the Committee of Concerned Journalists and Harvard University on May 22, 1998. Mark Willes was then Chairman, CEO and President of Times Mirror Company and Publisher of its newspaper, The Los Angeles Times. He has since resigned as Publisher.