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Metro Pulse Below the Fold

With a corporate mindset dominating today's newspaper industry, is the news becoming just a way to sell ads?

By Joe Tarr

JULY 19, 1999:  On Friday, May 14, three evocative color pictures ran at the top of the Knoxville News-Sentinel's front page, taking up nearly a third of the space.

In the first picture, a young boy stood before a group of stern looking elders, one of them a wise gnome with giant ears. In the next, a strange creature with a lizard-like head comforted a young queen. And in the third, futuristic spaceships whizzed across a barren, video game landscape.

The pictures—supplied by Twentieth Century Fox—were from the soon-to-be released Star Wars—The Phantom Menace.

That Sunday, the Sentinel published a color photograph that, along with a feature story, swallowed up the bottom of its front page. The picture depicted the concert country music singer Alan Jackson performed to promote the one-year anniversary of his restaurant in Pigeon Forge.

At the bottom of Monday's page one, there were photographs of a "4th of July" parade being staged and videotaped by Home & Garden Television in the Old City. Although the caption didn't mention it, the Knoxville-based HGTV is owned by E.W. Scripps—the same company that owns the Sentinel.

The next day, the front page included a review praising the new Star Wars.

Thursday of that week, the Sentinel's front page contained a story about the new wave of Teenie Beanie Babies available at McDonald's Restaurant—complete with color pictures of Nuts the Squirrel, Strut the Rooster, Iggy the Iguana, and Smoochy the Frog.

It wasn't all merchandising fluff that the Sentinel gave readers that third week of May. There were serious stories about pediatricians and TennCare and minority enrollment at the University of Tennessee. But thoughtful, hard-hitting news increasingly struggles for space in Knoxville's only daily newspaper.

The Sentinel is not comparatively bad by today's standards. In an industry dominated by a few large corporations that keep a close eye on profit margins and advertising revenue, critics say the news Americans get on their doorsteps each morning tends to be bland and standardized. Newspapers like the Sentinel often give little sense of their hometowns, of what is important to people in a particular community. Instead, they read like products—mass produced and marketed to the same general audience around the country.

As Tom Rosenstiel, head of the Project for Excellence in Journalism says, newspapers are increasingly seen "not as entities in a community, but as entities in a corporation."

The Sentinel could be at a turning point of sorts. Long-time editor Harry Moskos will retire soon. The paper's management and the newsroom employee union have been deadlocked in contract negotiations for 18 months. Some in the newsroom wonder whether the Sentinel will become a paper devoted to informing readers or one so concerned about making money that it is unwilling to thoroughly report the news.

"This could be a great newspaper. There's great news here," says one reporter, who like most interviewed for this story asked to remain anonymous. "But we can't seem to get to the next level. We don't get the sense that management can give a damn."

American journalists have always held forth the ideal that there should be a wall between editorial and advertising at newspapers. In this ideal world, news articles are factual, unbiased, and free from outside influence. Advertising is necessary to finance publication, but stories should be written to inform or entertain readers, not sell products. Newspapers shouldn't, as Joseph Pulitzer used to say, have any friends.

It hasn't always worked that way. Unless they are advertising-free, news organizations (including so-called alternative weeklies like Metro Pulse) have always faced and occasionally caved into pressure from advertisers. In 1835, the New York Herald was saved from a costly fire by the producer of cure-all pills. The paper then began running numerous news articles about the benefits of the dubious pills.

And for as long as they've been around, newspapers have been used to influence as well as inform the public, by publishers and editors with both altruistic and selfish motives. For instance, Gen. Lawrence D. Tyson, a World War I hero and Knoxville businessman, bought the Sentinel in 1924 to push his political ambitions. After winning a seat in the U.S. Senate, he quickly lost interest in the daily and sold it.

But media critics say the managers of newspapers and other news outlets are now willingly capitulating to advertisers and corporate interests.

In the last few decades, the industry has faced strong competition from other mediums and many papers have folded. Since 1950, the number of dailies has dropped 15 percent to 1,509. During the same period, the number of Sunday papers has jumped from 549 to 903. But a two-paper town is a rarity.

Still, the papers that have survived are extremely profitable. It is a big reason why they've been gobbled up by media chains, many of which have in turn have been bought out by corporations that previously had nothing to do with newspapers. Fewer than 300 of the daily papers in the country are independently owned. The 10 biggest newspaper companies—which includes Scripps—publish about half of the 57 million papers printed daily in the United States.

Critics say this industry consolidation has had an undemocratic effect, concentrating control over information citizens need to make good political, consumer and social decisions in the hands of just a few people. Applying traditional management techniques to newsrooms, these corporations—often publicly traded—expect the highest returns they can get for their investments, and want to keep costs down.

"By and large, the newspaper chains, like book publishing giants, TV networks, and radio networks, tend to discourage arduous investigative reporting," says Mark Crispin Miller, a professor at New York University and prominent media critic. "It's not cost effective, and second of all, as often as not, the subject of investigative reporting may be too sensitive to a huge corporation. A given story might be too much of a bummer or too controversial and hurt advertising."

Miller helped start the Project on Media Ownership—one of a number of non-profit groups monitoring consolidation and control of the country's media. He says that as the corporations owning media outlets get larger, the potential for conflicts grow as well.

"This kind of conflict of interest is as old as newspapers themselves. As the chains get bigger, it gets worse and the conflicts of interest get larger," Miller says. "It's not as if there's a golden age.

"But when you look at issues like the corruption of politics, TV violence, advertising as a social and civic blight—is a chain-owned newspaper going to look hard and critically at some of this if the chain is part of the problem?"

Other complaints are aesthetic. Corporations consolidate resources, "clustering" papers in regions of the country to produce content centrally. As management techniques become codified, papers all begin to look and feel the same.

"It's a little bit like the airports in different cities—airports are hardly distinctive to cities they're located in," Miller says. "Drive from coast to coast with the radio on and you'll have a hard time figuring out where you are from the station you listen to."

The Project for Excellence in Journalism has been studying newspapers in a long series called "The State of the American Newspapers," publishing articles by veteran reporters in the American Journalism Review. Among the findings is that newspapers are printing less international news, reducing the size of state and national press corps, reducing their editorial budgets, and reducing the role of editors in newsrooms, says Tom Kunkel, an editor for the project.

"Newspapers have basically become commodities. There was a time when maybe there was something a little special about owning a newspaper. The owners were in it for long term, they knew the community," Kunkel says.

Corporate ownership has changed much of that—and has forced editors to make some hard decisions about how they allocate their resources.

"The fact is newspapers are under great pressure from their companies," Kunkel says. "Most of those companies are publicly traded. They have shareholders they have to answer to. And Wall Street doesn't really like what it sees."

Scripps is not among the media giants, but as the ninth largest newspaper chain and the 25th largest media company in the country, it has considerable influence. Its 19 newspapers (of which the Sentinel is the third largest) have a combined daily circulation of 1.3 million. The Cincinnati-based company also owns nine TV broadcast stations reaching 9.6 million households. Its fastest growing division (though not yet profitable because of start-up costs) is cable programming, including HGTV (which reaches 51 million homes), the Food Network (38 million homes), and the Do-it-Yourself network (or DIY, which will be based in Knoxville and launched in September). The company's syndicate, United Media, distributes Peanuts, Dilbert, For Better or For Worse and other comic strips to thousands of papers in 75 countries.

In 1998, Scripps made $277 million. Newspapers remain the company's bread and butter, bringing in $197 million, or 71 percent of the profits.

Scripps denies that local news has suffered because of corporate ownership or led to a loss of identity at the Sentinel.

"We're very decentralized in that respect and look to our newspapers to operate autonomously, hoping that they reflect the community. That's the charge that they've been given," says Timothy Stautberg, vice president of communications and investor relations at Scripps. "It's really not our place in Cincinnati to dictate to the News-Sentinel what they should put in their paper. They know Knoxville better than we do."

But many local residents would disagree. Though it is difficult to get people to talk on the record about the paper—what good would it do any politician or business owner to attack the local daily?—it is not generally held in high esteem in Knoxville. Much of that sentiment may be scapegoatism.

But some common complaints about the paper are that it seems to have little connection to reader's lives, and that it tells them very little.

"With News-Sentinel stories, you never get very deep," says Richard Wisniewski, retired dean of UT's College of Education. "It's just kind of straight across the top reporting. Very seldom do they get at the heart of a matter. Their reporting is simply not in-depth."

Attica Scott, who works for UT's Community Partnership Center, says the paper doesn't put the news in context. "It seems to be very clear-cut, to the point—there's the news, do with it what you will. And some of us need more than that.

"The good is that there are a few reporters who seem to be willing to challenge the system, and do stories that don't always portray UT in positive light and address some of the social ills that plague Knoxville."

"There should be more reporting of city council and county commission. They have stories, but they tend to be fairly brief and rarely in depth," says John Stewart, a retired TVA executive who in the '60s and '70s worked in Washington, D.C., for Vice President Hubert Humphrey and the Democratic National Committee (during Watergate). "The front page today (July 9) has an enormous feature story that takes up the entire page except for a few little boxes down at the bottom. [The paper] has a lot of features—some of which are interesting—but they aren't news."

"Every now and then they do something surprising and encouraging," he says, pointing out a lengthy story about the tenure of controversial Webb School President Art Scott that ran July 4. He also gave high marks—as do many others—to columnist Theotis Robinson; and managing editor Frank Cagle's column is provocative.

Bob Walker, a retired Presbyterian minister and local activist, says the paper doesn't represent all of Knoxville. "I do feel it's an establishment newspaper. The News-Sentinel shares the view of the establishment that there are many throwaway people in Knoxville, whose voices aren't worth hearing. It leads to a sense of non-participation. [The paper] fails the people in that sense."

A comparison of the Sentinel editions in May 1999 with those in May 1989 shows that local news coverage has dropped.

In May of this year, the newspaper ran 384 local news articles and 849 wire stories—for 31 percent local coverage. In May 1989, the Sentinel published 488 local articles and 776 by wire services—or a local content of 39 percent.

Sentinel publisher Bruce Hartmann disagrees that local coverage dropped. Although it has started a Readers First initiative, to gather input from people about what they want the Sentinel to be, Hartmann would not agree to an interview with Metro Pulse about the paper's operations. Instead, he had Cynthia Moxley of the Moxley Carmichael public relations firm take questions in writing. The paper then responded in writing.

Hartmann says the paper's copy space has increased from an average 118 columns a day in 1989 to 141 this year. "The News-Sentinel devotes more resources and has more staff to cover local news than any other media organization. Not only do we have more local news than we did 10 years ago, we have more news altogether." Hartmann also wrote that the paper will soon be starting a local news section.

The Sentinel hasn't changed greatly in 10 years. There were a few more in-depth stories in '89. The Sunday "Perspectives" page twice featured long, local stories—one about gun control, another about companies replacing full-time employees with cheaper temp workers. All the "Perspectives" stories in May 1999 were wire copy. In 1989, one reporter filed several stories from Russia about Glasnost, religion, and auctions there.

On the other hand, one Sunday this May included a special section about East Tennessee in the year 2000, with well-written local copy about the environment and development.

Editorially, the Sentinel rarely uses its voice for local issues. In May 1999 the Sentinel ran a scarce seven local editorials—only two of which were about serious issues: the Living Wage campaign and the debate over a county curfew. The remaining local edits were appreciations of community members. In that same month, it published 34 editorials about national or international issues and seven about state issues—none of which ran the risk of upsetting local advertisers or officials.

"We disagree with your premise," Hartmann wrote in response. "The News-Sentinel speaks out assertively on issues of local interest. We endorse candidates and take editorial stands on matters that affect our community and our readers. We consider state issues such as releasing statistics on campus crime, TennCare, or strengthening bail bond laws to be local issues as well. By our count, we ran 16 locally written editorials in May..."

One area where the paper has had a substantial local presence is sports—of 576 sports stories published May '99, 51 percent were locally written. Coverage of the Vols was one of two things the Sentinel was praised for in Scripps' annual report. The other was its direct mail advertising. (In fact, about the only other boasts that Scripps makes of any of its newspapers in the annual report are that the Abilene Reporter-News (Texas) prints weeks of livestock show results, and that the Florida Naples Daily News has enhanced and protected its classified advertising on-line.)

Kunkel, of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, says it's a common perception that local news has declined. But a comparison of content today and 10 years ago in newspapers (which will be published in the American Journalism Review in September), shows it isn't accurate. Local content has stayed about the same or increased slightly, he says. However at the same time, space devoted to sports, business and finance, and celebrity news has skyrocketed. "In raw terms, local coverage generally is up, but I think people's impression is that in the context of everything else, it is down."

In many ways, local news is no longer the selling point or emphasis of newspapers. With limited budgets from their corporate bosses, editors across the country have been forced to make hard decisions on how to spend their money. Many have cut bureaus in outlying areas (the Sentinel closed its Sevier County office). Others have had to choose between a movie critic or another reporter, or have sacrificed reporters for computer equipment to dazzle readers with fancy graphics.

"Over the last decade or so, because of profit pressures, newspapers have backed away from some of the things we've traditionally relied on them for," Kunkel says. "The ironic thing of this media explosion is that very few people are doing what we expect newspapers to do. We have more outlets than ever, but ironically few [of these outlets] are covering the nuts and bolts of how our communities work."

One example of this impression is the feature story that Stewart referred to in July 9th's paper, which would be considered hard news by the Sentinel's editors. But illustrated with a four-column photograph of children playing baseball at Lakeshore Park and a smaller one of a man walking his dog, it looks a lot like a pleasant feature. The article is about a proposal for more land at the state mental health facility to be turned over to the city for park use (however, the story never tells readers how much land the deal would include, and no one using the park is actually quoted).

You don't always get what you expect to when you read a News-Sentinel story—it sometimes seems the paper's editors care more about appearance than substance. On the front page of the Jan. 27 Sentinel was a heartbreaking picture of a 2-1/2-year-old boy named Hunter, his round face accentuated by a frown that suggests he's seen more trouble than most American kids. His eyes glare out at you from the page. Above the photo is the headline, "No home for Hunter."

Its the kind of thing journalists crave—finding a real face to humanize a social issue. But readers never find out anything more about Hunter. He isn't mentioned in the story that follows—for which the reporter got his information by covering a news conference held by a homeless advocacy group.

On the other hand, sometimes a good story is ruined by the way it is packaged. As Walker says, "Headline writing often subverts a good story. Either they don't monitor [copy editors] or give them enough time or they don't bother to read the story."

At the Sentinel, the lines between advertising and news are getting thinner, employees there say.

Until May 1998, no one person was in charge of all operations at the Sentinel. Editor Harry Moskos headed up the editorial side; general manager Bruce Hartmann ran circulation, advertising and marketing.

But that month, Scripps named Hartmann publisher, making him top dog at the paper. The 41-year-old Hartmann joined the paper in 1990 as advertising director. Before that, he worked at three other papers, including the Baltimore Sun, holding advertising and management positions. He has no editorial experience.

When the appointment was made, Alan M. Horton, senior vice president of Scripps newspapers, trumpeted the chain's willingness to cooperate with business in the Sentinel's announcement: "If the News-Sentinel is known for anything more than its prize-winning news coverage, it's the teamwork between the news and business departments."

Scripps' Stautberg says Hartmann doesn't interfere with news content.

"It is something we have been doing across all our newspapers, that is, naming one person who has responsibility for the enterprise," Stautberg says. "From an editorial perspective, the buck still rests with Harry Moskos. Harry still has final say when it comes to content."

Moskos and Hartmann butted heads earlier this year, when Moskos reportedly balked at Hartmann's directive to send a photographer to take a picture of a major advertiser. Moskos refused, and the meeting ended with him yelling at Hartmann to leave his office (prompting a cheer from reporters in the newsroom).

But some at the paper are afraid that resolve won't always be there. Several newsroom employees talked to Metro Pulse on the condition their names not be used in the story, fearing repercussions.

Says one reporter: "My gut tells me that gradually, over time, there will be a weakening of the will to fight Bruce. Harry retires in 2-1/2 years and who are they going to bring in then? I'll bet it's not going to be a guy who will tell Bruce Hartmann, 'Don't ever f—-ing tell me what to run.' You don't compromise integrity to please an advertiser."

Another says, "It's kind of like, 'If editorial doesn't generate any revenue, what's the importance of that?' Bruce is more into making money. He doesn't care if we go cover something or if we get a wire story."

Scripps is already producing advertiser friendly content—seeing itself as a go-between for advertisers and shoppers. Its annual report outlines its "passion to create efficient and valuable relationships between consumers and advertisers."

This philosophy is aggressively pursued with HGTV, the Food Network, and DIY. "On one side are manufacturers and retailers in huge consumer categories; on the other side are consumers and professionals with real informational needs," the annual report says. "Scripps Networks are in the middle, building valuable interactive relationships between the two."

Those same networks produce articles featured in the Sentinel. After the launch of HGTV, the Sentinel started a Home & Garden section on Fridays, which HGTV contributes to.

This open-arms attitude toward advertisers has also spread to local TV news programs at Scripps' nine broadcast stations. The annual report again: "Scripps is developing new partnerships with advertisers by producing unique, strongly branded local programming that sets its television stations apart from the competition. In several Scripps markets advertisers are sponsoring five-minute, deeply local human-interest stories that air at the end of selected local news broadcasts...Scripps television stations are providing advertisers with distinctive programming, exclusive products that add value and encourage long-term commitments."

None of the Sentinel reporters interviewed say they've been pressured to write (or not write) an article because of how it might affect advertisers or community leaders. But a paper's managers can affect coverage in much more subtle ways—in the kinds of stories they run on the front page, the beats and events they assign reporters to cover, the people they hire, the staff and money they devote to examine larger, in-depth stories, the wire and syndicated features they run, and the way they treat their employees.

Reporters at the Sentinel have been without a contract since February 1998. Since then, they've had no cost of living wage increase. The Knoxville Newspaper Guild negotiates contracts for all the 80 non-management editorial staff and some clerical workers, although not all of them are guild members.

One of the main things the Guild is seeking in the contract negotiations is a 401K retirement plan—management and non-organized workers at the paper have one, as do reporters at other Scripps papers. The Guild also wants at least a 3 percent cost-of-living raise.

"We're not asking the News-Sentinel to blaze any new trails," says veteran reporter Stan DeLozier, who is president of the Knoxville Newspaper Guild. "The things we're asking for are things other people at Scripps already enjoy. There's not anything brand new about this."

The employees who spoke anonymously say management has been vague and elusive about what it wants and why it won't agree to a 401K plan. The paper proposed something called a "management rights clause," but wouldn't show the guild what it is in writing.

"Anything you ask them for, it's like pulling teeth," says one employee. "It's this BS they put us through instead of just negotiating. Sure, we'll look at a management rights clause. But show it to us."

There's also a feeling at the Sentinel that Hartmann is trying to break the guild in order to earn high marks with his bosses in Cincinnati.

On questions about negotiations with the guild, Hartmann responded, "We are negotiating in good faith with the Guild and do not want to comment on the details of those negotiations while we are in the midst of them. The News-Sentinel believes strongly in providing a good, safe working place for all of our co-workers and in providing excellent salaries and benefits."

Though they admit that the Sentinel has its faults, employees there have pride in it and care about their work. They say the paper is better than people give it credit for.

One employee noted that several people complained about the lack of coverage about the county property tax increase—yet the Sentinel ran several stories on it.

"When you're the only daily, you get kicked around quite a bit. More for sport than anything," says another employee. "But we kick some butt some times."

Reporters fault the paper for not devoting enough attention to East Knoxville, for not having enough minority reporters and editors, and for failing to ask tougher questions of public officials. "We need to demand of our people a little more. We've got people in a couple of beats who don't dig enough," one reporter says.

"We want to give local news," another says. "Our failure is in the follow ups and flushing issues out more. And that's laziness."

The paper tackled two in-depth projects last year: a special section on the College Homes redevelopment project (which was proposed by reporters), and a series on race. This year, the paper is undertaking a year-long series on East Tennessee at the end of the millennium.

One reporter said the paper should be doing several projects like this a year—and planning them a year in advance.

"If we executed that we could be considered one of the best papers our size in the country," the employee says. "We've already got the news, all we have to do is write it."

The person people point to as the one holding the newsroom together—and taking over when a crisis strikes—is assistant managing editor Tom Chester. "He's just phenomenal. And every call he makes is the right one."

"Tom Chester is key to the newsroom. We're all worried about the day he leaves."

The paper's top two editors—managing editor Cagle and editor Moskos—are not considered visionaries or strong leaders. Employees say they rarely come up with special projects or push their reporters to dig beyond the standard diet of meetings, hard news and light features.

"Frank goes to Leadership Knoxville projects. He doesn't do a lot of news," says one employee.

Moskos does not live and die journalism. "Harry loves news. He doesn't mind a good fight, even though he has his favorites in the community. He has the attitude that you work your ass off to get a story, then you go home. Others would like to come up with a project and write a great story—something to knock 'em dead. He's happy with that stuff, but just doesn't push."

Says another employee of Moskos: "He's sort of like grandpa—you keep him in the other room."

Still, Moskos is well liked in the newsroom because he treats his employees well and will stand up for them. He sorts the mail every morning, is approachable, has helped out employees with substance abuse problems, and cares about the community. "He's a great boss."

But he may not be their boss for much longer. Those in the newsroom say Moskos seems to have lost some sway at the paper.

"A lot of people think Harry's given up now. He's biding his time until retirement," one employee says.

As contract negotiations continue to drone on, the morale in the newsroom has dropped. They wonder what kind of contract they'll get and what the new editor will be like. Will the Sentinel's management reward reporters and editors who dig for stories, or will they only care about whether the paper is selling ads, making money and reaching the ideal demographics?

"We're professionals. We're not going to start ignoring news because we're pissed off," says one. "I love the News-Sentinel. I love what I do. But it's this corporate attitude that you have to put up with."

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