Friday, October 20, 2006


Nieman commentator wonders where "giraffes" are in Tribune-LATimes controversy


Gilbert Cranberg: Timidity at Work

Posted at 10:56 am, October 19th, 2006

When Jay Harris quit in 2001 as publisher of the San Jose Mercury News rather than make cuts he believed would harm the paper, he was invited to speak to the annual meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, where he received an enthusiastic standing ovation. When the LA Times publisher and editor recently balked at cuts for the same reason, ASNE was silent. Nor have the Society of Professional Journalists, Associated Press Managing Editors or National Conference of Editorial Writers been heard from.

The Times publisher, Jeffrey Johnson, is now the former publisher, having been ousted. It isn't clear what the future holds for Dean Baquet, the editor. Evidently, Tribune company executives and other like-minded corporate cost-cutters can proceed without fretting about reaction from the organized journalism community.

Why the timidity?

David Zeeck, editor of the Tacoma News Tribune and president of ASNE, told me that the organization's leadership opted unanimously to stay on the sidelines because "we see our mission generally as supporting issues, not individuals" and that "picking sides at this point isn.t something ASNE should do."

SPJ President Christine Tatum, an editor at the Denver Post, said her organization considers it best "not to engage in .personnel and labor matters...The bottom line: We haven't issued any formal statements concerning the Trib/LAT affair because it hasn't been easy to know where the dividing line is between newsroom disagreements/blow-ups and over-the-top cost-cutting."

APME will be a platform for Baquet when he speaks to its annual meeting Oct. 26 in New Orleans. He had been invited earlier. Baquet is expected to speak about the situation at the Times although APME won't. As for NCEW, the organization of opinion writers seldom ventures an opinion.

While it and the others are holding their respective tongues, LA Times staffers by the hundreds have expressed their backing for Johnson and Baquet in petitions.

It took spine for Johnson and Baquet to confront their superiors, and courage in its own way for eye-strained wretches who may be living paycheck-to-paycheck to go on record to support them. Organizations, by contrast, face no peril. Certainly, it would be inappropriate for journalism groups to meddle in the business affairs of news organizations. The productivity of staffers, for instance, is so variable it would be presumptuous and irresponsible for ASNE or any other group to stick its collective nose into a personnel thicket. But courage in journalism, like hard-core pornography, is something you know when you see it. It ought to be possible for editors to fashion a collective salute to the fortitude of publishers and editors, when they deserve it, without taking sides on the pros and cons of particulars.

Journalism groups aren't bashful about speaking up when important journalism issues are at stake. Needed now is a redefinition of journalism issues so that they encompass not just what happens in courtrooms but in boardrooms. The threats to access to the information the public must have in a democracy often come nowadays from the elevation of profits over staffing, newshole and the other measures of quality.

When publishers and editors stand up for readers and staff, they ought to be celebrated, not ignored.


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