Principles Of Journalism 101
Jay T. Harris, who will deliver CSUMB's commencement address Saturday, stepped down from his job as the nation's top black newspaperman in order to stand up for his convictions.
Thursday, May 24, 2001
At 3am on Saturday, March 17, Jay T. Harris woke up with a knot in his stomach and realized that he was going to have to resign his post as publisher of the San Jose Mercury News. Nine hours earlier, in the midst of intense negotiations with executives from Knight Ridder, owner of the Mercury News as well as the Monterey County Herald, Harris saw what looked like a troubling twist in the road. In the lonely hours of the night, that twist revealed itself in fact to be a clearly delineated fork.
"I had lived as long as I should or could with a slowly widening gap between creed and deed," he told the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) three weeks later. "I knew that morning that I wanted to go no farther down a road leading away from all I thought was best and most important about being a newspaper publisher and a journalist."
The following Monday, Harris announced his resignation to Knight Ridder and all the employees of the Mercury News. It was an email read ''round the publishing world.
"I resign in the hope that doing so will cause you to closely examine the wisdom of the parameters for profit Steve [Rossi, president of Knight Ridder''s newspaper division] gave the Mercury News senior executive team," he wrote. "Meeting the goal will necessitate deep and ill-advised staff and expense reductions at the Mercury News."
Journalists were variously stunned and exhilarated by Harris'' gesture. Here was a top executive with the nation''s second-biggest newspaper company protesting the common practice of focusing on the bottom line to the exclusion of all other considerations. The day before Harris'' epiphany, the Knight Ridder team had set before the Mercury News executives stringent budget goals and suggestions about how to achieve them. Harris believed they would do irreparable harm to the paper and the community.
"In my estimation--and I''ve been doing these budgets for 15 years," he told the editors at the ASNE convention in the aftermath, "there was no way to get to the number that was still on the table Friday night that would not involve layoffs in the newroom."
It was the prospect of diluting news throughout the paper that disturbed Harris. "If you have a reduction in the size of the journalistic staff," he told the Weekly in a recent interview, "the public will be less well served. The mission of newspapers in our democracy is to keep citizens well informed as a general proposition. That is inevitably hurt if you in one way or another start doing significantly less [journalistically]." In his speech before the editors'' group, Harris likened the importance of journalism to that of health care--as necessary to the well-being of the body politic as medicine is to the individual.
When Harris left, Knight Ridder had already begun cutbacks in what it called response to the economic downturn, though critics blame greed more than hard times for the cuts. The Mercury News rolled back its coverage of San Francisco earlier this spring and dropped its Sunday magazine. It conflated the zoned editions--in Alameda County, the Peninsula and the Coast, to name a few--into a single Northern California edition that left individual communities with less local news. Knight Ridder began converting its papers to a narrower, paper-saving format, a change that arrived at the Herald on April 9.
Since Harris left, Knight Ridder has announced substantial layoffs and intended employee buyouts at its papers across the country--87 at the Contra Costa Times, 120 at the Mercury News, 180 at the Miami Herald, and many more. Papers from other chains, and even industry leaders like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, are following suit.
Harris'' resignation clearly has not halted the progress of cost-cutting measures. Nevertheless, to critics of the idea that a newspaper''s job is first and foremost to maximize profit, his move was a blow against a relentless corporate agenda--and one a long time coming.
"I think Jay Harris is unusual and courageous in not only stepping down but speaking out," says Ben Bagdikian, author of The Media Monopoly, the seminal 1983 book on the social cost of corporatized newspapers. "It''s been going on quietly in papers around the country where either the publisher does not object, or if the editors or publishers leave, they leave without speaking out because, in most cases, people at that level lose some benefits if they speak out in criticism of the company they just left."
Making the Break
In a response to the uproar about Harris'' decision, CEO Tony Ridder penned an op-ed piece for the May 14 issue of Editor & Publisher. "Publishing a newspaper in good times can be exhilarating," he wrote. "Publishing a newspaper in tough times is different ... A publisher has to make choices with an eye to the quality of the newspaper, to the way it serves the community, and to what is best for the organization."
As a publicly traded entity, Knight Ridder has served its shareholders with a quantifiable and ever-more-zealous fealty. The Mercury News, Knight Ridder''s flagship paper, has in the last decade produced profit margins of 22 to 29 percent, with the peak occurring in the Big Boom year of 1997. That''s exceptional performance, but elsewhere throughout the Knight Ridder chain, the 31 papers that aren''t in the newfound center of the economic universe also cranked out high profits. According to corporate relations spokeswoman Lee Ann Schlatter, the chain as a whole broke the 20 percent barrier in 1999, and Ridder has reportedly set his sights on a corporate-wide 25 percent margin by 2004. Gannett, publisher of The Californian locally and the splashy, low-fiber USA Today, heads the pack of newspaper conglomerates in profitability with an astounding 29.72 percent margin.
Jim Naughton, president of journalism''s Poynter Institute, recalls when numbers like that were unimaginable. Naughton worked as deputy managing editor and executive editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer in the ''80s and ''90s, sharing a territory and a rivalry with Harris, who was at the time an editor at the Philadelphia Daily News. Also owned by Knight Ridder, the Daily News was a scrappy local tabloid and the place where Harris made his jump "over the wall" from the editorial to the business side. For that reason alone Harris is an anomaly--most publishers these days rise through the ranks of the business staff, the better to comply with shareholders'' demands.
Naughton says that when he left Philadelphia in 1996, the local company''s profit margin was 8 percent and under pressure to increase to 12 percent. Last year it topped 19 percent--and that was in good times. Now it must match that sum in a harsher climate. "But they''re not doing it by finding gobs of new revenue," he says. "They''re doing it by trimming and shaving and cutting. So now they''ve trimmed all the capillaries they can cut, and now they''re looking at arteries."
Still, hope persists. The rank and file is revitalized by the defection of a leader that San Jose union organizer Luther Jackson calls "the ultimate Knight Ridder insider." On May 8, more than 300 employees of the Mercury News left their offices at lunch, put on black T-shirts embossed with a red "j" and streamed out into the 93-degree heat to have their pictures taken. "Jay Day" has become a symbol of journalists'' commitment to the craft as well as their support of their former captain. Jackson, executive director of the 800-member San Jose Newspaper Guild, says he recently got a call from the Philadelphia Daily News requesting Jay Day T-shirts of their own.
"As far as I''m concerned," says Merc Santa Cruz bureau reporter David Beck, "the day he quit he became a hero."
Harris expresses surprise and diffidence at the outpouring of goodwill. "I think the support and the good wishes have not been..." he pauses to think "...about me as an individual but rather about the issues that I raised and the values underlying the stance that I took."
Of his upcoming engagement before 400 graduates at Freeman Stadium this Saturday, the nation''s former highest-ranking African-American newspaperman says simply, "I''m going to talk not about newspapers or my resignation but about things that are important in life: values, principles, acting on values and principles, and about the sense of social responsibility."
Perhaps the simplest way for Harris to impart his message is to repeat the explanation he gave to his daughter Jamarah, who "hates surprises" and who cried when her father told her he would be leaving his job:
"Sometimes," he told her, "you have to sit at the front of the bus."
Jay T. Harris delivers the commencement address at CSUMB this Saturday at 10am at Freeman Stadium on campus. The ceremony is free. For info, call 582-3518.
theWeeklyTally60 Percent that income increased, in 1999 dollars, for California''s richest families between 1969 and 1999. In the same period of time, the poorest 10 percent of California households saw their income fall 14 percent.
--Source: Public Policy Institute of California