Meet the New Boss, Same As the Old Boss

The nation's largest newspaper chain buys the state's biggest paper -- but will anyone even notice the difference?

Last week, the nation's largest newspaper chain took ownership of the Arizona Republic. The first day was quiet, the only news the appointment of Susan Clark-Johnson as CEO and president of Phoenix Newspapers Inc.

The petite, salt-and-pepper pageboyed fiftysomething is considered a star within the Gannett chain, and the lead role at the Republic -- the second largest of Gannett's 99 papers, behind only USA Today -- is certainly a plum.

The paper she leaves, the Reno Gazette-Journal, increased profits and racked up "Best of Gannett" reporting awards while Clark-Johnson was publisher.

But that's not what's gained her attention in national journalism circles, or among Reno's community activists.

In 1994, Clark-Johnson accepted a paid position on the board of directors of the company that owns Harrah's Casinos -- one of the biggest players in Nevada's biggest industry.

At the time, the Washington Post clucked and the Columbia Journalism Review gave Clark-Johnson a "dart," quoting the Reno Gazette's own employee manual: "Employees will not have any outside interest, investment, or business relationship that dilutes their loyalty to the company or dedication to the principle of a free and impartial press."

Ever since, a lot of folks in Reno haven't trusted the Reno Gazette to fairly cover gaming issues or matters of significance to Reno's downtown, where Harrah's has a casino and additional property holdings. The Reno News & Review, the city's five-year-old alternative weekly, has cut its teeth on Clark-Johnson's hide -- sending reporters to stalk her all over town, Roger & Me style, trying unsuccessfully to ask her about the conflict -- and reporting every possible sign of bias in the daily.

There are Web sites largely devoted to Clark-Johnson and the Reno Gazette, including www.rgjsucks.com and members.aol.com/nvaltnet. Last March, 35 picketers gathered outside the newspaper's offices to call for Clark-Johnson's resignation from Harrah's board.

As Clark-Johnson was touring the Republic newsroom last Wednesday afternoon, phone and Internet lines in Reno were buzzing with news of her departure.

In an e-mail to other activists, Mike Robinson, an insurance broker and city council candidate in Reno, wrote: ". . . Those of us who have written and spoken out about Sue Clark-Johnson's conflict of interest in trying to serve two corporate masters may take some satisfaction that as readers we had some influence, however small, and that now the local daily newspaper coverage could change for the better."

Clark-Johnson needn't worry, now that she's here. Protests are rare in Phoenix and rarer still against the Republic, which has a long tradition of business boosterism.

In fact, Clark-Johnson will likely find a newspaper that pleases her on many levels. Gannett may have a reputation as the "bogeyman of corporate journalism," as Columbia University journalism professor Sig Gissler puts it, but the Arizona Republic has been cozying up with the bogeyman for years. Since 1989, when its parent company went public, the Republic has emulated Gannett's money-making, reader-friendly style. Under the tutelage of former Gannett groupie Chip Weil, the Republic increased profits, decreased staff (including closing its fading afternoon paper, the Phoenix Gazette), surveyed readers and redesigned the paper until, when it changed hands last week, it read an awful lot like a Gannett paper already. With a healthy 32 percent profit margin, its books looked like those of a Gannett paper, too.

Clark-Johnson didn't return New Times' call seeking comment on her past in Reno and future in Phoenix. So questions remain: Will the Republic continue its philanthropic role in Phoenix? Last year, the Republic donated $9 million to charity; Gannett spent $8.3 million, spread among its vast holdings. What is the future of the beloved Lazy R&G Ranch, the paper's employee park? And will the Republiccontinue its co-ownership of the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team? Gannett's not talking.

Critics are fond of saying that Gannett buys bad small papers and makes them good, and buys good big papers and makes them bad. So what happens when it buys a mediocre paper?

Gannett officials have called the Republic a "crown jewel," but the truth is that the only Pulitzer Prize the paper's ever won went to its cartoonist, Steve Benson.

Like Susan Clark-Johnson, the Republic has made national headlines less for good journalism than for dubious practices. In 1985, publisher Duke Tully resigned, admitting he had wholly fabricated his record as a decorated Air Force fighter pilot; turned out he had never served in the armed forces at all.

Throughout the '90s, political coverage by the Republic has come into question. The paper endorsed Governor Fife Symington in his 1994 reelection bid even after it was revealed he was under investigation for bank fraud. After Symington's victory, managing editor Steve Knickmeyer instructed reporters to lighten up on the governor.

Knickmeyer, who has since left the Republic, made news in national journalism circles -- and, eventually, an ongoing lawsuit -- when the Columbia Journalism Review quoted him as calling laid-off Republic and Gazettereporters "fat, lazy, incompetent and slow."

And journalists are still scratching their heads over a bizarre story about then-presidential contender John McCain, Arizona's senior senator, that ran in the Republic earlier this year. Just last month, Holman W. Jenkins Jr. editorialized in the Wall Street Journal that the Republic made a "prize fool of itself with a long-winded story . . . that highlighted a weird and baseless rumor by a murder victim that John McCain had carried on an affair with actress Connie Stevens."

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