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I received the following e-mail from an Arizona Republicinsider who shall remain nameless:
Employees at The Arizona Retarded were recently dismayed to learn that under its new and ever-so-wise owners, the illustrious Gannett chain, the newspaper's front page would be whored out to the highest bidder. Perhaps this is a more honest approach to the paper's goal of acting like big business and less of a guise at real journalism. The offense is to take the form of a six-column, 1.25-inch ad an A-1.
Here is an excerpt from one of the most insulting pieces of pollyanna-ish dribble in recent memory, sent out via e-mail by an editor to his staff recently, verbatim:
"Anyway[sic] who wants to talk to me about the A1 advertising, feel free to stop in. We can also chat about it at our staff meeting a week from Monday. of course, probably you all will want to talk to [new editor] Tom [Cullinan] about it, and I am trying to arrange a visit from him in the next few weeks. I would urge all of you not to get too stressed about it. And I truly do not say this as a management toady. I don't think it's that big a deal as long as it doesn't become underwear ads taking up quarter panels. I'm not sure how A1 got to be considered sacred ground, but as far as I am concerned, if a discreet strip at the bottom of A1 will help keep all you in jobs and even reward you down the road with raises, I sure am not gonna be holy about it. However, I am not trying to dis any of you who are genuinely concerned. As a hard news guy for decades, though, i just want to tell you my feelings: There are far worse things newspapers can and have done in the name of the buck. And if this is all we do, you can all hold your head up high no matter what those sanctimonious and hypocritical folks at New Times might write down the road."
Let the sanctimony begin.
I'd suggest that the Republichas struck a Faustian bargain, but that requires the assumption that the Republichas a soul.
When Gannett bought the Arizona Republic's parent company for $2.6 billion last summer, Valley residents read the obligatory and solemn pledges of editorial rectitude.
Yet to the Republic's credit, its stories about the sale of Central Newspapers Inc. did not disguise Gannett's devotion to profits over community service. Gannett executives revel in their lust for the bottom line. The pecuniary undercurrent diluted platitudes about commitment to news and community.
For example, Gannett, the largest newspaper group in North America, had 1999 revenues of $5.3 billion and aggregate circulation of nearly 8 million. The Gannett Foundation donated $8.3 million to charities in the communities in which it operates. The Republic, with a circulation of less than 450,000, claimed charitable gifts of $9 million in Arizona alone.
During the Reagan Administration, when the Republicwas still owned by the sleepy Pulliam Family Trust, its profit margin hovered in the single digits. But Central Newspapers went public in 1989, inaugurating an era in which nutritious and sustainable profits were no longer tolerable -- to stockholders, that is.
After USA Today, the Republicis the largest daily in the Gannett firmament. At the time Gannett acquired Central, the Republic's margin was a robust 32 percent. Central's stock languished anyway, and its top executives seized on that lethargy as a pretext to sell out. Gannett's bean counters promptly demanded that the margin be fattened even more.
News gathering is a labor-intensive and costly business. Newsprint, too, is astonishingly expensive. When the master decrees that profits must grow inexorably, something's got to give.
The first casualties came in November, when the Republic's information technology staff was cashiered. Sixty heads were lopped. This was incongruous; the Republic's purported grasp of the Internet had been touted as its strong suit. A memo about the downsizing informed employees, "Our advertising revenues continue their five-month downward trend. There has been a sizeable deterioration in year over year revenue growth since May. Those revenue realities are expected to continue on into next year." (Note that revenues were not declining -- they simply were not burgeoning satisfactorily.)
Gannett set about groping its new cash cow for a fresh udder, and it came up with Page One.
Advertising will debut on Page One on January 28, in the form of a strip across the bottom of the page. Purchasers will pay a premium for the 7.5 column inches, which will consume enough space to display a news story.
"I think it's a very bad idea," says Ben Bagdikian, a respected media critic and former dean of the graduate school of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. "I think for a really good paper, the front page is supposed to indicate the high-priority stories. Anything that clutters that up with non-news detracts from what readers expect."
The Republic, which ranks 15th in the nation in circulation, will be the largest American newspaper to feature such garish hucksterism on such a scale.
Gannett's flagship, USA Today, sells small ads in two spots on Page One. The New York Timeshas for generations sold occasional "readers" -- tiny classifieds that appear on the bottom of A-1. It's an aberrant tradition for the Times, which many consider to be the finest newspaper on earth.