Friday, April 6, 2001
Luncheon address by Jay Harris
Good afternoon and thank you very much.
It is an unexpected pleasure to be back at ASNE this year. Until quite recently budget difficulties were going to prevent me from being here.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve spoken at the annual convention of this organization since my first major address in 1978 on the tenth anniversary of the Kerner Commission report. But I can tell you that at no time have I been more honored by the invitation or felt more at home.
I find myself, for the moment at least, at the symbolic center of a debate that extends in substance and consequence well beyond the specific circumstances surrounding my resignation as publisher of the Mercury News.
Frankly, I was taken aback as I watched it grow and came to understand the breadth, depth and passion of the concern in the journalistic community nationally. After a few days I concluded that while I did not seek or expect the role, if I had the courage of my convictions I would hold high the banner of our noble cause in forums such as this. If for no other reason, I owed it to the hundreds of journalists, publishers, journalism educators, readers and members of the Silicon Valley community who wrote or called to support me and the beliefs that led to my resignation.
So, let me tell you over the next few minutes why I did what I did, how I came to that point and that decision, and offer a few preliminary thoughts on where we might go from here.
Three weeks ago today Mercury News and Knight Ridder executives met to discuss how to respond to the sharp decline in the newspaper’s ad revenues and how best to achieve the parent company’s goals for the year.
I resigned the following Monday.
Less than three hours after receiving my personally delivered letter of resignation, Knight Ridder executives sent a memo to the Mercury News staff in which they described the Friday meeting as “tough and candid.” The public information officers at the State Department would no doubt appreciate that use of the measured language of diplomacy.
What troubled me most about the meeting was its myopic focus on numbers.
It wasn’t the cutting so much. I have cut and forced others to over many years. I was taught how to do so by the best on both sides of the table.
What troubled me something that had never happened before in all, my years in the company was that little or no attention was paid to the consequences of achieving “the number.” There was virtually no discussion of the damage that would be done to the quality and aspirations of the Mercury News as a journalistic endeavor or to its ability to fulfill its responsibilities to the community. As importantly, scant attention was paid to the damage that would be done to our ability to compete and grow the business.
In a written budget overview I gave to corporate the day before the meeting, I argued that while we could achieve the near-term savings being sought, those savings would be “more than offset by a long term diminution of the vitality and potential profitability of Knight Ridder’s Bay Area franchise.”
But despite my best efforts in the letter and in the meeting the next day they could not or would not hear the warning.
In reflecting on my last days at the helm of the Mercury News, I was drawn to something my predecessor as publisher, Larry Jinks, had given me on January 28, 1994 his last day in the office as publisher. For those of you who don’t know him, Larry was a distinguished editor who led the Miami Herald and the Mercury News. Jim Batten chose him to be senior vice president for news for Knight Ridder. And most important to this story, he had steered the Mercury News safely through the last deep Silicon Valley recession in the early `90s.
On his last day in the office, when he was turning the stewardship responsibility for the newspaper he loved over to me, he gave me a copy of what I think was an excerpt from a book. He said it contained an important insight to keep in mind in my new job. I kept it in my desk over the years. The excerpt described what social scientist Daniel Yankelovich dubbed the “McNamara fallacy.” It read as follows:
“The first step is to measure whatever can be easily measured. That is okay as far as it goes. The second step is to disregard that which can’t be measured or give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading. The third step is to presume that what can’t be measured easily really isn’t very important. This is blindness. The fourth step is to say that what can’t be easily measured doesn’t exist. This is suicide.”
In that Friday budget meeting seven years later, our discussions were focused on getting to a number and essentially blind to all else. It was like watching a loved-one commit suicide unintentionally.
Things moved quickly from that point.
After the Knight Ridder executives left late Friday, the Mercury News executive team met to debrief and decompress after an intense day. We knew we had made a little progress in the discussions, but not much. We agreed to meet by phone on Sunday to discuss next steps on getting to the still distant goal.
Then I went home.
I woke up Saturday morning about 3 a.m. I had a knot in my stomach and was deeply troubled. While I was asleep the stark reality of what had happened and what seemed to lie inevitably ahead had worked its way to the front of my brain. Over the next several hours the idea came together in my mind that resigning was the only way to slow things down, to possibly get corporate to open their eyes to what was in prospect. Moreover, I had decided that resigning was the right thing for me to do.
I confronted the fact that continuing negotiation and compromise was little more than slow and silent surrender. Like many others, I had become an unacknowledged coconspirator in something I knew not to be a good thing, but didn’t know how to stop.
It is often said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. It is equally true that in single steps a journey of a thousand miles can be completed. And 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.
Later that morning, after the sun came up, I talked the matter over with my wife Christine. We agreed that resigning was the right step and that we would strike out on a new path together. Christine pointed to an additional benefit we would no longer have to pay the heavy toll the on-again off-again struggle over budgets and values was taking on the family and me.
Saturday afternoon I canceled the Sunday conference call to discuss next steps on the budget. I now had a new plan for the scheduled resumption of budget talks Monday with corporate.
I set to work on writing my letter of resignation, in which I laid out my reasoning and my suggestions for a more appropriate approach to the budget challenges and company goals. The next morning I started my farewell note to the employees of the Mercury News. That was the tough one. I was saying farewell to my Mercury News family, to a dream, and to the plan I had to be publisher of paper for the balance of my career.
On Sunday afternoon Christine and I told the kids. My oldest daughter, Jamarah, who hates surprises, cried and eventually went to her room to work it through.
After the family discussion I went back to work polishing the letters. I didn’t see Jamarah again that day. So the next morning before leaving for work I went upstairs to wake her for school. She was awake but still in bed. I sat down on the bed next to her and said, “Sometimes you have to sit at the front of the bus.”
She smiled and said, “I understand, Daddy.”
I knew then that everything would be all right.
On Monday at 1:30 I submitted my resignation.
I resigned because of a fundamental disagreement over business strategy and an equally fundamental disagreement over whether the company’s values and priorities had been changing over the years.
I want to emphasize here that I did not resign solely because of newsroom-related concerns although it is true that the very real possibility of deep cuts in news staff and newshole concerned me greatly. I resigned because I was concerned about damage to the whole of the paper the business side as well as the news side and about a lessening of our ability to fulfill our myriad responsibilities to the community.
In my letter of resignation, I asked my Knight Ridder colleagues to reconsider two things:
The “deep and ill-advised staff and expense reductions” their profit goals would necessitate, and
Cuts that would affect the quality and reputation of the newspaper and the perception of the company as a place good people want to work.
Before going to corporate to submit my resignation I burned my bridges behind me. I arranged for my farewell message to the staff to be sent to “ALL” by e-mail while I was at Knight Ridder. There would be no turning back, no conversation leading to compromise.
I had lived as long as I should or could with a slowly widening gap between creed and deed.
Had I continued down the same path, what faced me was the utter frustration of disassembling something I’d thrown my life into building up, and the unavoidable violation of the sense of trust and family, of shared aspirations and shared destiny that I’d work to build over the years. I had watched a long train of abuses against the traditions and core values of a great profession and a great company. I had witnessed enough.
A dear friend and colleague, who has always been able to find the right quote or the perfect cartoon from The New Yorker to get me through tough times, sent me this quote from Winston Churchill.
“The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes; but with this shield, however the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honor.”
A Knight Ridder colleague suggested the other day that I “take the high road” in my talk today. I believe I am. What I did on March 19 and the story I tell you today is not an act of betrayal. It is an act of fidelity to the values of my profession and the best traditions of Knight Ridder.
The first statement of company values issued during my years with Knight Ridder contained these words:
“Our enterprise is both a business and a public trust...”
As I said in my letter of resignation, I worried that in Knight Ridder greater priority was increasingly given to the business aspects of the enterprise than was given to fulfilling our “public trust.”
It was the conviction that newspapers are a public trust that brought me to Knight Ridder in 1985.
I understood then and understand even better today that a good newspaper and a good business go hand in hand. Indeed, without a good business it would be impossible for a newspaper to do good journalism over the long haul.
But at some point one comes to ask what is meant by a good business? What is good enough in terms of profitability and sustained year-to-year profit improvement? And how do you balance maintaining a strong business with your responsibilities as the steward of a public trust? Maybe that is the most important question, because our business if you approach it as a public trust as well as a business is different from most businesses.
Most businesses can reduce expenses more or less proportionately with demand and revenue without doing irreparable damage to their core capabilities, their market position or their mission. Manufacturing businesses are a good example. When fewer items are bought fewer items need to be made and layoffs in various areas are possible. But news and reader’s interests do not contract with declining advertising. Nor does our responsibility to the public get smaller as revenue declines or newsprint becomes more expensive. That is where the balancing act comes in. That is where the character of leaders comes in and the priorities they set.
Let me give you a situation analogous to the one facing newspapers.
Hospitals are important, and at times essential, to our health as individuals and, at times, the health of whole communities. Over the last ten-to-fifteen years our nation’s health care system has been ravaged by a variety of market forces and the drive for increased profitability. Today, shortages of nurses and even medicines are not uncommon in many hospitals. At times doctors don’t have necessary equipment available or adequate support. HMOs can be more focused on their bottom lines than the health of their clients. In short, the quality of the nation’s health care system has declined because of market forces and business imperatives and with it there has been a decline in the health care industry’s ability to meet the nation’s needs.
In the same way that hospitals are important to the health of individuals and communities, good newspapers are important to the health of our communities, our nation and our democracy.
The press is protected in the First Amendment to our national constitution. It is the only business so protected because the Framers saw a free press as essential to the maintenance and health of our democracy.
My arguments today are not First Amendment arguments though. The First Amendment protects nearly all forms of speech and press activity. My argument today applies in particular to newspapers, newspaper companies and the leaders of such companies who believe their newspapers have a special responsibility to our society.
My argument today is that a freedom, a resource so essential to our national democracy that it is protected in our Constitution should not be managed primarily according to the demands of the market or the dictates of a handful of large shareholders.
In managing a newspaper or a newspaper company in the public interests you are faced with these questions. When the interests of readers and shareholders are at odds, which takes priority? When the interests of a community and shareholders are at odds, which takes priority? When the interests of the nation in an informed citizenry and the demands of shareholders for ever-increasing profits are at odds, which takes priority?
The balancing of profits and quality is not as easy to understand as it may seem. It defies simple analysis. Many newspapers are part of publicly held companies. There are several such newspapers where quality does not vary noticeably in good times or bad the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal come immediately to mine. There are others, and I would include Knight Ridder in this number, which publish very good newspapers, but the tension between quality and responsibility on the one hand and financial expectations on the other are constant and the balance is tenuously maintained. And, finally, there are public newspaper companies where there is little evidence to be found of a concern about quality or responsibility.
Clearly, there is nothing inherent about being public that insures a priority on quality or a priority on profits.
It must be said that the same is true of privately held companies. Some, whether individually owned or part of a larger group, are quite good and reflect a concern by the owners for quality and community. The St. Petersburg Times would be a good example. Other privately held newspapers are an embarrassment. They seem to be little more than the owner’s pet cash cow, or in the case of private newspaper groups, the owners’ herd of cash cows.
But the question in the spotlight today involves publicly held companies and I thought the tension and its sources were captured clearly and succinctly in a recent segment on “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer:”
NewsHour media correspondent Terrence Smith was interviewing several people including Lauren Rich Fine, a media analyst for Merrill Lynch, and there occurred the following exchange:
Fine said, “...the real issue here comes from trying to serve the public in a high-quality fashion, but at the same time being beholden to shareholders.”
Terence Smith then asked: “Well, Lauren Fine, what profit margin does Wall Street expect from a newspaper, a publicly held newspaper company? If they average in the 20s, is that enough? What does it have to be?”
To which Fine responded: “Well, it’s never enough, of course. This is Wall Street we’re talking about.”
That is an honest and unabashed statement of what some of us see as the tyranny of the current situation. It matters not whether the source of that tyranny is the demand of analysts and major shareholders, the reaction of corporate executives to those demands, or merely the demand of owners of privately held newspapers for an unreasonably high return.
The point has been made that American newspapers on average are better than ever. I agree. But their improvement, their upward momentum is being overcome by the gravity of the marketplace. The drive for ever-increasing profits is pulling quality down. Unless some booster restores newspapers’ upward momentum, gravity will take over with potentially irreversible consequences.
What is generally true of newspapers is true in Knight Ridder.
There are many good newspapers and good newspaper people in Knight Ridder and some of both that are very good. The Mercury News is ranked one of the ten best newspapers in the nation.
Knight Ridder journalists continue to do the best journalism they are capable of, which I want to emphasize is still among the best in the nation. But the momentum of the company, like the momentum in many other media companies, is trending in the wrong direction.
The trend threatening newspapers historic mission is clear if we’re willing to see it. And it can be challenged and reversed if we’re willing to speak out.
Of course, many are unable or unwilling to see or speak the truth of the situation.
There are many reasons for this. One is that the high salaries many of our leaders receive in newsrooms and newspaper business offices as well as corporate headquarters- have turned into golden handcuffs. And those handcuffs have morphed into blindfolds and gags as well. Sometimes we refuse to see the truth. Sometimes we see it but dare not speak it.
But this muffle of good fortune has not produced absolute silence. Today, we hear a growing chorus of brave souls both inside and outside the industry protesting vigorously, and an audible grumbling of discontent from within the ranks of journalists and readers alike.
They are all concerned about the current drift away from quality, a drift they fear will become a steady flow that will grow into an irresistible tide that will wash away so much that is good and important in American journalism.
It is good that we have people working for reform inside and outside the newspaper business.
When Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, near the beginning of what we now call the Reformation, there were people of good will working at nearly every level of the Catholic Church. Those, like Luther, who left the church to protest its debasement, and the many who remained to work for improvement from within, gave rise not only to a new branch of Christianity, the Protestants, but also forced the reform of the Catholic Church.
Much the same needs to happen today.
A publisher wrote me this week to say he respected my decision to resign and hoped I would respect his to stay in the job and put out the best paper he could for his community. And that newspaper is still quite good.
Not only do I respect his decision, I know it is the right one if we are to set the balance right again.
We need people like that publisher working on the inside to support good journalism and build healthy businesses. Great institutions fail when they are overcome by a corrupting ideal or when the good people who sustain them lose faith and leave.
I made the choice to work from the outside. As Nancy Woodhull, a friend and talented editor who died too soon used to say, “It is much easier to rock the boat when you’re not in it.”
Throughout my career I have surrounded myself with ideas and ideals, and have tried to live within and live up to the best of them. For many years my office walls have been adorned by quotes that inspire, that guide, that challenge and remind.
When I finally faced squarely the tyranny of the markets, and the threat it represents to the historic and noble mission of American journalism, I kept coming back to a quote from a personal hero of mine the 19`h century journalist and abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
It was a quote that hung on the wall of my office on the day I resigned.
“Let me give you a word on the philosophy of reform,” Douglass said. “The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle... If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roars of its many waters.
“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will be continued till they are resisted ... The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
Those words spoke clearly to me about my personal situation and the road forward that was best for me.
In the days since my resignation I have been humbled, encouraged and energized by the continuing and very public debate it has sparked in the newspaper industry, and the hundreds of e-mails, letters, calls and cards I’ve received.
Let me share a few of the latter with you. I’ve omitted the names to protect the innocent and the uninvolved.
An editor on a major East Coast newspaper penned a note that said: “Congratulations on an act if exquisite integrity that, I hope and believe, will be of historic influence in the craft we love.”
Staffers in the newsroom of a Midwestern paper wrote: “In an age where heroes are a dying breed and courage is a rare thing to behold, your act has made us proud. At a time when many of us wonder whether journalism can ever again be a noble endeavor, your have redeemed our faith in our profession.”
A national correspondent from a newspaper known for a tradition of excellence sent the following: “I want to congratulate you on your courageous and principled stance regarding the financial targeting at the Merc. I hope your action succeeds in getting the attention of some folks at the top of the corporate pyramid...
“I have seen my own newspaper eviscerated to serve what many believe are unreasonable goals.”
And this came from a former president of ASNE: “I know how extraordinarily difficult it is to leave a job and a newspaper you love. But to do so because of principle is a profile in courage that is badly needed at this moment in our history.
“My prayer is that your act of bravery will sound a bell that will be heard in the offices of all of our CEOs, publishers, editors and others and that Wall Street will listen carefully to what you had to say.”
So, where do we go from here?
First, let me say that I am hopeful and optimistic about the future of American newspapers both as a business and as key contributors to the vitality of our democracy.
I neither believe nor will I accept that the current trend can’t be changed, that the proper balance can’t be restored, that the unwise is somehow unavoidable or that a course that is inconsistent with our principles and values must be followed.
Just as we journalists can make better bad situations in our community by shining our spotlight into usually hidden or unseen places, we can apply the same remedy to our own house.
I believe that if we are willing to speak the truth, willing to talk together and work together to determine what the proper balance is and how it can be restored, that we can achieve that end.
And what should such a collaborative effort consider and whom should it include?
Here are a few thought starters:
The discussion needs to include all the stakeholders, not just publishers, editors, large shareholders and institutional investors. Journalists and employees from the business side need to be at the table as well. So do readers, scholars and a diverse group of community representatives.
One goal of the effort should be to develop a working definition of what being a good and faithful steward of the public trust requires of newspaper managers and newspaper owners.
The moral, social and business dimensions of the issue should be fully explored and given equal priority.
The discussion should build the case for a steady and reliable investment, in so far as prudent business allows, in news, circulation, research and promotion. It should also make the case for a reliable and supportive environment that will attract and hold the best talent in all departments.
The case needs to be made that editors must seek equal access to the publisher’s chair. Journalists cannot leave the helm to those who do not have a deep commitment to a newspaper’s responsibilities to its readers and its community.
A way must be found to give the public a sense of “ownership” in its community’s newspaper. It should hold the paper its managers and owners to reasonably high standards, and accept nothing less.
I would like to close on an unusually personal note.
For several years now, as I girded for budget battles, I had my own private fight song. The resolve it expressed was a constant tonic.
The song, actually a “sermon” written by the essayist Stanley Crouch, was a verbalization and accompaniment for Wynton Marsalis’s composition “Premature Autopsies” on his album “The Majesty of the Blues.”
The sermon is a rejection of the debasement of jazz through commercialism. And I heard in it a parallel between the nobility and deeply personal nature of jazz and journalism done excellently, the threat both face from equally pernicious commercial pressures, and a reason to be hopeful.
Let me read you a few lines.
“[I]f a dragon thinks it is grand enough, that dragon will try to make you believe that what you need to carry you through the inevitable turmoil that visits human life is beyond your grasp. If that dragon thinks it is grand enough, it will try to convince you that there is no escape, no release, no salvation from its wicked domination...
“There are some of us who don’t accept the dreams of dragons as their own, no matter how grand those dragons might say they are ...Out there somewhere are the kind of people who do not accept the premature autopsy of a noble art form. These are the ones who follow in the footsteps of the gifted and the disciplined who have been deeply hurt but not discouraged, who have been frightened but have not forgotten how to be brave...”
“You have to beware of premature autopsies. A noble sound, might not lie still in the dark cave where the dragons have taken it. A noble sound might just rise up and push away the stones that were placed in its path… A noble sound is a mighty thing. It can mess around and end up swinging low and swinging high and flapping its wings in a rhythm that might swoop up over the limitations imposed by the dreams of dragons.”
And the same will be true I hope for our noble calling of journalism in the public interest. It will push away the stone now blocking its path and swoop up over the limitations imposed by the dreams of dragons.