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Of Headlines and Bottom Lines : NONFICTION : THE CHAIN GANG. By Richard McCord (University of Missouri Press: $24.95, 304 pp.) : IT'S ALIVE. By Stephen D. Cuozzo (Times Books: $25, 342 pp.)

July 21, 1996|Keith Love | Keith Love is publisher of the Ellensburg Daily Record, a McClatchy Newspaper in Washington state. He formerly covered politics for the Los Angeles Times

The newspaper as a business--something that focuses on market share and profit margins--is one of the least-explored topics of the Media Age. Some critics hint darkly that this is not by accident; indeed, some have long contended that newspapers are not about to cast the same merciless gaze on themselves that they turn on the shenanigans of junk bond salesmen.

There is some truth in this. But a more likely reason is that few writers have ever figured out how to bring to life the dry business of making money with an advertising sales staff and a printing press. Moreover, the critics are right--it is not always a pretty story.

Two new books, one focusing on the efforts of a large newspaper chain to stamp out its competition, the other on the struggles of one daily simply to survive, illustrate this.

Advertising represents 75% of the revenue at most newspapers, and as competition for the advertising dollar has increased--primarily from direct mail and cable television--the more rapacious instincts of some newspaper companies have come to the fore. These outfits are obsessed with getting all they can from a shrinking advertising pie--and they will not tolerate competition, even from alternative weeklies. Some organizations openly risk strategies to crush their smaller rivals that invite scrutiny under the anti-trust laws.

This less-than-attractive side of the newspaper business is chillingly described in "The Chain Gang," a new book by Richard McCord, former owner of an independent weekly in Santa Fe, N.M. The newspaper chain McCord writes about is Gannett, America's largest, which owns "units," as Gannett likes to call its papers, in virtually every state. Its more prominent holdings include the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Des Moines Register. Gannett also publishes U.S.A. Today, and its Freedom Forum research organization sponsors the exploration of such issues as free speech and the coverage of politics, through seminars and grants.

McCord describes how Gannett set out in the 1970s and 1980s to systematically destroy a weekly in Salem, Ore., a daily in Green Bay, Wis., and McCord's own weekly in New Mexico. In each case, the competitors did not seriously threaten the Gannett chain's dominance of the market; rather, they threatened the Gannett units' budgeted profit goals. At Gannett, budget goals are everything, and there is no tolerance for slippage. As described in "The Chain Gang," a well-run weekly or small daily can create enough competition for the advertising dollar to upset Gannett's larger corporate game plans.

McCord, a solid investigative reporter, has done a masterful job of making hi-story exciting as well as informative. All reporters need luck, and McCord got a bunch when he was mistakenly given sealed court documents that laid out in detail how Gannett had eliminated its competition in Salem. He then describes how he used that information to keep his own New Mexico weekly alive in the face of similar Gannett tactics. Finally, McCord recounts how he went to Green Bay to help an old friend defend his daily against Gannett's strategic attacks.

The way McCord executed his game plan in Green Bay makes for a great page-turner. And those whose interests in newspapers focus on journalism, rather than marketing, will be relieved to learn that the key to his efforts involved good old-fashioned reporting and writing.

Another new book about the newspaper business, "It's Alive," by Stephen D. Cuozzo, will also attract readers, but for different reasons. It describes how a core staff and flaky owners kept alive America's oldest, continuously published daily, the New York Post (founded in 1801 by Alexander Hamilton), through the wild ride of tabloid journalism in the 1980s.

Like McCord's book, "It's Alive" shows the differing reasons why people want to own newspapers these days. It's not always a pretty story, but what makes Cuozzo's book fun to read is the way it captures the world of the tabloid city room. Those who have spent their entire careers working on, or exclusively reading, "mainstream" broadsheets like the Los Angeles Times or the Washington Post will get an insider's view of a different kind of journalism, thanks to Cuozzo, who started as a copy boy at the Post two decades ago and rose to become executive editor.

He makes the case that Gotham's noisy tabloid wars over the last decade have benefited New Yorkers, because papers like the Post, the Daily News and the late New York Newsday have focused relentlessly on the politicians, crooks and celebrities who ran the town, as well as on petty crimes and Mob wipeouts. This coverage, Cuozzo argues, has forced the stodgy New York Times to cover its own city in a way that it has long covered the world. Cuozzo cites convincing examples of this, and regular Times readers can attest that the paper's local coverage has improved in recent years.

Less convincing is Cuozzo's argument that the Post's tabloid journalism helped launch major changes in television, from MTV to the afternoon tell-all shows of Oprah Winfrey and others. It is arguable that these changes were coming to TV without any help from the tabs.

Both of these books are authoritative and entertaining reads. They are also historically important, because newspapers are struggling as never before to survive economically. "The Chain Gang" and "It's Alive" help explain these shifting business forces--and they remind us that a lot of the vital action at a newspaper takes place far from the newsroom.

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