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Regarding Media

Bottom Line: It's Not Just About the Bottom Line

Former publisher reflects on how his resignation resonated in the industry.

April 20, 2001|SHAWN HUBLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LOS GATOS, Calif. — An upside of sacrificing a job on the altar of principle over profit is that, on a mid-work-week midday, a man can throw on an apron and dish up some quiche.

"Help yourself," Jay Harris, the now-famously-ex-publisher of the San Jose Mercury News, said the other day, tossing salad. It was a month, almost to the day, since the 52-year-old newspaper executive quit his seven-year job rather than meet profit goals that were being sought by his paper's parent company, Knight Ridder Inc. His teenagers were out, his wife was at a foundation committee meeting. His kitchen was huge.

An upside of heading Silicon Valley's hometown paper during a boom is that you can buy a million-dollar-plus home such as this one, on 2 1/2 forested acres of rustic hillside.

A downside, of course, is what happens when the boom goes away.

Harris resigned March 19, in the face of a $2.5-million drop in help-wanted advertising at his paper even as his parent company had promised Wall Street that profit margins wouldn't fall. Until then, he'd been virtually unknown outside the clubby world of newspapers. Colleagues viewed him as a loyal defender of Knight Ridder's chairman and chief executive, P. Anthony Ridder. None would have predicted that, as he puts it, the "magnitude and momentum" of the chain's profit motive would drive him to such a public response.

His dramatic departure--intended, he later said, to forestall what he saw as crippling cuts in his paper's budget--resonated in an economy that has felt whipsawed by the stock market's demands. It became national grist, from the Internet to the talking heads of PBS' "NewsHour." Supportive e-mail from politicians and neighbors and fellow journalists poured in.

"The reaction has been much more than I'd ever expected," Harris marveled over lunch in the aftermath of the uproar. Harris, who is African American, is tall, bespectacled and balding. Born in Washington, D.C., he rose from the ranks of East Coast reporters to become one of the newspaper industry's more influential minority voices. His manner was easy, but when his ex-employer was mentioned, he flushed and crossed his arms and chose his words carefully.

This month, those words elicited a standing ovation from the American Society of Newspaper Editors. In coming weeks, he's slated to speak at Columbia, Harvard and Northwestern, where, earlier in his career, he served as an assistant dean at the journalism school. Several Bay Area colleges, he said, have broached the subject of his future employment, which he has put off mulling until later this summer.

"Right now, all I know is that I'm not going to be in newspapers in the immediate future," he offered, "because we don't want to move, and there's only one Bay Area paper I'd work for, and that's the Mercury News."

His son is grown, and his two daughters' college expenses "are taken care of."

"Put it this way," Harris said, "we aren't living paycheck to paycheck." Later, however, he acknowledged that the emotional cost of his decision still hasn't fully hit him. "I'm still waiting," he said, "for it all to sink in."

Harris started his career in Delaware, moved up to editor and spent a few years in academia before becoming a national correspondent for Gannett News Service in Washington, D.C.

Then came a stint as the executive editor of the Philadelphia Daily News, during which he caught the eye of Ridder, who brought him into the corporate ranks and became his mentor. When Ridder determined in 1994 that the idealistic news writer had become businessman enough to finally lead his own paper, he gave him the Mercury News, where Ridder himself had once been publisher.

"Those were real glory days," Harris said, smiling.

Silicon Valley was just beginning to boom. Advertising ballooned. Journalists tend to prefer the morally superior to the fiscally comfy, but Harris got to have it both ways. The Mercury News was racking up 29% profit margins--well over the industry average--even as he launched expansion after expansion: foreign language editions, a small army of business and technology reporters, a highly publicized push into San Francisco. Every new hire was extra-expensive due to the high housing costs in Silicon Valley and competition from dot-coms. Between 1995 and 1999, the newsroom staff rose from 376 to 415 and the editorial budget increased from $20.6 million to $28.1 million. It was a 10% increase in manpower for a 36% budget increase.

Then things changed. "It began to become clear, oh, by late January or early February that this was likely to be a significant downturn," Harris remembered. Worse, he said, attitudes within Knight Ridder had hardened considerably.

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