MoveOn.org has launched a petition drive to protest job reductions at the Los Angeles Times and three other Tribune Co. newspapers -- cutbacks that the liberal activist group says threaten the papers' ability to deliver "strong watchdog journalism."
MoveOn organizers said Friday, a little more than 24 hours into their Internet campaign, that they had collected 17,125 signatures to protest cuts that this week reduced The Times' newsroom staff by 8%, or 85 positions. The group reported that it had obtained a total of 10,360 signatures objecting to cuts at the Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun and Orlando Sentinel.
The organization -- known for its opposition to the war in Iraq and its support of liberal Democratic politicians -- plans to expand its protests to encompass other newspapers, in an industry beset by layoffs.
Adam Green, civic communications director for MoveOn.org Civic Action, said it might be difficult to reverse recent cuts, but said the petitions would warn Tribune Co., based in Chicago, against further reductions.
"The key for us is to get people to recognize that the Tribune's business model is at fundamental odds with a good journalism model," he said. "We want to bring more public attention on these cuts and slow the trend, to bring them more in line with a good journalism model."
Executives at The Times and Chicago Tribune -- the two biggest newspapers owned by Tribune Co. -- said they took the group's campaign as a public acknowledgment of the value of their news-gathering operations.
However, they also said they did not expect the petitions to save jobs, and argued that the papers would continue to deliver strong news content.
"I think it's terrific that people care enough about the paper to do whatever they can to make sure that it has the ability to keep doing great stuff," said Times Editor Dean Baquet.
"I think it means that -- at a time when people are putting papers down and questioning how relevant we are -- a bunch of people are saying, 'We think you are very relevant, and keep doing what you are doing,' " he said.
Scott C. Smith, president of Tribune Publishing, said in a statement that the papers would continue their "important journalistic mission."
He also said the company continued "to invest far more than anyone else in our markets to provide the most comprehensive news coverage in our newspapers and on our websites."
At the Chicago Tribune, which recently reduced its editorial staff of more than 600 by 28, Publisher David Hiller said the reductions were similar to those being made at many other newspapers, including those owned by Knight Ridder Inc. and the New York Times Co.
"The necessity to make these cuts is unfortunate, but it's the reality of the marketplace that we are in," Hiller said. "But it's also our view that we don't have to give up, and won't give up, any ground in terms of the quality and the aggressiveness of our reporting. We are certainly going to try very hard not to."
Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism and a former Los Angeles Times reporter, said that outside support of newsroom operations should be welcome for beleaguered journalists.
"One of the greatest debates in journalism right now is who is there to advocate on behalf of journalism inside of publicly traded corporations, where the fiduciary responsibility focuses on shareholders and earnings," Rosenstiel said.
Organizers of the campaign emphasized that it was being run by MoveOn.org Civic Action, a nonprofit focused on "education and advocacy on important national issues," and not by MoveOn.org's federal political committee, which supports liberals running for office.
However, the campaign to prevent the job cuts at the Tribune newspapers was posted on the MoveOn.org website alongside two other postings -- one asking for contributions for advertisements against the war in Iraq and the other protesting what the group calls President Bush's "Reverse-Robin Hood Budget," which it contends benefits the wealthy over the poor.
But Green said "there could not be a more nonpartisan issue" than supporting quality journalism.
"On any side of political debate," he said, "it can only help if there is strong, watchdog journalism by reporters who ask tough questions and get people the truth."