The media recession claimed another high-profile victim last week with the sudden resignation of Philadelphia Inquirer editor Robert Rosenthal. Bob talks with the former editor about the pressures of the profit margin.
Philadelphia Inquirer Editor Quits
November 17, 2001
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We're back with On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. The media recession has claimed another high profile victim, last summer San Jose News publisher Jay Harris resigned in protest of cost cutting that he said cut into the bone of quality journalism. Now Philadelphia Inquirer editor Robert Rosenthal has left following a simmering conflict with management about costs and editorial strategy that boiled over into irreconcilable differences. He joins us now from Philadelphia. Robert, welcome to On the Media!
ROBERT ROSENTHAL: Thank you very much!
BOB GARFIELD: So just how bad was the profit pressure at the Inquirer?
ROBERT ROSENTHAL: The intensity of the pressure really didn't get very hot until I'd say you know, 15, 18 months ago when the economy went down. When I became editor we actually started sections. I think what happened in the last 15 months is revenue dropped dramatically. Then the issue of, of meeting our commitments in terms of profit really became exacerbated.
BOB GARFIELD:Historically, Gannett has had lots and lots of profitability and lots and lots of pretty good papers. But, excepting USA Today I suppose, no major papers. Knight-Ridder had major papers, important regional papers doing substantial international and national coverage; lots of bureaus and so forth. Can you really have major papers and somehow keep up with the average industry profitability?
ROBERT ROSENTHAL: That's the challenge, and the fact is that we've lost nearly a hundred staffers in a year because of buyouts and attrition, and yet I think some of the papers we put out in the weeks after September 11th were as good as any paper could do in the country. You know, up until now we could sustain it. What happens in the future is a legitimate question that you're raising.
BOB GARFIELD:Well let me play the devil's advocate for a moment. For years under Gene Roberts [sp?] and then under your watch, the Inquirer piled up the Pulitzers, you know, and have won the wide admiration of other journalists, but there were always complaints too, you know, that the paper was a little too big for its britches, like you know what was the Philadelphia Inquirer doing in Africa reporting on the vanishing rhinoceros? Why have such big journalistic aspirations? I mean you poll your readers, I presume. What do your readers tell you? Do they really want a great regional newspaper with broad international coverage or do they, you know, they just want to know if the local high school team won? [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
ROBERT ROSENTHAL: Well I think you know that it would be--there's not a simple answer. I think readers would like everything, and a paper like the Inquirer has a long term reputation for bringing that. I also believe that after September 11th those values may have changed quite a bit, because the definition of local news-- I believe has changed. Obviously news of your neighborhood's important, but a story about a war or an anthrax scare or terrorism touches all of us, no matter where you live, and that becomes something that's relevant.
BOB GARFIELD:Let me ask you one last thing. Let's say 10 years ago, if you have to put together a list of the great American newspapers -- it was a pretty good list! You know there may be 15 newspapers on it. I think the list is a lot shorter now. Is there any future for great regional newspapers in this country or is this current crisis marking the beginning or the middle of the end? [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
ROBERT ROSENTHAL: I think that's a very important question and a crucial one and our role or newspapers' role in, in American democracy is inherent in our Constitution, in our values, and if these things are made tremendously weaker or don't function as well or, or, or fall to demands of other values, it could lead to a real potential crisis in terms of how we make decisions and how our democracy functions.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Well best of luck to you.
ROBERT ROSENTHAL: Thank you very much!
BOB GARFIELD: Robert Rosenthal is the former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
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