Wednesday, August 1, 2007

When Daddy Warbucks buys the paper

I've been described as a veterans newsman. One of the saddest things of which I'm a veteran is happening again in New York.

That, of course, is the taking over of a good newspaper (today, it's the taking over of a great newspaper) by a rich guy.

I don't know Rupert Murdoch, left, who has succeeded in purchasing Dow-Jones & Co., the publisher of the Wall Street Journal, but I know his ilk. I don't think he will be able to keep from meddling, and with a wonderful paper like the Journal, that could be tragic.

Murdoch said he would put money into the business, but I'm not convinced it will be put into the editorial product. I think there will be layoffs.

Layoffs have happened twice to me. Once at the New York Daily News, where I was laid off personally by Robert Maxwell, who had bought that struggling paper from the Tribune Corp., which now owns the Hartford Courant, Stamford Advocate, Greenwich Time and New Haven Advocate in Connecticut.

But the one that affected greater New Haven most was the sale of the New Haven Register by the Jackson family in July, 1986.

I came to work in New Haven because of yet another sale -- that of the Hartford Times to the Jackson Family by Gannett, Inc. The Jacksons took a struggling paper and, due to blunders both by the Jacksons and Gannett, as well as miscalculations, public Jackson family squabbles and with the gleeful help of The Hartford Courant, killed it in 1976, less than two years after they bought it.

After the Times died, some of us were subsumed into what became The Jackson Newspapers -- the New Haven Register and The Journal-Courier. I arrived during one of the darkest chapters in the Jackson dynasty, the attempt to unionize editorial workers by The Newspaper Guild.

A bright spot, ironically, was the Blizzard of 1978. The news staff, led by Don Sharpe and Bill Guthrie, showed they could cover the big story, could have fun while stuck in hotels under bad conditions. It led to great things.

The next year, the union was decertified, Lionel Jackson Sr. gave his son, Lionel Jr., known as Stewart, operating control and the clouds parted, at least for a while. Stewart Jackson poured millions of dollars into the paper, redesigning the Journal-Courier, replacing draconian management practices with modern incentives for greatness, buying new presses and later moving to a former shirt factory and changing it into a modern news environment.

The Journal-Courier staff reacted by kicking editorial butt, carrying home nearly every regional editorial prize available, as well as scoring high in international design competitions. The Journal-Courier became one of the best newspapers of its size anywhere.

Of course, it couldn't last. In 1986, for reasons I still don't understand, the Jacksons put the company on the market and subsequently sold it to a group fronted by Ralph Ingersoll 2nd, son of one of the giants in the newspaper game, for $170 million, a huge sum. The deal was financed mainly through junk bonds, with junk bond king Michael Millken behind the scenes.

Although tall, Ralph wasn't a giant. He took the wind out of everyone's sails and the money out of the company. In the year after the sale, the editorial staffs had been combined, with reporters forced to write stories for both newspapers.

That made for incomplete reports. The reporter was forced to leave a compelling part of the story out of his report and save it to make what editors hoped would seen like a fresh story for the other paper.

In 1987, the charade ended and The Journal-Courier was combined with the Register into a single morning paper, turning the reading habits of the New Haven area on their ear. Circulation dropped. Good people began leaving. The paper went from one of the best to run of the mill at best.

At the same time, one of the most bizarre episodes of my career occurred. By that point, I had become real estate editor and a business reporter because I also wanted to get back on the street, because I wanted to be a reporter again after more than a decade as a desk man.

Our editor and publisher, Tom Geyer, herded us business reporters and editors into a room, where he told us Ingersoll wanted us to do a series on junk bonds. Not any series, mind you, but one that showed junk bonds in a favorable light to use in upcoming appearances before Congress.

We refused. Ingersoll let it be known that he wasn't happy and our jobs were perhaps not as secure as they had been. We refused again, saying we wouldn't softball a story on a strategy that, by that time, had begun to show the cracks that would later become a collapse that would help bury Ingersoll.

Finally, Geyer negotiated a deal by which we would do a single story about junk bonds and let the facts determine the story's slant. We were relieved, but dark clouds were left over our happy little group.

The wheels began to come off the wagon in 1989 when Ingersoll became convinced that St. Louis needed a tabloid newspaper, full of color, scandal and scantily clad women. The St. Louis Sun, was born.

It was to live for about six months at a cost of about $36 million, not counting the cost of the staff Ingersoll stripped from his other papers for the abortive venture. The box a left is mute testimony to its failure.

Shortly after that, Ingersoll lost control of his American newspapers in early July, 1990, eventually to The Journal-Register Co., then of Princeton, N.J., a holding company of E.M. Warburg Pincus & Co.,of New York, which still owns the Register.

Shortly thereafter, the first of a series of layoffs occurred. It was deja vu all over again, as Yogi Berra is supposed to have said.

When the Jacksons bought the Hartford Times, the first person to be laid off was Ed Valtmann, the editorial cartoonist and the only Hartford Times employee ever to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Ingersoll followed the pattern. One of the first to go was Bob Rich, the prize-winning (not Pulitzer, at least not yet) cartoonist who gave the paper one of its bright spots.

I survived the first two layoffs. Neither publisher Geyer nor I survived the third.

It was a Monday, Oct. 15, 1990, and Geyer said he would not agree to a round of 30 layoffs, coming on the heels of a 19-person dismissal. Of the 30, 20 were to be from the newsroom, which was already full of empty desks.

Geyer later said he was told to either do the layoffs or be fired himself. He chose the latter.

The next day, Oct. 16, the 30 of us lost our jobs.

I was on the phone, doing an interview on a story involving a store that sold cloth and buttons.

That was a far cry from the investigative pieces, the prophetic stories of economic downturn, the microscopic examinations of the fall of real estate titans that caused the editor of the Miami Herald to marvel how all these sources were gotten to speak for the record. But since there were so few of us left, everyone did everything.

The tap on the shoulder came in the late morning. Sorry, someone mumbled, but I need to take you to HR, which that day meant human recycling. Sad-faced workers processed those designated. News executives told me I could come back the next day for my belongings -- they didn't want the television news cameras camped by the employee entrance to see people carrying out their lives in a carton.

They also suggested I leave via the back door, so as not to appear on television. I told them I came in the front door, and was going out the same way.

I put on my coat and walked out, head held high, to give a news conference covered by three camera crews. Kevin Hogan of Channel 3 asked me what the headline if the day was.
I said the paper had sliced through the fat and the meat and was now cutting away bone. I said I was more sorry for those left behind than for myself.

I still am.

1 comment:

Thom Guthrie said...

I grew up around the Jackson Newspapers, and this piece made me very nostalgic...until I remembered the Ingersoll part. And the JRC part.
I used to dream of working at the paper, as my father did, until his retirement.
From all I've heard since, I'm glad that never happened.
Thanks for a great essay,
Thom Guthrie