Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Orley Hood and Walter Philbin lugged their laundry bags into the laundromat near the Jitney 14 on Fortification Street. They sorted their clothes, put their coins in the slots and waited for the first wash cycle to begin. Then Philbin pulled out a stack of old Associated Press wire stories he'd been saving.
It was 1971. Hood was 21, finishing his degree in sports information at Belhaven College and working at the Jackson Daily News as a sports reporter. Philbin was a cub reporter at The Clarion-Ledger covering what he could.
As they waited for the spin cycle, Philbin read part of one story out loud to Hood, then stopped and wrote something in the margin.
"How do you think he got that source to say that?" Philbin asked Hood.
"I don't know," Hood said. He then offered a couple of theories.
The young men put their clothes in the dryer, then deconstructed the story, trying to figure how to be great. The conversation turned to journalism and their future in it.
Philbin left Jackson a couple of years later and became a crime reporter for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. He stayed with that job until he retired this summer. He developed a reputation over the years for wearing a certain hat to crime scenes. Younger reporters referred to him as "Columbo."
After his year at the Jackson Daily News, Hood got a dream job when The Commerical Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., hired him. He had grown up believing The Commercial Appeal was the best newspaper in the South. Getting that job made his family proud and his daddy cry, Hood said.
In 1976, Hood returned to the Jackson Daily News and The Clarion-Ledger and stayed 32 years as a loyal newspaperman. From 1983 to 2008, he was the preeminent columnist at The Clarion-Ledger, a popular local personality who won awards and developed a strong following. Then, on Dec. 3, 2008, The Clarion-Ledger laid him off.
'Black Day of Tragedy'
The Clarion-Ledger has a complicated past. As its hyphenated name indicates, today's publication is the merger of several papers. It was already a hybrid in 1920 when brothers Thomas and Robert Hederman bought The Daily Clarion-Ledger from their cousins.
During the Great Depression, the Hedermans made a deal with the competing Jackson Daily News, and in 1937, the two newspapers incorporated as Mississippi Publishers Corp. to sell joint advertising. In 1954, the Jackson Daily News sold out to The Clarion-Ledger for $2.25 million. The New York Times reported the deal happened despite a court ruling that blocked the Hederman family from controlling both papers. Time magazine wrote in November 1954 that the Hedermans were buying up Jackson Daily News stock. When Fred Sullens and other owners of the Jackson Daily News found out, they tried to block a buyout in court. The judge sided with them, but the expense of a legal fight forced a sale.
"The News' editor, Frederick Sullens, and its business manager, Walter Johnson, told employees they had sold out under pressure of heavy losses of television station WJTV, owned jointly by the papers, and high court costs of a bitter legal battle that began a year ago," The New York Times reported. Fred Sullens stayed on as editor of the Jackson Daily News.
From 1954 until 1982, the Hedermans owned both newspapers in town, the Jackson Daily News, the "afternoon paper," and The Clarion-Ledger, the "morning paper." Since at least the 1940s, The Clarion-Ledger has marketed itself as a statewide paper.
The older Hedermans left a mark for publishing newspapers that openly promoted white supremacy, even as white residents considered it an important community news organ.
"In a very racist state, they were the standouts," said Hodding Carter III, who worked with his father Hodding Jr., owner of the Delta Democrat-Times, in Greenville during the 1950s and 1960s. "The Clarion-Ledger was not a newspaper. It was an organ for the white segregationist establishment."
In 1957, The Clarion-Ledger publicly identified blacks with connections to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, considered by segregationists to be a group of communist "agitators." Printing those names endangered the safety of many Mississippi residents.
Julius E. Thompson, in "Percy Greene and the Jackson Advocate" (McFarland and Co., 1994), identified the leading white Mississippi press segregationists of the decade as Bob Hederman Jr. and Tom Hederman Jr. of The Clarion-Ledger/Jackson Daily News; Fred Sullens, editor of the Jackson Daily News; and James M. Ward, who succeeded Sullens as Daily News editor in 1957.
The newspaper family loudly supported the Citizens' Council, a group of white businessmen and leaders founded in 1953 to maintain segregation, especially in schools. Both The Clarion-Ledger and the Jackson Daily News reported on meetings of the Citizens' Council and gave the organization free advertising. When the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that black and white children should attend the same schools, an editorial in the May 18, 1954, Clarion-Ledger called it "a black day of tragedy for the South, and for both races."
Orley Hood, meanwhile, was growing up in Vicksburg enamored with the treasures inside his daily newspapers. Every day when he was 6, he stood at the end of his driveway and waited for the delivery guy to throw a rolled-up paper at his house. The little boy learned to read in 1956, studying the Yankees' box scores in the sports section of the paper. When he was a couple of years older, he went to the public library after school got out at 2:30 p.m. to wait for his dad to get off work from his job with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Young Orley read newspapers from New York City before heading home with his dad. "You had to fight for information," Hood said.
Over in Jackson, though, the Hedermans were not interested in a free flow of information. The publishers often worked hand-in-hand with the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, an official part of state government that spied on Mississippi residents and others who supported integration in any way. The commission kept extensive files that included "intelligence reports" on "race mixing invaders" and "racial zealots," as well as letters and memos from commission leaders showing that they could and did ask "Bob" (the publisher) and "Tom" (the editor) to publish or not publish information that the white establishment believed would help or hurt their cause.
In 1954, the day after the Supreme Court handed down Brown v. Board, an editorial on the front page of the Jackson Daily News declared "Bloodstains on White Marble Steps." Editor Fred Sullens wrote: "Human blood may stain Southern soil in many places because of this decision, but the dark red stains of that blood will be on the marble steps of the United States Supreme Court building."
When Gov. Ross Barnett took a public stand in 1962 against James Meredith, the first black student admitted to the University of Mississippi, The Clarion-Ledger called the governor "courageous" and ran front-page editorials heralding him. The paper editorialized against the newly passed Civil Rights Act of 1964, warning it would hurt business and cause a spike in crime. The same year, the Jackson Daily News referred to Martin Luther King Jr. as "the Reverend Dr. Extremist Agitator Martin Luther King junior."
Daily News editor Jimmy Ward often wrote against desegregating schools. "As the event came to pass, this city becomes a little bit pregnant with integration but the condition came about not voluntarily but with Federalized rape," he wrote in 1964.
One of The Clarion-Ledger's most famous headlines announced that authorities had arrested Byron de la Beckwith for the murder of Medgar Evers. Beckwith, a 43-year-old Greenwood resident at the time and a Citizens' Council member, was born in California and lived there until he was 5; The Clarion-Ledger's headline was "Californian Is Charged With Evers Murder."
Dudley Lehew, an Associated Press reporter who wrote the story, was shocked when he saw the headline the next morning.
"My God, I didn't even know (Beckwith) was from California," Lehew said in a phone interview from his home in Denham Springs, La. He's retired now, but from 1962 to 1964, Lehew worked for the AP as a Jackson-based reporter. He said that, in those days, the two papers relied on AP to cover civil-rights news, so their staffs didn't have to get involved.
"It was a strange situation," he said.
"The best-kept secret in Jackson was that the Jackson Daily News also had an editor who would stay late and put a Negro News page together," Lehew said without identifying the editor. A skeleton crew would quietly print the special section delivered only to African Americans and kept away from white eyes. It was done to generate advertising revenue.
Rea of Sunshine
The Clarion-Ledger's racism started to cool down into the 1970s as state-enforced segregation began to crumble. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed, and the U.S. Supreme Court forced schools to integrate in 1970. Gradually, at a snail's pace, attitudes began to shift.
Then, something unexpected happened. The third generation of Hedermans took charge of the newspapers. One of them—Rea Hederman—had studied journalism at University of Missouri, one of the best journalism schools in the nation. He came back to Jackson to run The Clarion-Ledger in 1973.
Rea Hederman hired journalists from the best schools and implemented new professional practices. He motivated his newsroom to be great. The Clarion-Ledger hired African Americans as professionals and increased its coverage of the black community, including historic wrongs.
Hood recalls those golden years under Rea Hederman in the late 1970s and early 1980s. "The Clarion-Ledger had several people on an investigative unit," he said. "If you didn't see them around for a couple of weeks, you knew someone was in big trouble."
During those years, journalist Curtis Wilkie met Rea Hederman. He writes about it in his 2002 book "Dixie: A Personal Odyssey Through Events That Shaped the Modern South." He wanted to ask Rea Hederman how he revolutionized The Clarion-Ledger. "But the subject seemed awkward because any praise of Rea's work implied disapproval of his father, Bob Hederman, and other members of the family," Wilkie wrote.
Bill Minor, political columnist and long-time Mississippi journalist, told PBS NewHour in 2002 about the evolution of The Clarion-Ledger from a mouthpiece of a racist system to a respectable news outlet. Minor credited Rea Hederman. While the paper's editorial policy in the 1970s wasn't aggressively racist anymore, Minor said it was "bland" until Rea Hederman got rid of the separate "colored news" section and started covering the black community.
"He was the first Hederman to actually write. The others never wrote a line," Minor told the Jackson Free Press for this story. "He revolutionized the coverage. They didn't know what they had turned loose."
Minor wrote for The Times-Picayune from 1947 until the 1970s when he began editing and publishing The Capital Reporter, an alternative newspaper in Jackson competing with The Clarion-Ledger. His focus shifted more toward investigative reporting.
Hodding Carter III, who was assistant secretary of state for public affairs in President Jimmy Carter's administration and now teaches journalism at the University of North Carolina, said he would come home to Mississippi during the late 1970s, read The Clarion-Ledger, and its quality journalism knocked him out. Carter saw Rea Hederman as the wayward son returned home to repudiate the entire family record.
Carter told the JFP that the Hederman family couldn't stand the coverage of all the wrongs the paper had either ignored or supported for the two previous generations. He said the family jerked the paper away from the golden boy, then sold its cash cow for a big payday—selling both dailies to Gannett, as well as the Hederman-owned Hattiesburg American, in 1982. Rea Hederman moved north, bought The New York Review of Books in 1984 and became publisher of that prestigious periodical, a position he still holds today.
Bill Minor says it's more complicated, though. Rea Hederman, who was then married, had an affair with a style editor and photographer at the paper, whom he later married. This upset the Hederman family.
"The Hedermans were pious, amen-pewed Baptists," Minor told the JFP. They couldn't deal with the shame of a divorce. Minor said that's ultimately why Rea Hederman left town with his share of the Gannett sale and bought The New York Review of Books.
Carter doubts it was that simple—he suggests the family ran him off because of his hard, honest look at Mississippi.
"The story of the Hederman family and The Clarion-Ledger newspaper should have been written by Faulkner," Kathy Lally wrote in 1997 in The Baltimore Sun. "It is a tale of a man burdened by ancestry. Familial loyalty and duty are stained by revulsion toward the past. The corrosive effects of racism are deeply felt, the scent of decay is strong."
Lally's article says after Rea Hederman told his family in 1981 that he was getting a divorce, the family couldn't work together anymore. Bill Minor told the JFP that there wasn't another young Hederman poised to run the newspaper. The family sold out to Gannett. In 1982, the year USA Today began, Gannett bought the Hedermans' regional publishing company in Mississippi for $110 million.
One evening earlier this month, a New York Review of Books staff member put a JFP phone call through to Rea Hederman. He was still at the office working on his latest issue and wasn't expecting a request to talk about the paper he remade all those years ago.
He sighed heavily.
"I haven't talked about The Clarion-Ledger in years," he said. He needed to think about what he might say. He hasn't called back.
The High Point
Almost every reporter and editor watched Charles Overby carry a case of Champagne into the newsroom. It was Monday, April 18, 1983, the day the Pulitzer Prize committee was set to announce winners. Overby, the executive editor of The Clarion-Ledger at the time, knew its nominated series on education reform had a shot at winning the biggest award in print journalism. It was still early in the day.
"Do you know?" a reporter asked him.
"I don't know," Overby said. "I just know it deserves to win."
"Will we drink it if we don't win?"
"We'll have to wait," Overby told them.
They didn't have to wait too long. At 2:30 p.m., Overby popped the cork on the first bottle to celebrate the win. The party in the newsroom continued all the way into the night and traveled to George Street Grocery.
"It was great," Overby told the JFP. "But what was important was that education reform passed. We didn't have any idea about entering (the Pulitzer competition) when we started."
Gannett Co. Inc. had bought The Clarion-Ledger in April 1982, just one year earlier, and made Overby its editor.
The news staff, many recruited under Rea Hederman, continued coverage supporting then-Gov. William Winter's push to lift Mississippi's public education system out of its separate-but-unequal status—which the paper itself had helped keep in place not so many years before.
The paper reported what Overby calls the "shenanigans" of the Legislature in its special session in December 1982, when members opposing kindergarten and other basics, such as required science classes in high school. Overby wrote an editorial placing, by name, specific legislators in the "Hall of Shame." The series of stories and editorials won The Clarion-Ledger the 1983 Pulitzer for Public Service, one of the highest honors any U.S. paper could nab.
Overby, 65, grew up in Jackson. When he was a boy, he delivered The Clarion-Ledger to homes. He wrote for the Jackson Daily News in the 1960s when he was in high school and in college. He studied journalism at Ole Miss, where a $5 million grant from the Freedom Forum created the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics in 2007.
After he left Ole Miss in 1968, Overby went to Washington to work for Sen. John Stennis of Mississippi. Later, he was Washington correspondent for the Nashville Banner. When Gannett bought the Nashville Banner, Overby met Gannett owner Al Neuharth. By 1989, Overby became president and CEO of the Gannett Foundation, later called the Freedom Forum. In 1991, Overby became chairman of the Freedom Forum. He still holds these titles today as well as CEO of the Newseum, Gannett's interactive news museum that opened in 2008 in Washington, D.C.
The highlight of Overby's career, though, was winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1983 and popping that cork. If it's the only thing ever mentioned in his obituary, he'd be pleased, he told the JFP. It wasn't just a high point in his career, it was The Clarion-Ledger's best moment. After decades of racist action and inaction, the newspaper had climbed to a moral high ground and journalistic excellence.
'We Had So Much Fun'
In 1976, Hood returned to Jackson to work at The Clarion-Ledger and the Jackson Daily News. He was sports editor of the Jackson Daily News from 1978 to 1983. "In sports, we had so much fun. We would come in (the newsroom) our days off just to hang around," Hood said. "Writing 800 words on deadline at a night football game ... in 30 minutes—there's nothing like it."
The peak of the golden period was 1983, the year the Pulitzer came to Jackson. During those heady days, Hood attended a national Associated Press gathering. The Washington Post sports editor acknowledged that other newspapers did a better job than his, referring to St. Petersburg, Fla., and Jackson, Miss., as two cities with top-notch daily newspapers.
In 1983, The Natchez Democrat wanted a guest columnist to write about the city's annual pilgrimage events. They asked for Hood. Charles Overby, editor at the time, thought writing a column was a great idea for Hood.
"It won awards," Hood said. After that, he started writing a regular column "Charles didn't have to ask permission (to make me a columnist)," Hood said.
Hood's column was positive, human and folksy. He wrote about everyday heroes, people who overcame the odds and the little triumphs that made his fans smile. He often wrote about his family with humor and sentiment. When his Aunt Kitty died, he wrote a column in 2008 about going to the funeral and expecting to see a coffin.
"Aunt Kitty had gone and gotten herself cremated," he wrote.
The Era of Big Brother
Frank Gannett and partners bought the Elmira Gazette, a New York newspaper, in 1906. He started buying up local papers and merging them to increase advertising revenue. By 1923, he bought out his partners and founded Gannett Co. Inc. His new company started looking regionally for more newspapers to acquire in the northeast.
Gannett died in 1957, but the company thrived. It started its own wire service, Gannett News Service. It started a new statewide paper in Florida in 1966 with no pretense of covering local news. Florida Today was the prototype for USA Today, which launched in 1982, with its short, punchy, often superficial news coverage. Gannett Co. Inc. went public in 1967 with investors expecting big profits.
In the 1970s, Gannett took a bold step forward as a corporation. The New York-based publishing company pushed to become a national media conglomerate by buying up other regional publishing companies. It increased its number of television stations, too.
Its next big thing was starting USA Today in 1982, a national newspaper with lots of color, graphics and shorter news items. Critics called it "McNews." But many of those same news outlets began copying the use of graphics and short tidbits in a pre-Twitter universe.
USA Today didn't make an annual profit in its first 10 years. Gannett continued to invest in it, inflating its circulation numbers by giving away the newspaper at hotels, counting each room as a subscriber, a criticism the company has faced over the years and most recently reported in Forbes.
It got lots of big advertising deals and did post some profitable quarters, but it was the 86 regional newspapers that carried the financial load.
In 1982, the bold, brash media company bought The Clarion-Ledger, Jackson Daily News and The Hattiesburg American. (The Daily News merged completely with The Clarion-Ledger and ceased printing in 1989.) Gannett implemented policies that encouraged women and minorities to take management positions in the newsroom and in all aspects of the publishing business.
"Those were Gannett's goals, but those goals were more universally shared. We had an egalitarian staff under Rea Hederman," Hood recalls. Rea Hederman not only brought in talented journalists from good schools—he wanted a diverse staff.
The trend in journalism schools post-Watergate and 1960s race strife was teaching diversity in coverage and hiring as a best practice in the newspaper industry.
After Gannett bought The Clarion-Ledger, the staff was upbeat at first. "For a year or two, they were still great. Some good things happened. Salaries went up," Hood said. "Then every year, we'd lose a person here and there." Those people weren't replaced.
Gannett Co., now based in Tyson's Corner, Va., became a public company in 1967. Its mission is, first and foremost, is to keep stock prices high. Employees are an expense that can get in the way of high profit margins.
Sometime in the 1980s, after Gannett bought The Clarion-Ledger, motivational posters went up around the building. Hood remembers one labeled "Creativity." He and others who worked at The Clarion-Ledger and The Hattiesburg American at the time describe the numerous posters as "creepy" in a Big-Brother-is-watching-you kind of way.
In the 1990s, Gannett went after larger acquisitions, such as South Carolina-based Multimedia Inc., which came with cable TV subscribers. Although Gannett would sell Multimedia by 1999, the corporation continued other aggressive acquisitions including NewsQuest in the United Kingdom. Gannett now had an international empire.
Then, the Fall
Hood, who admires many people who still work at The Clarion-Ledger, doesn't think the Gannett newspaper is great any more. "It hasn't been for a long time," Hood said. "It wasn't that long ago The Clarion-Ledger controlled more than 50 percent of advertising in the whole area—that's including TV and radio. It wasn't that long ago you could buy The Clarion-Ledger in 79 out of 82 counties."
He thinks it started going downhill about 1990, soon after Gannett closed the Daily News, when the focus on good daily journalism started to wane. "A critical factor—even more than cutting positions—is this: Corporate sent a lot of people here who were inept. They sent publishers who didn't understand the newsroom. One time, we had a publisher submit a budget to corporate that was so thin, they sent it back because the budget didn't leave room to actually print the paper."
Over the years—especially since the early 1990s—Gannett sent publishers and editors to Jackson who seemed to give scant thought to the quality of the product, Hood said. Since 2003, The Clarion-Ledger has had five publishers. "This happened at a lot of levels for a lot of years," he said. "You got a lot of people running newspapers who aren't newspaper people. We had a managing editor one time who told me he had never read a book in his entire life. And Gannett sent this guy here."
He didn't name the editor who had never read a book.
"There are economic forces, obviously. This is not a good time for newspapers. But bad decisions by Gannett exacerbated (the present situation)," he said. Examples Hood gives include promoting the wrong people and then not nurturing or training those same people to do their jobs well.
After daily planning meetings where editors discussed the status of stories going to press, Hood would walk out and just stare at a friend who had sat through the same session.
"I don't know what's going in the paper," he would say. Neither did the other guy.
Hood found himself in meetings that didn't have anything to do with stories going in the newspaper. Gannett had different national efforts and committees that changed all the time, sometimes contradicting each other. One effort Hood recalls well is Advance.
Advance was an early 1990s promotion Gannett execs thought up to sell advertising. These special sections to the paper—heavy with ads—would require everyone's hard work, including the editorial staff. Hood headed the committee on medicine. "I was supposed to come up with ideas of increasing our revenue with medicine," he said.
This was despite the fact that Gannett newsrooms supposedly follow the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics policy that calls for news and features not to be disguised as advertising, stories not to be given away because someone advertises and for news staff to remain uninvolved in pursuing revenue. In the journalism business, it's called "the wall between church and state"—the publisher runs the advertising side, and the editor oversees editorial independent of advertising influence. Ads and purchased "advertorial" should always be clearly separate from editorial in order to earn public trust.
Still, Hood worked hard at the project, compiling data and making pie charts. He learned odd tidbits like University of Mississippi Medical Center had the largest laundry in the state and the fifth largest police force. He talked to cardiologists and took notes. He and his committee met on Saturday mornings in each others' houses, essentially on their own time. They turned their report in on time.
The executives above Hood started a separate section, but it showed little resemblance to what the committee suggested. "It wasn't a real editorial product," Hood said. The contacts he had in the medical field, such as the public relations directors at area hospitals, told him they were not impressed. "We'll advertise in anything serious," they told him.
"They weren't interested in the weak, advertorial separate section," Hood said. "It lasted about a year and went away."
The company had gotten so big, Hood said, it was improbable for people at corporate headquarters to make responsible decisions. Managers and executives constantly demanded to know why the newspaper didn't have certain kinds of stories. When the workers explained the limitations of deadlines, budgets and realities of only 24 hours in each day, it seemed to fall on deaf ears. If the subjects of stories didn't like what a reporter wrote, they called the publisher to gripe, instead of the editor. Enterprise journalism suffered from the fear of potentially upsetting advertisers and prominent readers.
"If someone complained, you had to march down to the publisher's office or the editor's office," Hood said. "We wanted to ask, 'Are you ever going to stand up for us?'"
Starting in the early 1990s, Gannett introduced policies on how editors and reporters should write the news. Some of it was sound advice with good ideas. An example was "mainstreaming" stories, which meant including a person of color in every story possible.
"That was a good thing. It was a good idea, but often poorly executed," Hood said. Inexperienced reporters would call a minority source and tack one quote at the end of a story, even if it was weak, to make sure they met a quota. Reporters had to track how many stories they mainstreamed, how many minority contacts they made and how many times they slapped in the required quotes.
Sometimes they had relevance and context. Other times, they came off as disjointed comments—an empty effort to be diverse.
Also in the 1990s, Gannett rolled out News 2000. The idea was to help newspapers prepare for the technological changes everyone knew were coming someday, although no one knew exactly what those changes were. Part of the program was a formula of eight items. Reporters wrote stories as if they were factory orders. Editors required reporters to identify each of the eight elements in each story. The paperwork could sometimes take longer than writing the story.
Hood remembers that when a corporate executive visited The Clarion-Ledger a few years ago to talk about the company's initiatives and future plans, one of the reporters challenged him. "The next week, they tried to get him fired," Hood said.
Another time, a few guys from the news department were in the break room when the managing editor came in to get a cup of coffee. One of them started talking to him about operation changes and rumors. The managing editor didn't say a word but started beating a vending machine in response.
The Empire Strikes Back
Gannett is known for trying out unfair practices to eliminate competition. For one, the company has drawn criticism for allowing salespeople to undercut small, local publications by constantly offering lower ad rates—a controversial practice in the advertising business that violates antitrust laws in some states. The mammoth company could absorb this expense in efforts to eliminate competition.
In his 1996 book "The Chain Gang," Richard McCord recounts his experiences with Gannett aggressively targeting small community publications for elimination. He cites unfair practices at a Gannett daily newspaper in Salem, Ore., that essentially shut down a local publication. McCord found court testimony from advertisers who said Gannett representatives threatened to not do business with them unless they exclusively advertised with the Gannett paper.
McCord also details similar schemes in New Mexico and Wisconsin where Gannett made secret deals with advertisers and circulation departments wrote fraudulent reports and told staffers the competition would be gone in 12 months, McCord reported.
One of many examples McCord refers to is Hartford (Conn.) Times managers creating a fake firm in 1971 to conduct marketing surveys. The Times would pay the fake company $142,000 for its "services" never performed, then later reclassify the money as payments for subscriptions. Doing that increased the circulation of the Times from 105,000 readers to 113,000 readers. The paper then used the inflated circulation to sell more advertising and undercut the competition.
A judge found Gannett guilty of fraud, but only ordered $1 million in restitution, although the Hartford Times lost $17 million in Gannett's campaign to destroy it.
McCord includes in his book an excerpt from a 1988 article printed in the Mississippi Journal of Business. Rebecca Pittman wrote "The Gannettization of the Daily Press in Mississippi (Or How a Parent Company Milks a 'Local Cash Cow')."
Pittman described the executive editor of The Clarion-Ledger, John Johnson, going on a radio show at WJNT and getting bombarded with complaints about the paper. Pittman listed her own complaints with the Gannett paper, including less actual news, fewer pages and a growing resemblance to USA Today, Gannett's flagship newspaper. Despite the limited space for news, Pittman marveled at the space allowed for animal stories.
"In the past year, Jackson readers have been served up page-one pieces on such matters as deer residing at the city pound, an Ocean Springs couple who annoyed neighbors by keeping ducks, and a four-legged chicken in Pearl," Pittman wrote. She said The Clarion-Ledger and the Jackson Daily News had a reputation for raking in the advertising dollars ever since the Hederman days, making it a cash cow for Gannett.
Pittman, who now works as an investigator with the Hinds County Sheriff's Office, noted the contrast from Rea Hederman's newspaper and The Clarion-Ledger under Gannett since 1983. "Look at a front page from 1980. It looks like The New York Times," she told the Jackson Free Press.
"The newshole, the type of coverage, the investigative stories—it was incredible."
She said she doesn't read The Clarion-Ledger anymore and doesn't know who does.
Just Another FTE
Gannett and other corporate media companies have pushed the bottom line over community journalism, even when the companies are profitable and could afford journalistic investment. Because they're traded publicly, though, higher profit margins mean higher stock value. In recent years, that's meant laying off full-time journalists in newsrooms as well as other full-time employees. Gannett managers call them "full-time equivalents," or FTEs.
"FTEs—(the managers) used to talk about them like they are brooms in the closet, like they are all the same," Hood said.
Even though he had won awards and had a loyal readership, Hood was just another FTE. He was laid off in 2008 with 32 others a couple of weeks before Christmas.
"I didn't see it coming," he said. "We had two new reporters in the newsroom who just moved to Jackson and were newlyweds. I was worried they would get laid off."
Hood was working at home in his upstairs office that Wednesday morning. About 9 a.m., the phone rang. The office manager, who worked for Executive Editor Ronnie Agnew, was calling. "Ronnie wants you to come in as soon as possible," she said. Hood knew immediately what was happening.
"I'm gone, huh?" he said. "I've got to finish this column first."
He hung up and finished the column for Sunday's paper, sent it in as he said he would and then got ready to drive to the paper. In his car on the way to the office, he got another call from the office manager.
"Ronnie wants you in here right now," she said.
When Hood got to the newsroom, he went to Agnew's office, but the editor was walking out. "I've got to get coffee first," Hood said Agnew told him. Hood stood outside the door with all the eyes of the newsroom on him. Everyone knew. He waited for Agnew to return.
"I was standing there like a bump on a log," he said. "It pissed me off."
When Agnew came back, they went over the paperwork, had a witness present and talked about final paychecks. Agnew even gave Hood a reason for the layoff. "I was told I made too much money," Hood said.
"Hey, have I ever asked you for a raise?" he said he responded. The conversation fell flat, and the paperwork was done. Hood's 32-year career at The Clarion-Ledger was over.
Archie Manning called Hood at home the next day. "What happened?" the famed quarterback asked.
"They said I made too much money," Hood said.
There was a long pause. "No, really, what was the real reason?" Manning insisted.
Hood said he's more upset that other journalists were laid off then and at other times. "They were far better newspaper people than those guys laying them off," he said. "Sure, I'm bitter. I'm still bitter. I gave the best of my professional life to The Clarion-Ledger."
His friends in advertising told him that, after he left, businesses dropped ads and readers stopped subscriptions. He heard something similar happened when editorial cartoonist Marshall Ramsey's position was slashed to part-time status. "I hate what happened to people who got laid off. They laid off some real quality people. It's not just salaries. It's no way to run a railroad."
Although Gannett has laid off thousands of employees in recent years, the business itself is not failing. Historically, Gannett has maintained double-digit profit margins. In 2008, Gannett's profit margin was 25 percent while other media companies, such as The New York Times, hovered under 10 percent. Still, despite its overall profits, Gannett newspapers have suffered losses in subscriptions and advertisements just like other newspapers.
The transition from cash cow to endangered species happened, in part, with the transition from print to online. People could post classified ads for free on services like Craigslist. They could find news and alternatives to the local daily within seconds. This new reality slowly chipped away at subscriptions and advertising revenue, even as daily newspapers had moved much of their focus away from the in-depth and local journalism that help make readers loyal. Although newspapers had a presence online, they hadn't figured out in time how to make money being there.
Corporate newspapers have laid off thousands of journalists since 2007, leaving many newspapers, including The Clarion-Ledger, a shell of its former self.
Some historic publications ceased to exist or became online-only news outlets. Gannett is focused on making its online presence dominant while letting the quality of its print products slip. Without experienced and passionate writers and editors, websites tend to have short stories that are amended with mostly uncensored and often vitriolic and racist comments from anonymous posters.
MomsLikeMe, a Gannett newspaper site, paid people to post at many newspapers. The Hattiesburg American in 2008 paid four women who were not journalists $100 each a month to post comments on its MomsLikeMe site, pretending to be casual participants.
This writer, who worked as an editor and reporter at The Hattiesburg American from 2007 to 2009, was told in late 2008 to interact with the paid posters online and pretend to have spontaneous online conversations.
One of the ironies of the Gannett push for online news is that an independent online blog reports on the corporation from several angles and uses the crowdsourcing of thousands of former and current Gannett employees, often anonymously.
Jim Hopkins, a former business editor for USA Today, started GannettBlog in 2007, after he took a buyout from the company. During early December 2008, when Gannett laid off more 3,000 employees—the same time Orley Hood was laid off—thousands of "Gannettoids" relied on Hopkins' blog to find out the truth by comparing memos, anecdotes and numbers from across the nation.
"Gannett Reporters Cover Their Own Layoffs," observed Poynter.org, the website of Florida-based Poynter Institute, a respected journalism think tank.
The Clarion-Ledger has laid off at least 30 percent of its staff in the last several years, and that does not include positions that weren't filled after employees resigned. But even as Gannett laid off more staff, its executives continued to cash in huge bonuses for making the stockholders a profit. Gannett paid its president, Craig Dubow, $9.4 million last year.
The industry continues to suffer during the present recession. Traditional newspaper companies didn't do too well in the first half of 2011, The Wall Street Journal reported Aug. 21. Its analysis predicted more job cuts are coming, similar to the huge layoffs in publishing of two years ago.
Steadily, every year, The Clarion-Ledger has lost staffers to layoffs and resignations, with a number showing up in local public-relations jobs, including for the governor. Gannett laid off 700 people this June—10 at The Clarion-Ledger.
The Wall Street Journal also reported that at the end of last year, Gannett had about 32,600 employees, down from 49,675 employees at the end of 2006.
It's not just the work force that's getting smaller. Circulation has dropped dramatically in recent years.
In 1991, the paper enjoyed a 107,787 statewide circulation; by 2001, it had dropped to 101,866; this year, the Audit Bureau of Circulation indicates 62,248 circulation, averaging daily and Sunday readership—a number that now includes the paper's online readers as well due to a recent ABC rule change.
In 2006, The Clarion-Ledger admitted to the city, during a controversy over legal notices, that it had "about 22,000" circulation inside the city limits of Jackson.
Gannett papers, including The Clarion-Ledger, also changed to a narrower cut of paper and reduced the number of pages. Next to employees, newsprint has been a huge expense for newspapers that can fluctuate year to year. As the staff and the actual paper get thinner, not much is left to cut.
"It's just a thin throwaway," Bill Minor said. "They to have to fill it up with boilerplate from USA Today."
Gannett has long made a big deal about mandating diversity in its staffing and in its coverage, and each newsroom has the spreadsheets to prove it. In 2002, Ronnie Agnew became the first African American executive editor of The Clarion-Ledger. It was a historic move, considering the paper's past.
"Agnew wants the Gannett-owned paper to help readers understand changes under way in Jackson—which has experienced major demographic and economic shifts as more people move to the suburbs—while being a leader on statewide issues," the American Journalism Review wrote in 2002.
Even so, The Clarion-Ledger bought a freely distributed publication called VIP Jackson in 2006 that runs glossy photographs of partygoers at society functions and fundraisers. Although Gannett claims to be strict about diversity and mainstreaming, VIP Jackson is consistently a publication predominately about whites even as crime stories in the statewide Clarion-Ledger are mostly about blacks in Jackson.
The 2010 U.S. Census reports 79 percent of people living in Jackson are African American. The magazine name includes Jackson, and its website states that its free distribution is to "affluent neighborhoods throughout the Metro." The site also shows that VIP only goes to northeast and downtown Jackson, as well as the suburbs, and not to wealthier black neighborhoods such as those in northwest Jackson.
Donna Ladd, editor in chief of the Jackson Free Press, wrote an award-winning editor's note in 2010 about the lack of diversity in VIP Jackson's stories, party pictures and ads, despite Gannett's public promise to mandate diversity throughout its publications. Richard Prince, who writes about media diversity on his Journal-isms blog for the Maynard Institute, wrote about the column, drawing a response from Agnew, a Madison resident who at the time was also the diversity chairman of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
The Clarion-Ledger's first African American executive editor wrote to Prince that he wasn't responsible for the content in VIP Jackson, which he indicated is yet another Gannett advertorial product.
"The magazine is an advertising publication and is totally separate from the newsroom," Agnew told Prince.
The Clarion-Ledger management tends to play to the suburbs and is known for sensationalizing crime in the city of Jackson, such as lifting dangerous "rankings" such as those published by Morgan Quitno (later called CQ Press) out of necessary context. Even the FBI warned that those rankings compiled to sell books are not reliable—but that hasn't stopped the paper from making the rankings front-page and editorial fodder, especially when they seemed especially bad. The paper did not bother to explain the larger context of the rankings or how they were assembled, just using them for easy headlines.
The Clarion-Ledger also led the way in 2005 in complaining about former JPD Chief Robert Moore supposedly saying that Jackson crime is only a "perception"—which he did not actually say. He had spoken to a press briefing, which the JFP attended, about the media creating "perceptions" that crime was out of control, a valid criminal-justice concern. The Clarion-Ledger and others used the "perception" meme as a way to bolster support for Frank Melton, whom the paper endorsed for mayor in 2005.
The newspaper and some of its editors had a long, cozy relationship with Frank Melton—which fully emerged in court depositions after he took office. The Jackson Free Press learned and reported that The Clarion-Ledger was included in a lawsuit by Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics agents against Melton for defamation (accusing him of feeding false information to Clarion-Ledger editors) prior to his election—a fact the paper never disclosed during his campaign, in its endorsement of him or prior to the JFP report.
Then, in 2005, Clarion-Ledger journalists told the JFP that the metro desk there heard about Melton's notorious attack on a duplex, but weren't allowed to report it. They reported it after the JFP broke the story, which later became the basis of state and federal indictments against Melton.
Agnew left The Clarion-Ledger in August to become the executive director of Mississippi Public Broadcasting.
"I'll tell you anything you want to know about Gannett," Agnew said in his new office at MPB in an interview for a JFP "Jacksonian" profile (see this week's Jacksonian). Agnew said Gannett was a great company that gave him many opportunities. When he left, he said, the head of the newspaper division sent him a letter welcoming him back anytime.
Agnew is aware of general criticisms, but didn't want to talk about any negative aspects of Gannett or his time at The Clarion-Ledger. "People remember bad news. We did a lot of good news—kids doing well in the classroom, people winning awards," he said. "We did what a paper should do, which is to shed a light on wrongdoing."
As far as laying people off and other decisions, Agnew didn't want to go into details.
"Until you sit in that seat, you don't know the pressures," he said.
Shrinking, Lazy Coverage
Former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz thinks The Clarion-Ledger sensationalized its coverage of his 2003 bribery indictment, of which he was later acquitted.
"I don't know that it was personal, but it wasn't balanced," he told the JFP.
Diaz stresses that he doesn't think anyone at the newspaper had it in for him. He just thinks lazy reporting led to press releases from U.S. Attorney Dunn Lampton's office running as news stories.
"They would run with that as a story instead of investigating it. They would run anything out of the U.S. attorney's office," Diaz said this month.
Diaz said he told reporters at The Clarion-Ledger they had their facts wrong, but nothing ever showed up about that in the paper. Diaz gives the example of paying rent for his apartment. In his indictment, one of the accusations listed was that Diaz lived in an apartment rent-free that lawyer Paul Minor (son of Bill Minor) owned.
"Not true," Diaz said. He paid rent and has the cancelled checks to prove it. "The U.S. attorney dropped that from the indictment. But it still shows up in press reports that I was living in the apartment rent-free."
His impression of the coverage was that each new story was set up to present facts as The Clarion-Ledger saw them, then merely recap what was reported before.
Diaz said it seemed two-thirds of a story would be a recap, often including earlier inaccurate information.
Despite Diaz's experience, he continued for a while to get the daily newspaper and read it. "The Clarion-Ledger used to be the paper of record with great investigative journalists. It seems there are no investigative journalists left there anymore except Jerry Mitchell," he said. Mitchell wrote many stories about the Diaz indictment and is known for using unnamed official sources as a basis for his stories.
The former justice then began to notice he wasn't finding much to read in the daily paper any more, though.
"I cancelled my subscription this year," Diaz said.
The Clarion-Ledger, and many in the community, are proud of Mitchell's well-known past reporting of civil-rights cold cases—which has helped the paper atone for its own racist past and send Klansmen to prison.
But Mitchell's coverage on issues such as tort reform perhaps laid the groundwork for state policy based on incomplete information. The Clarion-Ledger took a strong stance in the early 2000s promoting tort reform, and its news reporting was routinely slanted against what it called "jackpot justice" (a favorite label of the tort-reform lobby) in news coverage, headlines and editorials.
Medical malpractice premiums were so high, doctors would have to leave the state and no new ones would locate in Mississippi unless tort reform passed, Mitchell supposedly proved in his series of stories.
But the paper repeatedly left out a vital piece of the puzzle, even as other Gannett papers in other states presented more complete, balanced coverage. The Clarion-Ledger used California's caps of lawsuit damages as a pro-tort reform example repeatedly in editorials calling for non-economic caps, but without bringing in California's insurance-reform component, which helped control premiums in that state and provide a balance to the damage caps. That omission, and the pro-tort-reform tone of the coverage overall, likely helped Gov. Haley Barbour get tort reform passed in the Legislature.
For instance, an Aug. 12, 2002, Clarion-Ledger article by Jerry Mitchell, "Calif. Held Up As Tort Model," simply left the pivotal insurance-reform point out. Starting out saying that Mississippi's medical malpractice premiums were "skyrocketing 400 percent," Mitchell wrote, "It's also what took place three decades ago in California." In fact, it was only part of what took place.
The Government Accounting Office of Congress did an analysis of the way media covered the tort-reform battle in five so-called "crisis" states including Mississippi and put heavy blame on media for not reporting the entire story and helping the U.S. Chamber overstate the need for dramatic tort reforms.
The GAO found, for instance, that the dramatic reports of doctors leaving due to malpractice rates just did not prove out.
"[M]any of the reported provider actions were not substantiated or did not affect access to health care on a widespread basis," it stated, adding that "actual numbers of physician departures were sometimes inaccurate or involved relatively few physicians."
A Gannett News Service investigation, in fact, found that high medical malpractice rates in "crisis" states could not be blamed on high jury payouts, but that reporting context never made its way to Gannett's coverage here.
Likewise, several practices at Gannett are counter to what most idealistic journalism students learn in college—from its often-bizarre overuse of the passive voice to framing stories before reporting them.
Gannett reporters and editors sometimes write the "lede"—the first paragraph of a news story—before they talk to a source or attend an event. The idea is to focus on what's important, but the reality is editors commit to proving the lede is true rather than discovering what is true and then writing the lede.
The corporate culture at Gannett stresses "localizing" stories, which means taking a national story or trend and finding the local angle on it. In theory it sounds good, but if the topic is about a food craze in the northeast that no one in Jackson is eating, the reporter has to scramble to find some far-stretched connection rather than doing a story about real local trends and habits.
Gannett papers also "repurpose" stories, reusing stories already written in other special publications or slightly rewriting them to fill space. It's not an uncommon practice at other papers, but Gannett uses it as a way to cut costs, treating the news like a "content" product instead of real stories about people.
The company allows email interviews, including question-and-answer features with prominent leaders with the very real possibility that a press agent could write the resulting responses—and eliminating any possibility for important follow-up questions or a revealing conversational interview.
Over the years, Gannett has come up with new ideas, promotions, programs, campaigns and experiments.
The latest effort, being pushed in Gannett papers this year, involves figuring out readers' "passion topics"—a basic news-sense skill that was a given and a requirement in pre-Gannettization newsrooms.
These "passion topics" will supposedly help Gannett's papers and websites start to better cover stories readers really care about.
Critics are skeptical and see the new effort as a too-little-too-late attempt to find more ways to use fewer reporters and editors to turn out products while ignoring important reporting that readers cannot know they would be passionate about without getting the information.
On the advertising side of the house, Gannett is heavily promoting its Deal Chicken, a mimic of the Groupon and Living Social coupon models. It hasn't come to Jackson, yet, but Gannett staffers in other cities are already getting pressure to give email addresses of friends and family to feed the Deal Chicken marketing software. Reporters at the Louisville (Ky.) Courier are competing for a cash prize for the journalist who can supply the most emails for the new advertising experiment.
The Clarion-Ledger also throws full-page advertisements for Deal Chicken in some metro yards. The plastic bags often contain two copies of the ad-only publication, as well as some advertising flyers from other businesses.
Too Little, Too Late?
Orley Hood, now 61, said the main point about Gannett is this: There are repercussions to bad decisions.
"I'm way, far way from talking about just me. If The Clarion-Ledger is going to understand Jackson, understand Mississippi, it needs to get back to making friends with people who get up for breakfast everyday," Hood said. "They don't have any idea who reads the paper."
He bemoans the lack of Gannett managers who grew up loving newspapers. "I love newspapers—I love good newspapers. I love Maureen Dowd, Paul Krugman," he says of two current Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnists. He loves those columnists almost as much as he loved being one.
Hood has read a little and written a little every day for the past two and a half years since he got laid off. He's working on a book, playing golf and spending lots of time with family and friends. He said he is fond of many people still working for The Clarion-Ledger.
"Many quality people are still there: Rick Cleveland, Billy Watkins, Gary Pettus, Sherry Lucas," he said. "When Billy writes a line, he knows what the reaction is going to be."
Hood isn't sure Gannett executives understand that connection writers have with readers and how it builds trust for the paper as an institution.
"There's no telling what people are getting away with that we'll never know," Hood said. "A newspaper can make government better, make sure that your tax money is spent right. A newspaper with moral authority—as much as a governor or a speaker of the House—sets the agenda for a state or a community. Who's going to stand up? Who's going to take care of these people? It's life and death.
"Who is going to raise hell?"
Valerie Wells was a reporter and editor at The Hattiesburg American from 2007 to 2009. Her mother, Mary Ann Wells, was a photojournalist at that paper from 1977 to 1981.
CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, Craig Dubow's last name was spelled wrong. We apologize for the error.
This is a great story. There's a lot of good stuff in here. The thing that surprised me the most is that there's a connection between The Clarion-Ledger and The New York Review of Books. Mississippi folks get around!
- Brian C Johnson
"I'll tell you anything you want to know about Gannett," Agnew said while sharting out unicorns and butterflies. He really gave the JFP an "inside scoop."
This is really, really good. I've already told about fifteen people to make sure they read it. Well done.
- Lori G
Letting go of Orley Hood was incredibly stupid. I was mad about it to begin with, but now that I know the whole story I'm totally disgusted. I have a close friend who had a brief miserable experience at the CL, and one of the few bright spots was that Orley was so nice to young reporters.
OK, class, what's wrong with this headline (on front page of Clarion-Ledger right now): Attorney 'fired' by man charged in Clinton woman's death (Hint: two major things) This is the kind of shoddiness that makes me crazy, especially coming out of a paper with their resources.
Valerie, thank you for a wonderful, in depth article that captured the information, situation and context of the Clarion Ledger's decline.
OK, I've had folks email me and ask for the answer to my little quiz just above: That headline is held captive by not one, but TWO passives that render it very difficult to understand. That's the first huge mistake. The second is that the double-passive structure actually makes it "two-faced"--a phrase we use for sentences or headlines that could potentially have two different meanings. In this case, you could argue that it could even have a third! This headline should not go into print.
So, the Attorney, having been fired by a man, is now charged in a Clinton woman's death? or... is the man who fired the attorney charged in the death? or... did the attorney get "fired up" by the man and then kill the woman? or did the guy somehow set the attorney on fire? yes, bad headline.