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Corporate journalism

October 22, 2006 12:00 AM

I've been a happy refugee from corporate journalism for nearly five years. Private independent newspapers may be the best way to preserve the printed paper from Wall Street investors who live by stock prices and quarterly results.

I worked for nearly a decade for a division of Dow Jones & Co. in Washington, D.C., then for Knight Ridder's Monterey Herald and San Jose Mercury News (where during my time there the publisher walked out because of edicts from headquarters), and for a summer while in law school for the Newhouse chain's Portland Oregonian. I've seen some of the best and worst that corporate ownership has to offer.

My education about the tentacles of corporate journalism has broadened over the last months as the News-Press has gone through its highly publicized transitional period.

The one big constant during this time has been News-Press owner Wendy McCaw's commitment to the News-Press and to the Santa Barbara community. It's been documented how our media competitors and political forces, who want to silence the News-Press editorials, have tried to use this period for their own gain.

But, in terms of the broader newspaper industry, I've seen how a daily newspaper that's unconnected to a big corporation can be at a disadvantage because of the financial might and pull that particular chains have within the journalism community. In my view, this may be one reason the Society of Professional Journalists entered the fray regarding this newspaper but, oddly, is silent on recent flare-ups involving other papers, such as the newsroom unrest at Tribune Co.-owned Los Angeles Times.

Are corporate sponsors, friendships and other considerations at work when such groups decide whether to take a stand?

Consider this passage from Neiman Watchdog, a Web site of the Neiman Fellowship for Journalism at Harvard University.

One commentator writes: "The Times publisher, Jeffrey Johnson, is now the former publisher, having been ousted. It isn't clear what the future holds for Dean Baquet, the editor. Evidently, Tribune company executives and other like-minded corporate cost-cutters can proceed without fretting about reaction from the organized journalism community. ... SPJ President Christine Tatum, an editor at the Denver Post, said her organization considers it best 'not to engage in "personnel and labor matters.'' The bottom line: We haven't issued any formal statements concerning the Trib/LAT affair because it hasn't been easy to know where the dividing line is between newsroom disagreements/blow-ups and over-the-top cost-cutting.' ''

One only has to look at the society's corporate sponsor opportunities for conventions to see possible conflicts. The group's information on the society's convention hails sponsorships from Hearst Newspapers and the Wall Street Journal, while pitching "platinum level" sponsors for $50,000 and up.

Ms. Tatum says her group thinks it best not to engage in personnel and labor matters. Perhaps she might amend that statement to include: "We think it best not to engage in personnel and labor matters, if it involves newspaper chains we're connected to in any way or that have corporate money for us, but the locally owned independent press is free game. In fact, we don't even see the need to talk to their management before making judgments."

AM 1290: Today at 10 a.m. on AM 1290, you can hear my interview with Sheriff Jim Anderson about his re-election campaign.

On Wednesday at 10 a.m., former Santa Barbara City Councilman Dan Secord will discuss his bid to become the next 2nd District county supervisor.

Travis Armstrong is the editorial page editor of the News-Press.