Columns » Bob McCord

In defense of chain newspapers

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BATESVILLE — Bennie L. Ivory, a native of Hot Springs, is one of five black editors at America’s metropolitan daily newspapers. He’s the editor and vice president of the Louisville Courier-Journal, the 45th largest newspaper among the 1,400 in the nation, and last week he came to Lyon College to talk about journalism. Twenty-seven years ago Hugh B. Patterson Jr., then publisher of the Arkansas Gazette, endowed a yearly lecture series to have prominent editors speak at the college. Nowadays newspaper circulation is dropping and advertising, which pays the bills, is down 33 percent. It’s because many people — especially young people — don’t read newspapers and get the news, if they get it at all, from radio, TV or the internet. So it was no surprise that only about 35 students and professors turned out for the lecture. But that didn’t startle Ivory. His first job after high school in 1969 in Hot Springs was baling hay, and he decided that there had to be a better way to make a living. He knew English well, so he got a job on the Hot Springs Sentinel-Record, where at night he was a reporter, and in the daytime he drove 72 miles to Henderson State College in Arkadelphia to get his college degree. Ten years later he went to work on the News-Star World in Monroe, La., beginning a life with Gannett, the nation’s biggest chain. He was picked for the start-up staff of USA Today, and then Gannett sent him to the Clarion Ledger, Florida Today, the Delaware News Journal and finally to Louisville in 1997. While the Louisville paper’s circulation is 230,000 daily and 300,000 on Sunday, to reach more readers two years ago Ivory created a free tabloid for people 18 to 34 called “Velocity,” which is produced by a special young staff and is picked up by 145,000 people a week. Sometime the advertising is so great that the tabloid has 160 pages. After his speech, he was asked if people were correct to say their newspapers aren’t better because many are now owned by chains rather than local people. Quickly, Ivory said no. He said running a newspaper is expensive so some are going down, and only the chain newspapers can afford to produce things like “Velocity.” “A lot more papers would be under the table without chain ownership,” he said. (Naturally I grimaced a bit at that since I and 700 other people lost our jobs at the family-owned Arkansas Gazette after Gannett bought it and then lost the newspaper war in Little Rock.) Ivory also said that chains opened the door for people like him. “Before, under most family-owned papers, it was all family and all white males who worked there, a very narrow view of the world. There’s no way in hell that I would be the editor of the Louisville Journal, or that I was the managing editor of the Jackson paper if the newspapers weren’t part of a chain.” While in Jackson, his staff discovered and printed the fact that the family that used to own the Jackson newspapers “had been in bed with the Sovereignty Commission” to try to keep segregation in Mississippi. “When I was growing up I read the Benton newspaper that had an ‘Across the Tracks’ column — those were the black folks. But the paper was at least giving some lip service to them. But that’s not good enough today. You have to cover the entire community. “People today often say that their newspaper is not as good as it used to be. Well, generally, that paper, when you look at it real hard, it never was what ‘it used to be.’ ” When a questioner said some newspaper and radio news were prejudiced, Ivory agreed that some newspapers “don’t separate their news from their editorials.” But he insisted that most American papers are better now than they have ever been, with the exception that the writing by young reporters is not as good as it used to be. While lately some newspapers have admitted that a few of their reporters have made up some stories, he said, “I can tell you that the standards of most newspapers are higher now than they have ever been.” I wish he had said that unlike most businesses, newspapers are quick to write about their mistakes. Ivory’s advice to young people interested in journalism was to learn to write and use language correctly and to understand why newspapers are so important, adding that if they haven’t learned these things by the end of high school, they ought to think about another profession. A Knight Foundation survey has found that one out of three high school students said the press ought to be more restricted and that the government should look at stories before they are published. Ivory said that was because young people have not been taught the five freedoms given in the First Amendment of the Constitution: speech, religion, the press, assembly and petition. I thought his best line of the speech was: “When journalists do their jobs right, we make a difference.”

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