Newspaper publishers in MoveOn's cross hairs

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Newspaper publishers looking to cut costs are no longer just the enemy of fearful journalists-they're the enemy of democracy.

At least that is what wants the public to believe. The group, an offshoot of the political action committee founded to raise money to oppose President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq, last week crashed the Tribune Co.'s presentation at a media conference. In a move that creates an unexpected politicization of newspaper management-and another burden for already beleaguered publishers-the group began the question-and-answer period by blasting job cuts and turning over 45,000 petition signatures in support of fired workers.

"Since the Tribune publishing division has had a profit this year of $585.9 million," a protestor said, referring to the first three quarters of 2005, "many of us are wondering why you're cutting the ability to deliver the news that consumers want."

Papers habitually face protests from activists who perceive ideological bias, like the people who often stand quietly outside The New York Times with placards showing a fetus. But two weeks ago, Civic Action began telling members that eliminating newspaper jobs undermines the press's watchdog role, singling out Tribune's 900 staff cuts this year. Press reports have amplified the charge. And its organizers said they were considering expanding the campaign, perhaps by buying shares to gain access to Tribune's spring meeting.

It garnered mixed reactions off the bat. "I think that what is doing is great," said Jill Porter, a columnist at a Knight Ridder paper, The Philadelphia Daily News. "I really hope they take up our cause as well."

Three big shareholders last month forced Knight Ridder to put itself up for sale, and the survival of the Daily News under any new owner is not certain. "It's for all newspapers, not just the Tribune Co.," Ms. Porter said. "It's all the Knight Ridders and the papers that will be decimated if we are bought by investment bankers who don't really care about anything but money."

A MoveOn group, though, may not be the ideal face of opposition, Ms. Porter said. "I've heard from people, `Well they're so liberal, will it hurt as much as it helps?"'

MoveOn raised and spent millions opposing President Bush, conservative politics and the Iraq War. The PAC is properly called Political Action, distinct from the group opposing newspaper layoffs, Media Action. Adam Green, civic communications director for Civic Action, said politics aren't the point. "Strong watchdog journalism is a nonpartisan goal," he said.

Changing industry

But public newspaper companies have a competing nonpartisan goal: impressing Wall Street. Kathryn R. Harrigan, a professor at the Columbia Business School, called the MoveOn campaign doomed. "Growth and showing certain kinds of performance improvements are part of the American way of business," Mr. Harrigan said. "There are those who believe newspapers have higher-than-capitalist functions. The people who believe newspapers are a way to invest money are the ones that have a louder voice."

In a statement, Tribune said the media industry is changing and the company needs to change, too. "Other media companies around the country have announced similar staff reductions," it said. "We continue to invest far more than anyone else in our markets to provide the most comprehensive news coverage in our newspapers and on our Web sites."

Companies sometimes react to outside pressure, said William Greene, professor of economics at New York University. He cited Ford Motor Co.'s recent "business decision" to stop advertising certain brands in gay magazines after a boycott threat from the American Family Association.

Asked whether staff reductions undermine the Fourth Estate, Mr. Greene said, "I would want some evidence. There are all kinds of cases in which industries have reduced their staffs and other people in the companies have picked up the slack." And that is, indeed, a big part of Tribune's plan, which involves consolidating and sharing national and international news staffs across its papers.

At most, Civic Action will encourage journalists facing uncertain futures and move a new topic to the forefront of public conversations about the news media. If it doesn't save jobs in the near term, Mr. Green said his group's effort will help form public awareness and a backlash. "The public debate actually serves our goals," he said.

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