Loving and Cussing: the Family Newspaper
It’s a place where community and citizens come before big profits.
In Alabama patois, for the publisher of a family paper to comment on Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s principles is like hunting on a baited field. It just ain’t fair. Put another way, we’d feel out of place in Tony Ritter’s ritzy neighborhood.
We struggle to make a 10 percent profit. But in terms of community leadership and serving our citizens, by and large—given a few dumb mistakes and omissions here and there—The Anniston Star gets it right.
Kovach and Rosenstiel are certainly right that something has been lost in the passing of family newspaper owners. “Benevolent patriarchs,” they call us, a title that suggests more deference than we get at the courthouse barber shop. But we have an advantage. We’re not Camp Swampy. We’re headquarters. The defining qualities of family ownership are rootedness and a passionate commitment to a place and to the people who live there.
The ideas that thoughtful journalists are now underscoring as they think anew about the relationship between news and business are bred in family owners like an instinct. We’re committed to citizens first. Our business managers also put citizens first, and clear standards are set and communicated to everyone who works at the paper.
A city founder, Sam Noble, who envisioned Anniston as a model post-Civil War “new town,” put it this way: “Instead of dissipating our earnings in dividends, we have concentrated them here….” The bond that links the founding families with the family which has owned The Anniston Star for parts of three centuries is easy to understand. We live here. We want “our town” to grow in beauty and prosperity.
Unfortunately, the family-owned paper is an endangered species. At the end of World War II, families owned almost all daily newspapers. Today, only about one-fifth of the 1,500 dailies are home-owned. What is lost might not be obvious to readers who don’t read other papers. Our critics here cuss us hard and often—naming names—for our liberal views, but if we sold to a chain, you can be sure they’d miss us. You can’t cuss a distant corporation; it doesn’t hear or care.
Here’s how we obey the Kovach-Rosenstiel commandments about putting citizens’ needs above company profits: Grandfather, father, son and brother-in-law Phil Sanguinetti, we’ve never let an obsession with profits dictate news or editorial policy. Don’t take our word for it. Jim Risser, a double Pulitzer winner, studied us for a book and reported, “Ayers is obviously willing to settle for earnings well below the 20 percent or more expected of papers owned by public companies….” We have more reporters and charge less for ads than papers our size, Risser discovered. Vice President for Operations Ed Fowler, who has been a reporter and editor as well as a business manager, says our commitment to quality rather than just maximizing profit “is one reason I’m here.”
And our clear standards about our editorial product are written at the top of the editorial page daily. It quotes my father, Col. H.M. Ayers: “A newspaper must be the attorney for the most defenseless among its subscribers.”
The human dynamic between a family paper and a community is unusual. This solitary human being, the publisher—if he’s lucky—develops a sense of humor and calluses to cover his tender ego. Equipped with ego-shield, the publisher undertakes his task: cheerleader for and critic of every community enterprise. Those on the receiving end of his judgments are not always grateful for his advice.
On rare occasions, a publisher with guts will stir things up. We did in 1967-68, and voters threw out a mayor and the whole form of city government. Earlier in the 1960’s, we ran a front-page crusade that helped capture and convict a white thug for the nightrider murder of a black man. We also ran a series aimed at obstacles to black voters that showed more African Americans were registered in our county than Birmingham or Huntsville.
Not all white readers or advertisers were happy with our coverage during the civil rights movement. We lost some readers and advertisers. We didn’t win a Pulitzer Prize, either. We didn’t try. In recent years, black political and civil rights leaders have criticized some stories. But even our severest critics would regret our catching the plague of corporate mediocrity that has swept most papers into a pureed and neutered mass. For them, the Kovach-Rosenstiel principles might be too late.
My family, however, hopes we can keep The Anniston Star from being stirred into the pot of homogenized sameness that describes most chain papers. We want to maintain the passionate commitment of an owner to a city. The emotional strings of such a meaningful relationship are tuned more like a cello or violin than, say, a Pete Sampras tennis racquet. The anger, joys and sorrows a publisher and community share are acutely sensitive. It is precisely that sensitivity that gives a family newspaper its unique character.
A family-owned newspaper is less detached than a chain-owned newspaper—more caring: scolding and loving; hurting, being hurt and loving…
Like any slightly dysfunctional family.
Brandt Ayers, a 1968 Nieman Fellow, is chairman and publisher of The Anniston Star in Anniston, Alabama.