How does the ownership of a news organization affect that organization's news coverage and editorial policy?

This is a question readers of newspapers and viewers of television stations are entitled to ask as the pattern of ownership has changed in recent years.

A few decades ago, many daily newspapers were still owned by individual families or small companies that owned a few papers. Today, most of them are owned by media conglomerates that publish a string of publications. Sometimes, newspapers and television networks are owned by huge corporations with global interests that have no previous history of owning, and no experience in running, news operations.

The Deseret News is owned by the Deseret Management Corp., a holding company for businesses affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Officers and staff of the Deseret News report to an eight-person board that sets policy but is not involved in daily editing of the newspaper. The Deseret News is expected to pay its own way and make a profit, and it does. It is not subsidized by the church. When the Deseret News moved into a handsome new building in 1997, it paid for it with funds from its own accumulated profits.

Other newspapers in the United States are affiliated with churches, including the Boston-based Christian Science Monitor, which is owned by the Christian Science Church.

Does the editor of a newspaper owned by a church receive any greater direction or pressure from the owners to tailor the news than, say, The Salt Lake Tribune, which is owned by AT&T, a giant telecommunications company with agendas in Utah and Washington, D.C., and around the globe? As editor of the Monitor for nine years and editor of the Deseret News for three and a half, I have not experienced any such pressure.

During my tenure at the Monitor, no church official sought to generate a particular news story in the newspaper, or keep one out, or censor parts of one, or put a particular spin on one. My experience at the Deseret News has been the same.

Editorials, expressing the viewpoint of the paper, are in a different category from news coverage and are clearly identified on the opinion pages. Different newspapers handle their editorial pages in different ways. At some, owners introduce their views. At some, publishers play key roles in determining policy. At some, leadership comes from the overall editor. At some, editors of the editorial pages run fiefdoms separate from the news pages and are not accountable to the overall editor.

At the Christian Science Monitor, editorials prepared by the paper's editorial writers were sent in advance of publication to a designated liaison on the church's five-person board of directors. Occasionally there was some discussion about them. Sometimes there might be minor changes agreed upon by the editor and the board member.

At the Deseret News, the procedure is almost identical. An editorial board meets each morning to decide what topics will be selected and what the general theme of the newspaper's comment upon them will be. The board is made up of the editor, managing editor and assistant managing editor, and the three editorial writers. No church official sits on that board or is party to the discussion.

Editorials go in advance of publication to a person designated by the Deseret Management Corp. Occasionally there is some discussion about them, and sometimes some minor change is agreed upon. It is reasonable that the owners of the newspaper should have advance awareness of the policies their paper is articulating. Such awareness does not necessarily imply explicit approval of specific editorials. While the church may take official positions on moral issues, or issues affecting the church's programs and activities, it eschews political pronouncements. Thus Deseret News editorials expressing opinions on a variety of local, national and international issues are not expressions of official church policy. They are, however, written within the framework of values and principles basic to the church.

This is not all as complicated as it sounds. Around the country, owners of newspapers generally appoint editors reasonably comfortable with the philosophy of the owners. Very conservative newspapers, for example, do not appoint sharply liberal editors. Very liberal newspapers do not appoint arch-conservative editors. Moreover, most newspapers have established broad policy positions over the years. Editorials are written with this background in mind. It is not a question of establishing new policies on every single issue, every single day.

The issue for newspaper employees and newspaper readers is not so much the identity of an owner as the integrity of the owner. Owners with good ethics and editors with strong professional standards will create newspapers that are balanced in their news coverage and constructive in their editorial comment.

The role of the reader is to determine how effectively his or her newspaper is fulfilling its mission of serving the community, free of bias or manipulation.


E-mail: hughes@desnews.com