By Marissa DeCuir
The American Journalism Review's struggles might sound familiar to APME members: shrinking advertising, staff cuts, legal headaches and a possible move to the Internet.
The magazine has run up a $200,000 debt to its owner, the University of Maryland Foundation, and is embroiled in a lawsuit filed by Santa Barbara News-Press owner Wendy McCaw over a story AJR published last year.
But AJR President Tom Kunkel predicts his magazine will be around next year, and forever as far as he is concerned.
That's reassuring talk for editors worried about the possibility that there could be one less voice in credible journalism criticism.
"We'd have one less place to go to get information about the business" if AJR folded, said Steve Sidlo, editor/publisher, Springfield (Ohio) News-Sun. "We'd have one less place fighting for the First Amendment."
Otis Sanford, editor/opinion and editorials at the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., says review publications help journalists keep tabs on their often overlooked world.
"They have always done a very credible job of raising issues and talking about the people in this business and the issues we face, such as the influence of online, corporate ownership and changes in how we produce newspapers," he said. And AJR, which won a national Mirror Award for Overall Excellence this year, has always been at the forefront of such reviews, he said.
AJR and its primary competitor, the Columbia Journalism Review, are both kept afloat with the help of donations. But CJR is "doing rather well" this year, said Executive Editor Mike Hoyt.
"We broke even for the first time in modern memory last year. And we're likely going to do that again next year," Hoyt said.
But CJR has had to make some sacrifices, too, shuffling staff, hiring reporters and firing editors.
For AJR, it has not been one single issue but "a gradual accumulation of debt," Kunkel said.
"We keep getting deeper in the hole," he said.
The review's annual budget - described as under a million dollars - suffers when it has to make up a few hundred thousand dollars before breaking even. But Kunkel, who is also dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, isn't worried about the money as much as the downward trend of advertising dollars.
Advertising for AJR peaked in the 1990s. As newspapers experienced a recession, so did the magazine. AJR saw a major loss in advertisers - for content and financial reasons.
"When there was an up period, they wouldn't come back. They weren't looking for new places to spend money," Rieder said.
Hearst pulled its advertising from AJR last year, the last newspaper company to do so. Its move came after Knight-Ridder and Gannett declined to advertise further.
"When they were unhappy with something in the magazine, they'd pull their advertising," Rieder said. "Knight-Ridder stopped for a year. Gannett stopped an advertising deal of eight color pages after we ran our project on the state of the American newspaper."
Susan Paterno's article on the Santa Barbara News-Press in the December/January issue of AJR led to the lawsuit that has exacerbated the financial problems. Kunkel said the lawsuit threw some "unwelcome attention" on the publication at a bad time.
"The financial difficulties were mounting before the lawsuit," Kunkel said. "If we had never heard of Wendy McCaw, we'd still be thinking of how we had to get long-term stability."
Hoyt said it is unfortunate AJR's financial struggle comes at the same time when newspapers are experiencing economic and political battles.
"It's a time when a quality journalism review is maybe more important than it ever was," he said. "Our role is not just critiquing, but helping journalism through its problems."
Sidlo called journalism reviews "advocates" for the newspaper industry.
"The newspaper business is going through some wrenching changes. It's important for editors and journalists to stay on top of these changes," he said. "And these magazines keep track of how to do that."
Sidlo said reporters and editors nationwide do read, and benefit, from these "high-quality magazines."
"We'll see an article. It could be something on an innovative computer-assisted reporting effort or covering some controversial ethical issue," he said. "We'll pass the article around, and it will stimulate discussions between editors and reporters."
Rieder said there is significant concern among those involved with AJR, but that it "hasn't stopped everyone from working hard to make the publication its best. We remain as aggressive and committed as ever. The financial struggle - that's a shame personally of course, but for the industry as well."
"It's a big enough job for two reviews," Hoyt said. "Plus, the competition is good."
Kunkel believes the magazine will survive. AJR already tightened staff by outsourcing positions and it has only one content editor.
"We are committed to keep doing it," Kunkel said. "If anybody is coming to a windfall and has an extra million or so and doesn't know what to do with it, direct it to me."
He wasn't joking.