Darts and Laurels

New profit demands raise questions about a commitment to quality

In September, soon after the Times Publishing Company sold the venerable Congressional Quarterly to The Economist Group, the new owners fired forty-four reporters and editors—19 percent of the total newsroom staff at CQ and Roll Call, which the Economist already owned. The layoffs still left 184 reporters at the two publications to cover Congress. And no doubt the Economist bought CQ to help produce profits for shareholders. But are its new profit goals compatible with CQ’s brand of in-depth journalism?

The two Capitol Hill-focused outlets have traditionally covered the beat in very different ways. CQ—through its subscription-based legislative tracking services, its print magazine CQ Weekly, its daily print and online CQ Today, and its free site CQ Politics—has been the publication of record for policy. Roll Call is more about politics and personalities—who chairs what committee, who is the highest-paid staffer, etc. It is distributed free to the White House and Congress, Monday through Thursday.

CQ’s former parent company is the Poynter Institute, the nonprofit journalism school and think tank that publishes the St. Petersburg Times. Nelson Poynter founded CQ in 1945 as a Washington bureau for papers that could not afford one. Later, it expanded its business model to include legislative tracking, a service that commands high subscription fees from lobbyists and others. That service helped fund watchdog journalism in CQ Weekly, such as Jonathan Allen’s examination of disparities in earmark distribution among members of Congress, which won a 2008 Dirksen Award for congressional coverage.

Allen was a casualty of the September cuts. So were author and reporter Jeff Stein, who was brought on to launch the highly regarded CQ Homeland Security newsletter after September 11th, and whose SpyTalk blog on the intelligence community is now dormant; David Baumann, a former National Journal reporter with twenty years of experience in D.C.; prominent editor Chris Lehmann; respected training and recruiting director Jodi Schneider; and many others. There were redundancies, of course, but dropping decades of experience has consequences.

In a companywide memo in August, Laurie Battaglia, the CQ-Roll Call Group managing director, wrote that advertising accounted for 98 percent of Roll Call’s revenue four years ago. With the addition of CQ and its subscription income, the joint operation will have a diversified revenue stream, she said: “In my twenty-one-plus years at Roll Call, I have never seen this company better poised for success.”

So newsroom staffers were caught off guard by the depth of the cuts. Veteran editor Brian Nutting fired off an e-mail to management: “In July, when the sale of CQ was announced, we were told that both Roll Call and CQ are profitable,” Nutting wrote. “We were told that the Economist and CQ had many shared values. We were told that ‘there is a higher purpose to what we do.’ We were told that the people in the company were highly valued. And now this. What possible justification can there be for throwing people out of their jobs simply to make more money?” His missive was leaked, and when he refused to apologize, Nutting was fired.

According to several sources, Economist Group CEO Andrew Rashbass has said that Poynter ran CQ like a nonprofit—that is, with profits a secondary consideration. Sources familiar with the sale said that CQ regularly bounced between 6 and 13 percent annual operating profit—healthy for most businesses. So the layoffs were interpreted by some as the kind of cuts, designed to boost margins for the new owners, that raise questions about their commitment to quality.

Are the critics right? In fairness, it is too soon to say. But we watched for years—before the current recession—as newsrooms cut and cut in an effort to sustain the exaggerated, monopoly-driven margins that Wall Street demanded of media companies. Managers insisted the journalism wouldn’t suffer, but it did, helping to set the business up for a fall.

Battaglia points out that it is difficult to extricate CQ’s profits from Roll Call’s because their fortunes are intertwined; part of the reason CQ’s profits can now spike, she says, is that it benefits from synergies—like sharing an ad and circulation staff with Roll Call. CQ under Poynter, she adds, “had a long running goal of 10 percent profit margins and that’s what they strived for and that’s what they achieved. Businesses today expect a higher profit than 10 percent. The goal then is to say, can we achieve that? And how can we achieve that without damaging the brand?” Her goal for the combined enterprise is 30 percent.

“Nelson Poynter was a ghost who walked the newsroom of CQ,” says former CQ editor David Rapp, who left the company three years ago. “His legacy guided everything we did at CQ. The Brian Nutting episode demonstrated that the place is no longer Nelson Poynter’s. Now it belongs to the Economist and their culture rules, for good or bad.”

Trying to make more money is a good thing. Raising the goal to a level that demands slashing the talent that elevated the brand in the first place is not so good. So: a provisional dart to The Economist Group for what looks to us like a profit goal that is inconsistent with the high-quality journalism we’ve come to expect from CQ. We’d like to be proven wrong.

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Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.