TOPICS > Nation

Extended Interview: Mike Jacobs

September 11, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT

TERENCE SMITH: Mike, tell us what you’re doing today to deal with this story breaking all across the country.

MIKE JACOBS: Pulling out all the stops. We’re bringing in all of the crew we have. We’re planning to increase the size of the paper, substantially. We’re planning to increase the run — that is, the number of papers we print.

TERENCE SMITH: What are those increases in size, both in size of the paper and the size of the run?

MIKE JACOBS: About a third to 40 percent larger in pages, depending on how things go during the day. I mean, we have the option of going up even further. That involves restructuring, reconfiguring the paper, and it involves rejiggering the press starts and all of that. And then we’re expecting to about double the single copy numbers, the “draw” we call it, for dealers and vending machines.

TERENCE SMITH: Roughly speaking, from what to what?

MIKE JACOBS: Round figures, we’ll probably be going to about 10,000 single-copy from roughly 5300, 5500. In an event like this, people want to be able to look at the paper, they want to be able to feel it. It makes it real. There’s something surreal about television coverage, and so it gives them something to hang onto, something to keep.

So we found, in big news events like this, whether local or national, international, you can expect a big sale. So we want to accommodate that of course.

TERENCE SMITH: Right. What do you have your reporters doing? What are they covering?

MIKE JACOBS: The biggest stories here are the local Air Force base, of course, the airport. We have flights being diverted into the airport here. We’re talking to people who were leaving here and got stranded in various places around the country. We’re going to community gathering places, the American Legion, for example, to a prayer meeting at noon. Those sorts of things. Schools — to the university. We’ll naturally be talking to officialdom who need to react, emergency officials, political officials, and the like. So, you know, basically we’re looking at all the local angles that we can.

TERENCE SMITH: What are you getting in, today, that might be different or unusual, or increased, from either Knight Ridder, the Associated Press, or other sources?

MIKE JACOBS: Well, I think the [St. Paul] Pioneer Press is putting out a six-page extra, and we’ll have access to that. What we’ll do with it, I’m not quite sure at this point. I think it would be very unusual for us to do an extra, but I don’t rule it out.

The most remarkable thing is that people who have worked for us and are in other places, are calling with reports. A young guy who’s stranded in the Minneapolis airport called us and said “What can I do here for you?” We have a young man who works in Arlington who saw the crash at the Pentagon who called and gave us an eyewitness report.

So we have those kinds of resources and we’re hearing from them, from people who are “on the scene,” so to speak.

TERENCE SMITH: And from Knight Ridder?

MIKE JACOBS: I haven’t had a chance to look at the wire, so I don’t know what they’re doing, but they’re in Washington and obviously a top-flight news service, so we would expect to get a full report from them. But I haven’t looked at their budget line, so I don’t know what it is.

TERENCE SMITH: And the Internet and online versions of the paper?

MIKE JACOBS: Well, we’re not doing a local online version of the Herald. It’s actually done, it’s actually done in Kansas City and Wichita, through an automated [system], so we have very little control over the online version.

TERENCE SMITH: Is the Internet a source for you?

MIKE JACOBS: The Internet could be a source for us. I don’t know in what particular way, other than, other than e-mails from people and, and the like. But it’s not somewhere we would automatically go as, as a source.

TERENCE SMITH: What kind of reaction have you heard from people here in Grand Forks to what’s happened today?

MIKE JACOBS: There’s a sense of shock. I mean, we all have a sense of shock. But I’m not in a position to gauge what the community reaction is because I’m basically in a building.

TERENCE SMITH: But the point is that the sense of shock has reached all the way up here to Grand Forks, North Dakota.

MIKE JACOBS: Absolutely. It’s a little bit like the Challenger disaster, when there was this tremendous sense of shock and grief. The grief was immediate, because it was obvious what had happened. And the other thing that’s different in this case is that the people, the victims don’t have faces at this point. We don’t know who they are. But we think there are a huge number of them, and so there’s that sort of shock.

But grief is a personal thing, and that hasn’t kicked in yet, at least for me, the way it did in the Challenger disaster. But I think that it will.

[In 1997, the nearby Red River flooded its banks and all of Grand Forks was buried under water, including much of the Herald building. For more on that story, click here.]

TERENCE SMITH: In one of our conversations, you said that in some ways the crisis that this paper is going through now is more difficult than the flood.


TERENCE SMITH: What did you mean?

MIKE JACOBS: Well, the flood is an event. It, in some sense, is a moment in time and it passes — and there was a tremendous rallying of the journalism community, and we got a lot of help. There’s an irony, I think, that the help in that crisis came from Knight Ridder, which is the source, really, of the current crisis. I mean, the business downturn, of course, is the real source, but we are responding to that at the direction of the parent company.

TERENCE SMITH: Right. And that parent company has directed and imposed about a 10 percent cut, across the board, to all its newspapers.


TERENCE SMITH: But is yours a little greater?

MIKE JACOBS: Ours is slightly larger, and that has to do with peculiar local conditions. In some ways we have greater reach than we have grasp, and what happens in a downturn, of course, is that you need to retreat to your grasp, and we’ve always been a newspaper that tried very hard to be more than was expected of it, and so one of the things we’ve had to do in the downturn is to imagine exactly what it is that we can be, given the resources that are going to be available.

And that’s really the challenge that we face — to be as good as we can be with the diminished resources that we have available, and particularly in human capital, I mean human beings in the office.

TERENCE SMITH: How many people, employees, editorial people, and others, did you have here before, and how many do you have now?

MIKE JACOBS: Well, we’re right about forty now. At one time we were in the low fifties, and some time ago, in the late ’80s, which were real, in some senses, “boom years,” we were up into the sixties. That’s when we were publishing a very far-reaching weekly. We cut that back. But from flood time until now, we’re down in the newsroom, I would say a dozen people.

TERENCE SMITH: And what’s the effect of that on this paper?

MIKE JACOBS: Well, the effect is greater, I think, in the newsroom than it is in the newspaper, because we’ve been able to organize ourselves in new ways in order to cover those things that need to be covered, and what we did in the immediate aftermath of the latest cuts was we said these are the things that we must do. This is what this newspaper must be. And here are the extra things that we would very much like to be able to do. And then we organized ourselves to do those things.

And what our, what our imperative is, it seems to me, is to preserve the core of the newspaper, which is the news function. So we’re not as varied in our coverage. I mean, there’s not as much arts coverage. I’m worried about sports coverage — we’ve had a very wide reach, geographically, in sports coverage, and we’re going to have to pull back a little bit.

But those things that are important to the newspaper, but they’re not the heart of the newspaper. I mean, the heart of the newspaper is coverage of the community and the life and culture of the community, and that we’re absolutely committed to, and we have been able to maintain that, with obviously a slip here and there. But I’m confident that we’re able to maintain that, and in some cases actually to improve it, because what the hard times have done, of course, is allow us to pare away at the extras that sort of distinguished the newspaper, but are not central to the newspaper.

TERENCE SMITH: Was it on a personal basis, painful, for you to let these people go?

MIKE JACOBS: Well, I was, I was quoted, nationally, as being in tears when I laid off Naomi Dunavan, and I love Naomi. You know, she’s a sister to me, and it was a very, very difficult thing to tell somebody who’s had a long and distinguished career here, that we just can’t continue. That was very painful, and every one of them was painful, but that one particularly so because Naomi and I have been close, personally. We like each other, and so that was difficult.

TERENCE SMITH: Tony Ridder, the Knight Ridder chairman, has said that this is not a temporary cut in his company, that it’s a permanent cut. That his newspapers will continue to operate with these reduced numbers, and in a memorandum, he said that “Our newsrooms are prudently staffed.”


TERENCE SMITH: Is your newsroom prudently staffed?

MIKE JACOBS: I believe that the Grand Forks Herald is staffed at a level that will allow it to be a damn fine local newspaper, and if that staffing level were one, it would be a damn fine local newspaper. You know, we are not going to put out a newspaper here that’s not the best newspaper we can do under the circumstances. Obviously we have our slips, everybody does; but our basic commitment is we are going to be just as good as we can be.

Now, would we like to be greater? Would we like to have more people? Yes, of course. But it’s not going to happen. I don’t expect to, to get these resources back. I’ve told the staff, and I believe that we are staffed at the level that we will be at for the foreseeable future, almost certainly through my tenure as editor of the Herald, and quite likely through the tenure of most of the people who currently work here, unless there’s some dramatic change in the local economy, and that I do not currently foresee.

TERENCE SMITH: What’s been lost? What isn’t in the paper that could have been in the paper?

MIKE JACOBS: Well, that’s a difficult question to answer. I think it’s not so much what’s been lost but how is what we’re doing now different from what we did before? For example, we used to have a couple a people who were out in the region doing regional reporting.[Jacobs is now covering county government.] Now, we have a very visible personality who’s out in the region doing, doing regional coverage. Regional coverage has actually been ramped up in the sense of [having] a more prominent place in the paper, but there are fewer people doing it, and so we’ve, in a sense, declared our commitment to regional coverage, a very large geographical region, pretty close to the size of New England.

TERENCE SMITH: So the core is there but it’s not as rich and full and detailed a paper as it might be with greater resources?

MIKE JACOBS: Right. Some things that we would have covered in the past, we don’t cover [now] — and those things are not extraneous to the life of the community, but they’re not at the absolute heart in the life of the community.

TERENCE SMITH: I understood that you were stretched so thin, that you are covering a beat?

MIKE JACOBS: Well, that’s partly because I want to. I’ve been covering the county commission, and I got my–

TERENCE SMITH: As a reporter.

MIKE JACOBS: Yes. I got my start as a county commission reporter. I have some sympathy and understanding of county government, I appreciate county government, and I’m a damn good county government reporter.

TERENCE SMITH: But why you? You’re supposed to be the editor of the paper.

MIKE JACOBS: Well, what does the editor do, really? You know, I think every editor defines the job, and part of my definition of the job is that I can cover a beat. I have three reasons, really, for doing it. One is the beat needs to be covered, and I can do it well. Second is that by doing it, I serve as an example to others here who need that kind of encouragement. And third, it makes a pretty powerful statement to the management of the company about what the resource situation here is. But I still spend a large part of my time managing resources, which is what editors do.

TERENCE SMITH: From your perspective, were the cuts imposed on you and this paper justified?

MIKE JACOBS: I have an appreciation of the situation that faces American newspapers. I understand that the market is demanding. I understand that institutional investors are difficult to satisfy. I understand that Knight Ridder, as a company, needs to act in ways that protects the integrity of the company. And I know that advertising revenue has tanked, particularly in Knight Ridder’s largest markets… I understand why this is necessary. That doesn’t make it more comfortable. But I have confidence in the leadership of the company, that Knight Ridder is acting in ways that will result in benefit for the company and for the community.

TERENCE SMITH: Do you still consider this to be the paper of record?

MIKE JACOBS: Oh, absolutely; absolutely. You cannot be involved in this community and not have the Herald. This is the place where news about the community appears first, 90 percent of the time, maybe more. It is the place where news of the community and news of the region, news of the state, news of the world appears in more depth than it is available anywhere else in this community, and, it is, I think, essential to people who care about Grand Forks and the region, to have the Herald.

TERENCE SMITH: Who’s your competition?

MIKE JACOBS: Our competition is time stress. The biggest competition for newspapers everywhere is lack of time in the morning, when the newspaper lands on the doorstep. It’s my job as a newspaper editor to [make the paper] so vital, that it’s the first thing you do in the morning, and that you make time in the morning. It’s worth getting up a few minutes earlier to read the newspaper.