Journal's Pains Reflect Media's Malaise

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 22, 2007

American Journalism Review, the influential but financially troubled media journal, could face a shutdown by year's end.

Tom Kunkel, the review's president, said it is "more likely" that the magazine will be able to continue publishing next year, but that he must close a deficit of roughly $200,000 -- about one-quarter of its annual budget.

"It's always been 'The Perils of Pauline' with the finances of a journalism review," said Kunkel, dean of the journalism school at the University of Maryland, whose foundation has owned the review for two decades. He said there is "no guarantee" of survival but "we haven't been given a drop-dead date or anything like that."

AJR's situation has been made more perilous by a lawsuit filed by Wendy McCaw, owner of the Santa Barbara News-Press, over an article published nine months ago about turmoil at the California paper. The piece, like most of the magazine's articles, was written by a freelancer, Susan Paterno, and management was stunned to discover that its libel insurance did not cover freelance writers.

McCaw's suit, filed in state court in Orange County, Calif., said her newspaper was defamed in a "biased, false and misleading diatribe." Paterno's article described an exodus of staffers from the News-Press after McCaw's purchase of the paper, following her divorce from cellphone mogul Craig McCaw, and explored allegations of unethical journalism. The magazine later published a clarification of two minor factual points but has defended the story as accurate.

AJR was not originally named as a defendant but agreed to pay Paterno's legal bills and indemnify her against any judgment.

"Wendy McCaw may be the only person in America who wants to see it close," Kunkel said of AJR. But, he added, "we faced the financial pressures anyway, even if Wendy McCaw had never darkened our door." McCaw's lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.

The bimonthly, launched in 1977 as Washington Journalism Review, has been cutting costs as the economic downturn in print journalism has eroded its advertising base. Longtime editor Rem Rieder, a onetime Metro editor at The Washington Post, essentially became the only editorial employee after the managing editor, Rachel Smolkin, left and was not replaced. Even the design and artwork of the magazine are contracted out.

"What we've kept throughout is a terrific corps of writers whose work makes the magazine what it is," Rieder said, referring to his stable of outside contributors. "What I feel really good about is that we've kept the quality up in the face of financial challenges."

As for his increasing workload, Rieder said: "I'm hanging tough. It's still a hell of a lot of fun."

There was a time when AJR, along with Columbia Journalism Review, operated by Columbia University, provided much of the critical examination of an industry not known for self-reflection. But the rise of Web sites and blogs dedicated to critiquing, and in some cases bashing, the media has increasingly overshadowed magazines that publish six times a year, although their carefully reported examinations of media mistakes and trends remain important.

Kunkel said AJR relies on donors for a third or more of its budget. He said the University of Maryland Foundation acts as the review's bank, keeping it afloat despite accumulated debts, but does not contribute a dollar to the budget. He is preparing a plan for the university's provost to demonstrate that the review can pay its bills over the long term.

"We can't be a charity case," Kunkel said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company