Buh-Bye! Pro-Biz Cheerleader Leaves the Reg

The quality of Orange County journalism improved dramatically in just one day: on April 24, John R. Schueler--The Orange County Register's 48-year-old wheeler-dealer president and chief operating officer--tendered his surprise resignation. But Orange County's gain is Minnesota's loss: in mid-May, Schueler will take over as publisher of the nation's 13th-largest daily newspaper, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

"The opportunity to be publisher at the Star-Tribune is a once-in-a-career situation," said Schueler. "From a standpoint of what was next for me, this was very, very attractive."

Attractive, no doubt, because Schueler now gets a chance to do for the Star-Tribune what he's done for the Register: erode newsroom independence.

Like Los Angeles Times publisher Mark Willes--who recently arrived from his job as CEO at General Mills--Schueler has not one minute's experience in the newsroom. His expertise is solely in circulation, marketing and promotions. Under the leadership of such men, newspapers have become little more than cheerleaders for the local business and political establishment.

Schueler has repeatedly risked his paper's credibility for the Orange County Business Council--a private group subsidized by taxpayer funds to lobby on behalf of the area's most powerful companies. In September 1997, while Schueler was a member of the council, the group evicted a citizen invited to hear county CEO Jan Mittermeier's "personal" insights into government plans. The Times reported the event; the Register was silent. Nor did the Register have anything to say in March, when county supervisors claimed they couldn't find another nickel for the poor--but gave the Business Council more than $3 million in taxpayer funds.

Register readers might reasonably consider Schueler responsible for the paper's failure to expose the Business Council's tax-supported shenanigans. He served on the secretive group's board of directors, and--seemingly without reservation--tied the Register to the Business Council's narrow agenda: enhancing big-business control of local government. In 1997, Schueler, venture capitalist Dick Allen and Irvine Co. president Gary Hunt comprised the Business Council's elite search committee, which was charged with hiring a top-flight executive director to head lobbying. (In a powerful illustration of local, bipartisan support for big business, the three reached out and touched Democrat and former Orange County Transportation Authority head Stan Oftelie.) During the search, Schueler unabashedly summed up his loyalties: "We're for business--period." Such public declarations help explain why news is routinely called "product" at the Register.

Chances are Star-Tribune reporter Jon Tevlin did not fully realize the potentially ominous consequences of Schueler's loyalties when he wrote a glowing April 25 article touting his new publisher's "wealth of business experience." James N. Rosse--CEO of the Register's privately held parent company, Freedom Communications Inc.--complimented Schueler's business savvy and energy but let the truth slip out. " Schueler doesn't have much experience in shaping product or news/editorial, so he'll need the help of the veteran newspeople at the Star-Tribune ," Rosse said.

Schueler's announcement sent shock waves through local media circles and ended years of speculation that he and N. Christian Anderson--a longtime Reg editor who jumped in 1994 to run Freedom Communications' Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph--would battle over the paper's top job, which is now held by publisher David Threshie. The resignation also fueled rumors that Orange County's circulation-leading daily might be headed for the auction block.

"This is so stunning. Something is clearly afoot," said one veteran Register reporter. "Schueler obviously knows something's going on. . . . We'd all like to know what is happening behind-the-scenes, but we don't."

The paper's top executives have coyly refused even to say whether they will replace Schueler. A Reg editor described the paper's upper management as "acting extremely nervous" about the possibilities of change. "It's spit-and-polish time. People think their futures are on the line," the editor said. "I hope they use this as an opportunity to bring in fresh blood. God knows we need it."

But fresh blood is unlikely. Numerous sources said they believe Anderson--who reportedly is highly popular with Threshie--was key to Schueler's departure. They say Anderson has been seen recently at the Register and may return in coming weeks with a new job, particularly if Threshie retires and spends more time sailing with his ultrarich, ultraright-wing pals.

Unlike Schueler, Anderson's background is in the newsroom. In 1988, at the age of 38, he was named "Editor of the Year" by the National Press Foundation. Five years later, he was named "Newspaper Executive of the Year" by the California Press Association. In 1991, he helped bring the Register out of the journalistic Dark Ages by ending the paper's use of convoluted racial terms like "non-Hispanic white."

If you think, however, that Anderson's return would mark the end of Schueler-style compromises, think again. Two Colorado Springs journalists say the former Reg editor's leadership has compromised the integrity of the Gazette, Freedom Communication's second-largest newspaper.

"Instead of having a newspaper behave like an independent newspaper, the Gazette acts like it's just one of the big businesses in town," one said. " Anderson promotes the point of view of the conservative, rich old boy's club on every issue. He does whatever they tell him to do. It's just not a respected paper."

That was a pattern Anderson established in Orange County. During his 14 years at the Register, Anderson proved himself eager to please the county's humorless political right wing. In the 1980s, when Garry Trudeau's comic strip "Doonesbury" targeted then-President Ronald Reagan's refusal to address the budding AIDS crisis, Anderson censored the strip. He said at the time that he saw "little point" in allowing Trudeau's "political preachings" to reach Reg readers. And, in Anderson's world, what good is a paper that doesn't protect political friends? While he was at the helm, the paper failed to report on the alleged criminal conduct of the son of then-U.S. Senator--former Republican OC state senator and Anaheim mayor--John Seymour. For that story, you had to go to the Times.

 
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