March 17, 2006
Twelve Newspapers in a State of Nature
All the ex-Knight-Ridder newspapers could become active agents in their own future. Exactly what they never were when HQ was in Miami and San Jose. Q: Where is HQ now? And who is there to get orders from? Who's going to tell you: no, you can't use a newspaper for that?
Now this is more like it. New site, new statement. Save the Merc. The ultimate adventure in civic journalism…
We, leaders and residents of Silicon Valley and Santa Clara County, are concerned about the future of the San Jose Mercury News, a highly valued institution here for 155 years.
We do not want the sale of the Mercury News to lead to a smaller, less ambitious newspaper.
Without an experienced news-gathering and advertising sales staff, the quality of the newspaper’s coverage and effectiveness as an advertising tool would be diminished.
Without vibrant, in-depth reporting of valley life, residents and workers will not be as well- informed or have the information they need to engage fully in civic life.
Without a civic-minded owner, many civic, cultural and charitable groups could lose a major financial supporter.
We encourage all potential new owners of the San Jose Mercury News to preserve its excellence and learn of our community’s expectations for its daily newspaper.
Right on, Silicon Valley bigs. My only edit: “And we warn potential buyers that our expectations will be voiced loudly, clearly and often.”
Check out some of the the signers. They’re not journalists or media people. Susan Hammer, former San Jose mayor; Carl Guardino, CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group; Pat Dando, head of the Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce; Don Kassing, President, San Jose State University; Tom Campbell Dean, U.C. Berkeley Haas School of Business; David M. Kennedy, Pulitzer Prize winning history professor, Stanford University. And more.
Like the head of the SEC realizing the value of investigative reporting, the heads of some Silicon Valley institutions are realizing the value of the Merc’s reporting and forum.
Jump to Philadelphia, where the Daily News and the Inquirer are in the same limbo. Editor and Publisher reported it (March 15):
A former high-powered Philadelphia advertising executive has received commitments “well in excess of $100 million” to buy The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Philadelphia Daily News in an ownership structure similar to the community-owned Green Bay Packers pro football team, he told E&P Wednesday.
Brian Tierney said he has lined up 20 “super-successful” Philadelphia businesspeople in an investment group ready to partner with others, including the Newspaper Guild, to buy the papers… Tierney said the group was committed to long-term ownership. “We’re looking at this as partly a good economic investment, and partly as good community involvement,” he said.
And there are other Pennsylvanians lining up bids, E & P said. (This adds a new layer onto the many in Michael Shapiro’s superb account of Inquirer history and present-day fortunes in the current CJR.)
A lawyer friend once explained to me that in any large transaction there is a moment, which might only be conceptual, and happen on paper, when the asset being transferred isn’t owned by anyone. “And for that,” he said, “you need good lawyers.”
The remarkable thing in San Jose and Philadelphia—and nine other cities where Knight-Ridder once owned newspapers that McClatchy, the new owner, doesn’t want—is that this moment is going to last for three to fourth months, the estimated time it will take to complete the larger acquisition. “We’ll sell them as groups or individually,” McClatchy CEO Gary Pruitt said Monday. “We’re open to all possibilities.”
Did you hear that? All possibilities. That’s the signal to all to start generating possibilities. Do we have to spell it out for you, orphans of Knight-Ridder who still have newspapers that circulate widely and serve as local forums?
Maybe we do.
This means that in St. Paul and Duluth, MN.; Grand Forks, N.D.; Aberdeen, S.D.; Akron, Ohio; Fort Wayne, Ind.; Contra Costa, San Jose and Monterey, Calif.; Wilkes-Barre, Pa.; and Philadelphia there are newspapers that could become community-owned, locally-owned, owned by a non-profit trust, owned by an educational institution, owned by a family with a special sense of stewardship (there are some) or owned in some new combine, uninvented as of today, that incorporates the lessons of the previous era in newspaper ownership— and its contradictions.
Lovers of mystery in Philly: got one for you. In a sense the Inquirer and the Daily News aren’t owned by anyone right now. So who is actually publishing them? What “person,” if you will.
Knight-Ridder has said: we had to sell you, and we’re sorry. McClatchy has said: we’re sorry, we don’t want to own you. It’s like a sudden state of nature, where there’s just the newspaper, putting its editions out, and no social organization around it.
Shapiro on the situation in Philly in December:
It was a moment unlike any other at the Inquirer. The potential sale of the chain had, at once, left the newsroom in limbo and effectively removed Knight Ridder from the everyday business of the paper. Bennett had been freed to proceed without corporate interference.
That’s Amanda Bennett, the editor. If she felt free in December, she’s even more free now.
“For the 12 newspapers that will be sold, the uncertainty is not over, and I regret that very much,” outgoing boss Tony Ridder said in a prepared statement this week. But at the end of the week we can see that this uncertainty, which is nerve-wracking, could also be life-giving.
Uncertainty means something new and unexpected could happen. (And I suspect that behind the scenes people in Philly, San Jose and maybe elsewhere are working on just that.) It’s even possible that a new social organization for the newspaper could come about, as with the model of the Green Bay Packers. What other schemes are there? We barely know. But a newspaper makes an excellent forum for finding out. So does a blog.
Now a newspaper state of nature is a condition so rare, and so wild, that some of the people who are “in” it don’t realize how unbound they actually are. Here’s St. Paul Pioneer Press columnist Dave Beal (May 14):
McClatchy faces the job of finding a qualified buyer for the Pioneer Press, one that many of us at the paper and throughout the Twin Cities hope will value good journalism enough to continue to provide worthy competition for its very own Star Tribune. Will McClatchy be up to the challenge?
McClatchy faces… Will McClatchy be…? What about St. Paul? (What about Dave Beal?) Are the people there up to the challenge of finding a qualified local buyer who gives a hoot about journalism, and about St. Paul, who might also have some business acumen? Beal speaks in a strangely passive voice, probably bred into him during the era of corporate ownership. He seems to think that all the moves will be made in Sacramento; but that is just not correct. (Save the Merc is a move, initiated by the newspaper’s staff.)
John Welbes and Jennifer Bjorhus, reporters for the Pioneer Press, showed some awareness of the state of nature. By writing about a vacuum of activity (a dog that hasn’t started barking) they imply there ought to be some.
There was little immediate buzz Monday about any local groups expressing interest in pursuing the Pioneer Press.
“It’s been almost too quiet, for whatever that means,” said Dan Foote, president of St. Paul ad agency Foote & Co. “I just hope that we’re not being complacent.”
Indeed. “The Pioneer Press’ [publisher Par] Ridder said Monday that he had received ‘no serious phone calls’ from interested buyers yet.” With no calls coming in, Welbes and Bjorhus made some calls out.
Gene Carr, chief executive of American Community Newspapers in Eden Prairie, said in an interview that he was very interested in growing his cluster of Twin Cities publications.
“Anything that comes to market we will take a serious look at, without question,” Carr said.
Carr is a player to get other players thinking: should I play? It’s basic journalism. Report into a vacuum and people will fill that vaccum if you’re onto something. “Carr wouldn’t discuss financial information but said that it would not be a stretch for the company to consider buying the Pioneer Press.”
And it’s not a stretch for any of the ex-Knight-Ridder newspapers to become active agents in their own future, which is exactly what they never were when HQ was in Miami, or San Jose. Think about it, Duluth, and Contra Costa: who is there to get orders from? Who is going to tell you: no, you can’t use your newspaper (your column) for that?
Another columnist too stunned or beaten down to see this is Diane Evans at the Akron Beacon-Journal. Instead of phoning around Akron to see who is talking about local ownership, community involvement and long term investment, or the Green Bay Packers model, she wrote about the long last days of Jack Knight, who started his newspaper empire in Akron.
Evans described what it used to be like before the money-changers entered the temple. “People believing so much in what they do that they get worked up if the results don’t meet their expectations for greatness,” she writes (March 16). “I relay this only to try to shed a small bit of light on the Knight tradition and what it has meant to so many of us.” Then like Dave Beal she goes spectatoring:
My fear is that whatever happens to the Beacon Journal in the future will be more about profit margins and less about doing the best we can for the community.
Yes, times are different. In Mr. Knight’s day, “profit margin” wasn’t even an expression you heard in the newsroom. Now it has forced the sale of a fine newspaper that continues to make money, yet not enough for a handful of investors.
Today when I hear journalists get worked up, it’s over this perversion of the Knight ideal: Instead of thinking about what more we can do for readers, we worry about taking too much away from them.
I hope for the best. Right now, we wait to see.
You wait to see? I’m sorry, but no. You get off your columnizing butt to see if there’s a Brian Tierney plus ten investors in your town. Or some better combo, a neater idea. And if there isn’t, at least write an angry column about people in Akron who won’t step up. Don’t give us hope-for-the-best, wait-and-see when you can do a lot more than that.
You can tell the people what other forms of ownership exist for successful newspapers, beyond the “likely buyers” who hypnotize the financial press, and the Knights of a golden past. You can even get involved in the events that might bring a better buyer to the fore.
What are the bosses going to do, get mad and sell you?
Back in November, Will Bunch at his Philadelphia Daily News blog Attytood wrote about an unlikely buyer. “We only see one good solution here, and it’s a long-shot — but I’m going to throw it out there. It’s clearly possible that some Knight-Ridder papers could be sold off individually. Wouldn’t it be great if the stock in a new Philadelphia Daily News Corp. were owned by the non-profit Pew Charitable Trusts?”
Actually, I don’t know that it would be great. We would have to see their plan. We would have to know their agenda. We would have to ask some good hard questions of the Pew people, who later said they weren’t in the game.
Bunch pointed out that the mighty good St. Petersburg Times (the 22nd largest newspaper in the U.S.; the Inquirer is 20th) is owned by the non-profit Poynter Institute. For smaller markets, there’s the Anniston (Alabama) Star and the Ayers Family Institute.
In both cases, an educational mission is intertwined with the newspaper’s public service creed, and business model. Where do the profits go? To the school. No one’s trying to take them out and put them somewhere else. You can get better journalism that way.
In the U.K. the Scott Trust owns the Guardian, and the Guardian is leading the way as the British press meets the Web. What does that tell you?
This state of nature is only going to last a few months, during which the social contract for newspapering could be re-written in one or more of these limbo towns. But here’s the thing. The journalism contract has to be up-for-grabs too.
Shapiro in CJR captures this. With all the cutbacks and setbacks Amanda Bennett had to recognize the end of an era: “The Inquirer could not and would not continue trying to be Philadelphia’s paper of record.” It’s similar to what Andrew Heyward of CBS News said in his PressThink post: The Era of Omniscience is Over. It’s too expensive to manufacture authority that way.
Instead, you grow your credibility by not claiming as much for the news, and then delivering big on the fewer things you do claim to do well.
“That, in turn, meant that the shrunken staff was now free from the burden of covering everything, and given that freedom, the paper would begin to be filled with the boldly conceived and written pieces that had once been its hallmark,” Shapiro writes.
Which sounds like a new social contract for the news from that newspaper. Classically, that is how a state of nature ends.
After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…
Bob Stepno reminds me that The Day of New London, Ct. is also organized as a trust dedicated to community service.
See also Jeff Grammage in the Inquirer: Newspapers as a public trust.
Dan Gillmor (March 19): Saving the Mercury News: Could Yahoo Help? He’s a former columnist for the Merc, and knows Silicon Valley well. “Some impressive people have endorsed the Save the Merc campaign,” Gillmor says.
Missing from the list, at least so far, are members of another and I believe much more important Valley power structure, namely the technology crowd. Where are the CEOs of major corporations, venture capitalists, investment bankers and the like. Where are the Web 2.0 and 1990s superstars — the younger entrepreneurs, programmers, etc. who don’t run big tech companies but who have massive credibility with the tech world’s rank and file. Were I running this campaign, these are folks I’d pursue.
Chris Nolan of Spot-on, also a former columnist for the Merc, e-mails: “The short version is that there is no one on that the list who can get anything done in Silicon Valley. It’s a list of San Jose movers and shakers, mostly civic and political activists. No John Chambers, no Andy Grove, no John Doerr. Those folks could care less about the Merc. They read News.com and the WSJ.”
“I would support community involvement in saving the Mercury News, if the Mercury News would become a pioneer in community journalism, writes Dave Winer. “…To get people excited enough to rally behind it, they’re going to have to do something exciting.”
I agree, which is why I said in my post that “the journalism contract has to be up-for-grabs too.”
Ryan Sholin’s J-School Blog: The Mercury News, Silicon Valley, and the Future of Newspapers. Interesting.
Here’s the Los Angeles Times on the launch of Save the Merc:
The newspaper’s executive editor, Susan Goldberg, cautioned that although she appreciated the support, the situation wasn’t so dire. “We intend to continue doing great journalism.”
That kind of caution is going to get you Dean Singleton.
Tom Mangan, an editor at the Mercury News who also has a blog, says in the comments: “What a lot of folks in these towns need to understand is that they’re looking at a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to restore local ownership to their bedrock news institution.” Agreed. He adds: “If there were to be a Poynter of the Pacific Rim, the Merc would be the place to make it happen.”
Also see Mangan’s post, Why I’m not bailing on the Mercury News.
The American Spectator: “The purchase of Knight Ridder Inc. by McClatchy Co., announced Monday, presents possibly the best opportunity to date to experiment with the next inevitable leap in journalism: jettisoning print.”
American Journalism Review on the fate of Knight-Ridder’s DC bureau after the McClatchy takeover.
And here’s the LA Times on the limbo in Philly: Feeling Like an Orphan in Philadelphia, by David Zucchino, staff writer who once worked at the Inquirer. It has this sketch of the situation:
The paper’s circulation is 357,000 daily and 715,000 Sunday; in the 1980s, it was more than 500,000 daily and 1 million Sunday. The newsroom staff has been trimmed to 425 from a peak of 721 in 1989. The operating profit margin of Philadelphia Newspapers Inc., publisher of the Inquirer and the Daily News, is about 14%, according to company insiders — compared with 16.4% for Knight Ridder and 22.8% for McClatchy.
Possible bidders for the Philadelphia papers, and the other former Knight Ridder properties up for sale, include MediaNews Group of Denver, whose chief executive, W. Dean Singleton, recently toured the Inquirer and Daily News. Several Philadelphia-area investors also are interested, according to the Inquirer.
Also in play is a bid by the Newspaper Guild-Communications Workers of America, which represents workers at both Philadelphia papers and eight of the others for sale. The guild is partners with Yucaipa Companies, an equity group in Los Angeles that is controlled by billionaire investor Ron Burkle, a Democratic fundraiser who has a history of working well with organized labor.
Joseph N. DiStefano of the Inquirer has an informative FAQ about the Philly newspapers’ predicament (March 18). Here’s the page for all the Inky’s Knight-Ridder sale coverage.
Jill Porter, Daily News: Telling doomsayers to shove it since 1925. Inspired.
Will Bunch of the Daily News is quite skeptical about the local buyers who have surfaced so far.
Chris Satullo, the Inquirer’s editorial page editor, in the comments here: “Let me assure you that a great deal is being thought, dreamed and done in Philly right now by people who care about the papers, the web site and about journalism.” And see his follow-up: “I just don’t see that this is game over. With the right owners and attitude, it could be game on.”
Also in comments, PressThink regular Daniel Conover has a different idea— go all-Web:
Why not get your investors together, create a business model for a great news website to go head-to-head with your troubled former KR paper? Then hang out your shingle and start hiring away its staff. Offer them what they’re making now — or better…
Start up your online news organization and kick the old paper’s ass. No, you won’t have all that print revenue, but you won’t have any of its overhead, either.
Recommended… Susie Madrak: I Heart the Daily News. Snippet… “The columnists aren’t so hot anymore (HIRE ME HIRE ME HIRE ME), but we do like their blogger. And the beat writers’ beatific, twisted humor still runs deep, like an undertow…”
They should hire her, when they get to hiring again.
McClatchy CEO Gary Pruitt visits the Kansas City Star and tells the staff: “You’re the last mass medium left in this community.”
Julio Garcia, who used to work there, goes over the history of Knight-Ridder Digital. “Let’s face it; KR/D didn’t have the best decision making track record.” Read why he says that. Also see this analysis by Bill Mitchell of Poynter comparing McClatchy’s online strategy to Knight-Ridder’s.
Star-Tribune: Hefty price of Pioneer Press may rule out local buyers.
Lex Alexander comments on this post: “Could we be reaching a tipping point?”
Diane Evans of the Akron Beacon-Journal thickens the plot in the comments:
Jay, I’m going to give you news for your blog. I am part of a small group of very talented journalists, steeped in the Knight tradition, and WE ARE TRYING TO DO SOMETHING to reclaim some of the Knight legacy in a new way. You say I should get off my “columnizing butt.” Well, I’ve been busy, and so have the others working with me. We have plans that are nothing short of pioneering in our field. We’ve got the people to carry out these plans, but now we need the financing. We’ve had some success, in terms of investment, but now we need more. Any ideas? You can email me.
I wrote about some of these possibilities in November: The Main Street Strategy For Selling Knight-Ridder.
Shareholders expecting what Wall Street expects—margins of 20 percent and higher—are to be exchanged, in the Main Street Strategy, for owners who understand that at 10 percent newspapers can have excellence and longevity and make money. When critics ask: why would local owners succeed any better than current management? the answer is: they can succeed at 10 percent; Knight-Ridder executives could not.
Just came across this beautifully designed blog— a local press review for the Quad Cities area in Iowa. QC Media Review, started by three local journalists.
From Fort Wayne—where one of the 12 McClatchy orphans is published—comes Fort Wayne Observed, which recently published Nancy Nall’s essay and extended report: What’s black and white and troubled all over? The newspaper industry’s terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad year. Aside from the quotes from me, there’s a lot of good stuff in her overview of the troubles.
The model for all such “city media” sites is LA Observed.
Posted by Jay Rosen at March 17, 2006 1:48 AM
The problem with buying a newspaper, whether you're a publicly traded corporation or a group of civic-minded investors looking to create a non-profit news operation, is that you're buying a bunch of 20th century overhead.
A traditional investor will buy up a devalued property like an unwanted newspaper at a discount, then run all the profit out of it (and yes, even "failing" newspapers still turn out good margins). When the profits are gone, they'll shut down the operation and sell off the assets. This is capitalism as an extraction industry, and it isn't conducive to good journalism.
The problem for those who might wish to set up a civic-minded journalism foundation is that to get the infrastructure they want (editors and reporters and photographers and institutional knowledge and connections and archives and access and talent), they have to buy up a bunch of expensive stuff that has nothing to do with journalism.
How much of your purchase price covers the cost of classified advertising departments that are going to have to be overhauled or downsized? Or decaying physical plants? Or, for that matter, presses and trucks?
And if you're a non-profit, community-first, quality-journalism outfit, do you really want to be in the printing business? If you buy the newspaper, you are. Plus you'll get all the union relationships and rules. You'll have purchased a change-resistant institution, and you'll inherit all its existing internal problems. Have a nice day.
So what about this: Why not get your investors together, create a business model for a great news website to go head-to-head with your troubled former KR paper? Then hang out your shingle and start hiring away its staff. Offer them what they're making now -- or better. If it's a union town, work with the Guild. Hire the best people and leave the hacks and stuffed suits in their musty holes. Hire their good web people and their brightest advertising account managers and business people. If the new owners are in the extraction business, they won't compete on salary.
Start up your online news organization and kick the old paper's ass. No, you won't have all that print revenue, but you won't have any of its overhead, either. Lease some office space, rent some servers, pay salaries and benefits. You can get by on less, because you're only paying for your core operation and you don't have shareholders demanding double-digit returns every quarter.
Then, six months later, work out a deal with the new owner of the old paper. Offer to provide them content for their print product. Become a contractor instead of competitor.
In essence, the newspaper's job would be to edit for print the independent web content you sell them.
If the newspaper's new ownership starts abusing the content your web-first reporting staff provides, then refuse to renew the contract. No more kow-towing to the bean counters.
What I'm suggesting is that we let journalism be about journalism. Not printing.
And if you just can't imagine what a successful online-first business model might look like, feel free to contact me. I've got a few ideas.
Here is an edited version of what I wrote at PJNet.org.
When McClatchy kicked the papers like the San Jose Mercury and Philadelphia Inquirer out of bed, it not only kicked out the papers it also kicked the communities and cities out of bed too.
Here is what it says in its own press release:
As part of the transaction, McClatchy intends to divest 12 Knight Ridder newspapers, mainly located in cities that do not fit the company's longstanding acquisition criteria, chiefly involving growing markets...
I know these cities. I was born in Wilkes-Barre, worked in St. Paul, visited Duluth, and lived in Allentown, not too far from Philadelphia. Philadelphia, surprises me the most because when I visited last year with my kids, who are in their twenties, they went out with friends and really had great things to say about the city. Still McClatchy kicked it out of bed. No growth, no McClatchy.
I agree with Daniel Conover above who says it makes no sense to buy the whole operation as a nonprofit, but just set up an alternative, 21st Century newsroom. It would be heavy on the web, hire away the best of each paper's staff and kick the butt of the old institution, without its financial debts and without its institutional debts to the past.
Remember, McClatchy has turned its back on the citizenry with its no growth, no McClatchy investment. The citizens should say fine, keep your papers and try to sell them without us, your audiences. Neither the staffs nor the citizenry need show any allegiance to these 12 newspapers or their owners. None.
Imagine communities and news folks being reborn together, finding a 21st-Century news operation where the community and journalists find a real common agenda, begin a community conversation, and work together to make these "no growth cities," great places to live and work.
I know this sounds like pie in the sky, but look what Craig Newmark could create with almost no staff and no money. Compare craigslist to the classified operations of all those 12 papers.
There is a hell of a lot of money floating around. Last September in its own story, the Inquirer reported that the Inquirer and Daily News' parent company Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.'s revenues " totaled a little more than $500 million last year...Advertising sales constitute about 80 percent of the revenue..." and it estimated the total profits were about $50 million.
Here are more Philadelphia numbers garnered from the Knight Ridder website: The papers have a combined circulation of about 500,000 weekdays and 748,000 on Sunday. That’s almost 4 million papers a week. The Knight Ridder corporate website says its readership of the combined papers is about 1,553,900 daily; 1,844,200 Sunday. That's a lot of eyeballs.
Not long ago, I wrote of using an open source, think tank model to help reinvent journalism. Now the time is right to help these newspaper staffs and citizens see an alternative way of doing business, while improving journalism and community life. Give me a high traffic platform and I will get it started. Jay, how about having your nephew Zack at CivicSpace provide us the format and how about getting an open source Linux like idea-creation started here and now. I will pledge a month of my free time to help organize things. Who else is in? As Jay has pointed out this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Lots of thinkers working together openly should be able to come up with a rapid-fire workable plan.
Len: I'm not exactly sure what you mean, a rapid-fire workable plan for ...what, exactly?
I can tell you there's a whole lot of people who are interested in creating a new kind of local news organization, Web-based, blending social networks with the discipline of professional journalism.
I've had a feeling for a while that it will happen (still do, only stronger) just don't know where it will be tried, or how. Daniel Conover has a lot of it down, though, so he'd be one person I would hire.
I don't see any great barrier to doing the "new" newsroom part, but I am not saying it would be easy to do. (Not easy, hard.) The barrier is in how to finance it, which means how to get the advertisers to come with... or some other means. If you invent the new kind of news organization, and it works amazingly well to produce good coverage and commentary, but it's not sustainable, you haven't invented anything.
Right now, the most likely way it will be tried is when the first daily newspaper makes a break for it, drops print production as the standard, goes all-digital, and tries to pull its advertisers with. (See my last post for more.) The Seattle Post-Intelligencer has been mentioned as candidate. For a while, it was NOLA.com that could have gone that route.
What would excite me is kinda sorta (but not exactly) what Mike Phillips said last year: "There are days when I’m tempted to gather a few friends, move into a nice town with a newspaper run by one of the slower-moving publishers, start up something that’s digital and citizen-driven and make a nice living picking the big guy’s pocket."
I like the image of a raid on a complacent publisher. Picking a fat juicy target is key. Then you go in there with the immediate goal of taking away the local news franchise online. Meaning: you become the destination of choice for those seeking the latest news and commentary, by being better, faster, livelier, more interactive, less generic.
On the other hand, you can't just "go in there." You have to know the town and be of it.
Jay you say: I'm not exactly sure what you mean, a rapid-fire workable plan for ...what, exactly?
What I mean is a plan that answers the questions that are being asked here including: 1) financing 2) sustainability 3) quality journalism 4) delivery 5) citizen, audience interest. Questions that each of us can’t answer individually, but which I believe collectively can be answered relatively quickly.
What you do here is the perfect of example of how it can be done. You put out a kernel of an idea, then people come in, or you search them out, and they respond to your kernel. However, what is left undone is a rebuilding of your kernel. You or someone else should refold the best of these ideas back into your kernel to make an idea that evolves into a workable solution.
Let’s take one of the questions. 1) Financing -- Anyone who has read my stuff knows that I am not an expert in the field. But I do know that the Philadelphia Daily News and Inquirer’s revenues are some $500 million a year; that they sell, and I keep thinking my numbers must be off on this, but I think they are correct, about 200 million individual newspapers annually, using 2004 numbers. I would then get someone like Phil Meyer, who knows something about newspaper financing, to help make more sense of those numbers, and how they might be transferable into a paperless newspaper. Others can then vet his ideas.
I also see that a year’s subscription to the Inquirer is $275. So what if you told the subscribers, you will give each two hand-held digital readers with which to read their news and with the other $75 you will make each subscriber an investor in the company. But you will no longer get a hard copy paper. We would need someone like David Winer or the MIT guys who are building the $100 computers to let us know what might indeed be possible. Other experts could give us information on what might motivate subscribers to make the move.
Of course, lots of other questions would be raised, some like Dexter’s which would force us to find more answers. Remember the mantra of the open source software folks was release early and release often. Don’t worry about the bugs, the users will identify them and the hackers, in this case the worldwide PressThink audience, will help answer them. At least that’s the initial pool, eventually probably a smaller self-selecting group would do the lion’s share of the thought work.
You and your core of volunteer editors, will identify the best ideas and the best thinkers and keep going back to them for more information. Together we will have a more perfect journalism thought out more deeply and more rapidly than can be accomplished by any small proprietary, closed shop. All of which sounds like pie in the sky, but that’s what Microsoft thought until the open source Linux crowd produced something that anyone earlier would have thought impossible.
Dexter, suppose I am the $200 million buyer and I need to slash a ton to make my return. Show me the business plan that says I can do that and still produce at product that will give returns?
You've set up kind of a silly scenario with this. Here's a better way to look at it:
Suppose there are two buyers. One offers $100 million cash. Another offers $120 million, with $75 million cash and the rest to be paid over several years as the owners slash and burn to up the return. Which would you take?
There are lots of better ways to consider the situation.
Also, I need to o gback to Diane Evans. I almost wrote this earlier, but I needed some time to think about it.
Diane, get a grip! The people who write and comment here are more interested in seeing your newspaper succeed than perhaps anyone else except its staff.
What you don't see is that your paper is failing in its current state and organization. If it weren't, it wouldn't be in this spot. And neither the beloved Knights and Ridders, nor the McClatchys know what to do with your newspaper besides sell it.
And maybe that's actually a good thing for you. Finally, you'll be out from under the deadening institution that is a "corporate newspaper" and be free to reinvent and grow and become a product for the future, rather than one from the past.
But for starters, you have to start listening, and stop talking. You have to understand that the whole world doesn't need to ask your permission to write you about your work. And that your ideas are far important than your typos.
I'm really hoping something good comes out of this. Please stop fighting people like Jay Rosen, and start seeing what remarkable resources he could bring to you and your paper through his writings.
The scenario I've outlined has occurred many times in the newspaper business. Dean Singleton's papers are only one example. It works, and it would work again, if the buyer is prepared to be a managerial brute. Unfortunately, there haven't been a shortage of those.
My point is, McClatchy as a seller has a legal obligation to look after its shareholders. It will seek the best price for its papers, and it won't give a damn how those papers are run once it's divested itself of them. It doesn't have to make the choice you are suggesting. McClatchy won't care if the papers are owned by a hedge fund or the NYU journalism school, as long as its sale provides the best value for shareholders.
The community ownership idea is all well and good, but it works only if you don't have serious competition to buy a KR orphan, and the buyer is willing to accept lower returns, over the long term, on their invested capital than they could get elsewhere.
That is a tough combination to find when you're talking about the kind of money it would take to buy the Philly papers, or the San Jose Mercury News.
I'm actually more optimistic about this kind of a scenario that Prof. Rosen has outlined being workable in Aberdeen, S.D., Duluth, Minn., or Grand Forks, N.D., to give examples of papers with which I'm familiar. The papers are smaller, the sale prices are lower, the whole shebang would be less complex. Better to try something like this on a smaller proving ground than the Philly Daily News.
Another possibility for those papers is the Forum Communications Co., a family-held business in Fargo, N.D., that owns the Fargo newspaper, several others, and radio and television stations. The company CEO is Bill Marcil (pronounced mar-SEEL'), who has a track record of investing in good journalism.
I do agree, strongly, with your comment about refocusing on local news. It appears that McClatchy's takeover of the KR Washington bureau will bring more of that mind-set to the bureau, i.e. emphasis on issues that are closer to home with readers.
I'll give you an example. There's been a lot of stuff recently about the sainted KR Washington bureau, all of the sterling work they've done that's been ignored by their journalistic betters. While some of the bureau folks have been working diligently churning out stories that few people read, and that carry little influence, a paper like the Grand Forks Herald has no regional correspondent in Washington at a time when the future of its nearby Air Force base was threatened and the future viability of the region's sugarbeet industry was in question. However, the Herald's readers do have a story about all of Sam Alito's appellate court opinions! That, to me, represents misplaced priorities.
Great discussion. But I'm struck by how much either/or, take sides thinking is going on. Why the urgency to declare print dead? The Inquirer, for all the darts KR and KR's critics have fired at it for years, still has reader loyalty and satisfaction numbers that most companies would kill for.
And, Steve L. is right, the city is rebounding in a major way; so what if McClatchy can't see it. Frankly, I've had my fill of working for Californians who don't understand or appreciate the market. And much of the market is rooted, traditional and loyal. They're not clamoring to kill off newspapers; they just want newspapers that do a better job.
So why not a both/and discussion. Let's learn to do a better job on the Web, both to expand the audience and to enable us to do a better job in print. Migrate to an outlook where we do our journalism first online, then reverse publish into print for the very large audience that still wants to hold the damn thing in their hands.
Obviously doing a better job involves tapping far more aggressively yet humbly into the community-building power of the Web. And it involves experimenting with multilayered forms of journalism that reinvent traditional story telling to take advantage of all the things the Web can do that ink on paper can't.
For all the grouchy, sad-sack quotes my beloved, talented colleagues in the newsroom (Yeah, this means you, Tom and Dick) love to give visiting reporters, I just don't see that this is game over. With the right owners and attitude, it could be game on.
Why couldn't an experienced journalism organization with more than 400 freaking journalists at its disposal, and a better sense of the region, its history and its issues than anyone else, figure out a way to put out a stellar print newspaper, while exploring and expanding the journalistic possibilities of the Web? Particularly since learning to love what the Web can do would lead us to find much more vivid, timely, people-rooted stuff to print.
Dan, I'd love to talk to you about what you have in mind. I just think you're premature in assuming it means moving beyond ink on paper.
KR is a corpse. So be it. I haven't a tear to shed. It's yesterday's news. If we're lucky--and no law says we will be, but no law says we can't be--we'll get a chance to build something way more interesting.
Very often, I write about things that I'm hoping will happen, or in my view should. Invariably I am told, by way of reply, that I should not expect them to happen. Which is fine because I usually don't.
It's usually the case that deep-seated trends and settled patterns win out. People go with what they know.
So I'm with you, Bill. I'm not "expecting the moment to be seized." Look at everything weighted against it. I'm expecting sales to the Singletons and Gannetts and Lee Enterprises of the world. I'm expecting a certain newsroom passivity in most of the 11 towns: hope-for-the-best, wait-and-see.
I found revealing this moment in the Inquirer's story on the "newspaper trust" solution. Why couldn't a foundation buy a newspaper and run it as a trust?
It just was not what the foundation was designed to do. And that is still the biggest problem with the idea, he said.
"The foundations that have the money to do it don't think they're in that business," [Hodding] Carter said. "And the ones that think they're in that business don't have the money to do it."
And so even though it could happen it probably won't.
It could happen that the people at the Merc have the presence of mind to say, "Save the Merc... and we'll change it into a true community newspaper for the (global) people of Silicon Valley," but what they're probably going to do is just, "Save the Merc" without the changed newspaper part. And that is pretty much what they did.
It's similar to what I told John Harris, political editor of the Washington Post: Bush changed the game on you, and while you could have changed your game in response, he knew you probably wouldn't.
This is actually a deep conflict--really a tension--in human affairs between behavior, which is predictable and falls into patterns we can try to anticipate, and action, which brings something new into the picture and is unpredictable. (It's not my distinction, but the philosopher Hannah Arendt's.)
Journalists are behaviorists in the way they look at others, and they tend to behave rather than act when they have choices about their own biz. I may write about the possibilities of action, but someone will always remind me that behavior is the norm.
Of course, they're right.
Almost every time I have tried to get a journalist to write about the alternative possibilities for newspaper ownership--local ownership, trust ownership, non-profit ownership--they say back to me how unlikely these are. That's press behavior. When we say, "Oh that is sooooooo CNN," the sooooooo is our way of calling out behavior.
Creative action is always unlikely, but it does happen. Before it does, journalists tells us how impossible it is. After it happens, they write about the genius who saw it when no one else did. If they simply reminded themselves to cover behavior and action the narrative wouldn't veer so wildly, and the news might be more credible.
Jay, I have this habit of digressing into academic think, perhaps because although I was a journalist I'm becoming an academic. And it's going to happen now.
When did newspapers start to resemble what the were in the heydey of the 1960s, 1970s? You know this better than I, but I have a hunch that newspapers during the Progressive Era and Depression began to take shape, and that some of what they are now grew out of the ideas of the Progressive Era--that institutions could help people, that there was virtue in an efficient organization, and that there was expertise in doing this work.
I bring this up because a couple other organizations that took shape during the same period were public education and the US auto industry. Both of these assumed Progressive ideals, and although both also became entangled with unions, even the unions bought into the ideals. The work was basically good for country and good for people. The organization could best do the work. The people who worked there had expertise.
Newspapers seem to hold these same values.
Think of other organizational values that aren't prominent in this model: flexibility is valuable; outsiders might have better ideas; expertise is changing and must be renewed; the organization can easily be supplanted by something else; the technology of the work is not static and always changes.
So it's interesting to sit just a few dozen miles away from Detroit and watching the auto industry suffer from its belief in its invincibility. The unions can't believe it, nor can the executives. Meanwhile, the Detroit schools have lost more than 20 percent of students, as people flee an institution stuck in its past and seemingly unable to change. Both these institutions have spokespeople who remind us regularly about the virtue and importance of the work of their members.
And then I read here about newspapers, and being stuck, and about virtuous work. I wonder if the institutions that took all their cues from their early 20th century, and its hardcore belief in virtuous work and big organizations, rather than change and growth, are doomed.
Jenny: have a hunch that newspapers during the Progressive Era and Depression began to take shape, and that some of what they are now grew out of the ideas of the Progressive Era.
Most historians of the American press and academic critics familiar with their writings would say that professional journalism as we know it (projawki, for short) has its roots in the progressive era and in notions of cultural authority that won out then over older and weakening ideas.
Now it is the thinking of that era that is older and weakening.
The progressives--who could be writers, professors, activists, reporters, politicians, publicists, teachers, bureaucrats, statesmen, even president (T.R.)--believed in applying knowledge to public problems. And they thought it was possible to have "good" government if institutions were founded on good knowledge and the governors had clean intentions. Typically, they wanted sunlight reforms that would weaken the power of the machine, and strengthen the hand of the individual voter. They attacked waste and corruption in government, starting with the urban machines.
They also had a picture of the ways things worked in a modern democracy with huge complex problems to confront every day.
Joining the 1.) experts who had good data and could give knowledge-based advice; and the 2.) "progressive" public officials who believed in applying knowledge to public problems, were to be the 3.) voters who go out and equip themselves with the knowledge needed to make an independent decision election-by-election, and 4.) the schools, who would be educating people to be good citizens, the kind who sought out good knowledge, along with 5.) the press, which would shine the light on abuses of the public trust, and let the powers of publicity do their magic.
Also important is that the progressives rode to public visibility via journalism-- specifically muckraking. Lincoln Steffens was in many ways the prototypical progressive; his best known investigative journalism (The Shame of the Cities) exposed the corrupt urban machines that ruled places like New York, Philly, St. Louis and Minneapolis. The progressives had their biggest effects at the level of city government. Every town with a strong city manager and a weak mayor, or "non-partisan" elections has the progressive era to thank. The League of Women Voters is a typical outcome of the progressive mind.
In journalism, projawki's highest honor, the Pulitizer Prize for Public Service, is not a Pulitzer invention but a progressive one. All the key ideas are in there. The professionalization of journalism dates from just after this period (1890s to 1920s.)
But more important is how progressive-era ideas are the background or common sense framework of the mainstream press: the belief in experts, the idea that non-partisan is best; that notion that knowledge-is-neutral but politicians aren't; the association of "politics" with what's grubby, dirty, corrupt, closed and merely partisan; the unconscious bias toward the atomized voter; the call for reforms but never for revolution; the lionizing of exposure, and the cleansing powers of publicity-- that's just some of the legacy.
There are all kinds of problems with the progressive era's take on things, and these too were passed onto professional journalism, which eventually lost its awareness that its key ideas (its press think) were ideas--arguable ideas--that had social histories, social consequences, and could be challenged, even replaced.
This was an intellectul disaster that, I regret to say, my own institution, the J-school, has been unable to prevent or reverse. Alas, J-school is a progresssive era invention too.
Which brings us to the culture war and today, and the religion of the press.
Jay, to belabor my academic leanings a little longer. Projawkis (love that term!) and others with ideological and organizational roots in the Progressive era share some beliefs.
One belief that is implicit rather than explicit is that there is one virtuous truth, one virtuous culture. They must believe this because otherwise their work might always be suspect by someone. Journalism, the white light shining on potential wrongdoing, is always virtuous, always correct.
And because there is one good truth, one virtue, any notion of non-neutrality must be wrong.
Not surprisingly, journalism grew strongest during a time when American culture and society looked homogeneous. And it began its decline as that homogenity gave way to the more real view of America as something less than a single culture with a single virtue.
(Interestingly, journalism's finest moments may have taken place as the homogenity started to crack. I'm thinking of Watergate, and the coverage of civil rights disturbances, etc.)
And that was even fine until another technology gave the audience the power to talk about the Balkanized world of journalism, and its blindness to some thoughts and beliefs that didn't fall into its aging Progressive perspective.
What's a little funny about the handwringing over the loss of newspapers is that no one talks about the great sins of some of these same papers. How many of these cities had black newspapers because those citizens wanted some news outlet to cover their communities? Why did these alternative papers exist? Because the big city newspapers didn't cover black communities much. And this was during the great era of newspapering.
One of the toughest lessons that public schools have had to learn is that they virtuously and successful served all children; some have been shortchanged despite the institution's stated goals and beliefs. Newspapers are going to have to learn the same lesson, and then reinvent themselves in a way that expunges the virtuousness ideal that blinds them to flaws, and sets them up to be stronger organizations with room for many voices, perspectives, and possibilities.
I know I'm covering old ground here, but I continue to be astonished at how this narrative endures, becomes stronger, as events unfold. Maybe if we tell the story enough, someone will get it who can really enact change.
Off topic, I know, but you might find this interesting. Here's a head's up.
A lot of liberals, like Jane Hamsher, to name one, have blogged the hiring of Ben Domenich, and his history of comments deriding the poor and people of color, seems like the Post has some internal marketing surveys that indicate a much bigger audience for a blogger that denigrates African American culture and Coretta Scott King right after her funeral than for hiring someone with an association of the large, historic black community of DC.
If I were African American and lived in DC, I'd be tempted to organize a late night effort to spray paint every Post newspaper rack with RACISTS in bright red letters (get the pun? Domenich's blog is entitled RED STATE, and the racks would be painted RED . . . )
Indeed, being African American has nothing to do with it, I'd be tempted anyway. Where are the anarchists when you really need them? Domenich is one of the banes of American social life, that person who elevates himself by promoting bigotry towards people of color and the Post hires him. A great, great move.
Looking forward to his first efforts to malign African Americans, Asian Americans or Latinos on the Post site as soon as some prominent figure from one of these communities dies. Pandering to white racists is an apparently untapped market for a paper like the Post.
But, I digress, although you might consider addressing how such a decision by the Post is going to enable it to reach a broad, diverse audience by hiring someone who considers African Americans culturally deficient. Next time you see Brady, you might ask him. You might also ask him how this will help the Post in seeking to recruit journalists of color, a problem faced by most major newspapers in America.
Anyway, I know you focus on the technological transformation of the industry, and do it well, so this is what I really wanted to bring to your attention (from Domenich's blog):
[Comments About Comments
A few notes are in order after the impressive reaction to the premiere of this blog.
First off, a note of thanks to the liberal side of washingtonpost.com's readership, which has weighed in on Red America in this comment thread. I'm happy that no one's engaged in any ridiculous hyperbole, unfounded accusations or unintentionally hilarious name-calling. We can all agree that such things lower the quality of debate on the Internet, play to the worst side of our knee-jerk partisan nature and have no place in the modern public square. I look forward to engaging you in a serious, respectful discussion on the issues that matter most to the future of our nation.
To that last point, we'll be rolling out comments here shortly. Because this is an opinion blog, and not a work of unbiased journalism, it is sure to spark responses from a few fringe members of this Internet political community, who might be motivated to deluge comment systems with offtopic concerns (or perhaps go after other members of the Washington Post family, who have nothing to do with this blog - silly, I know, but I'm told it happens). Comments will be coming after the initial launch is finished, when I've gotten used to the rhythm of posting and you, gracious readers, have gotten used to it, too.
In the meantime, I'll be posting worthwhile reader reactions from the comment thread mentioned above and from email. It's great to be part of the washingtonpost.com Opinions section, and I hope this column proves to be an interesting and worthwhile read for all of you.]
I will not even dignify this bigot's request for "serious, respect discussion", except to say, that he's already demonstrated that it is a whites only endeavor.
For your purposes, however, it appears that Brady isn't quite that the proponent of openness for the Post blog, because people have to wait until they have proven that they can be nice before comments will be opened. In other words, Post management is well aware of the firestorm that this selection will ignite, and has preemptively shut down Domenich's blog.
One wonders, when will the blog open for comments, May 2007? I always thought that a blog without comments was kind of like a car without tires, but, maybe, an amateur like me doesn't understand new trends in the industry.
Whatever the Post website is, the Guardian it ain't.