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July 14, 2006

Free Pass

"Why would a journalist describe prevailing wisdom in his own business as way dumber than it really is? Because it's the cheapest way there is to sound smart: defy the conventional wisdom that you just spent $0.0 and zero man hours compiling."

As soon as I read Romenesko’s description, “Justin Fox says the soap opera at Wendy McCaw’s Santa Barbara News-Press shows that independent, local ownership isn’t necessarily the salvation of the ailing newspaper industry,” I knew one thing about the story it was pointing to: There won’t be any quotes for “the salvation of…” part.

There never are. And definitely no links. “Isn’t necessarily the salvation” was the sound of a professional journalist giving himself a free pass. Had to be. So I clicked on the link. There it was: an especially clear example of taking a freebie. In Why being publicly-held is best Fortune’s editor-at-large, Justin Fox, wrote:

Now that Wendy McCaw has driven away most of the editors from the newspaper she owns, the Santa Barbara News-Press, a lot of people in journalism are beginning to question what had become accepted wisdom in the past year or so - that independent, local ownership is the salvation of the ailing newspaper industry.

Fox told me something I didn’t know, but don’t for a moment believe. No one believes it. Newspaper people, known to be struggling with big problems for a long time, have at last found The Answer? Fox says so. It’s conventional wisdom, he says, that local independent ownership is their salvation.

The statement is bull. What conventional wisdom says (maybe) is that local independent ownership is worth a try again, and might work out better than corporate chains have. Why would a journalist describe prevailing wisdom in his own business as way dumber than it really is? Because it’s the cheapest way there is to sound smart: defy the conventional wisdom that you just spent $0.0 and zero man hours compiling.

Now a Fortune columnist has to deliver some sort of “payoff,” a point ‘o column. (Which is often the point where the author will put up his arms in a mock “shield” position to indicate all the terrible flak he is going to get for the counter-conventional thought he is duty bound to deliver.) In this case, point ‘o column was… and I know this is hard to believe, but I figured you might accept it if someone with the credibility of a Fortune editor-at-large had the courage to say so… Anyway, it turns out… (cue thundercrack) there actually is no “perfect” answer for newspaper ownership! That’s right. Justin Fox of Fortune found out about it and told the whole world. What’s more, there is no panacea, either. And guess what else? No magic bullet, people. Nuh-uh. Every solution has its pros and cons, guys.

Doesn’t that floor you? So counter-intuitive! But when the pros at Fortune start digging into this stuff… bang, the magic happens.

Justin “Free Pass” Fox therefore writes:

There are also conflicts when employees own a paper (is it there to serve readers, or to provide safe jobs?), and even more when government does. Simply put, there are no large organizations immune from being tugged in several different directions at once.

And here’s the thing: If you had to pick the one governance model best equipped to reconcile the conflicting priorities of owners, employees and customers over time, it is that of the publicly traded corporation.

No, here’s the thing, newspaper journalists. If someone tells you that you are better off with the Gannett Company over, say, the Poynter Institute (see this article) there’s an ideology for sale, for sure. Fox: “Denouncing the American corporate model of rule by Wall Street has become a national pastime.” He’s here to balance the ledger.

That’s because, at a publicly traded company, legions of sharp-eyed, independent observers (a.k.a. investors and potential investors) are constantly investigating the business, weighing short-term against long-term rewards, comparing performance with that of similar companies. They don’t always do a good job of it, and can be maddeningly fickle slaves to fashion. It’s a good thing that there are alternatives to the public-corporation model, so there’s a place to turn when market values are particularly out of whack. But it’s not clear that any of those alternatives really work out better over the long run.

JUSTIN FOX DEFIES CONVENTIONAL WISDOM. We get it. What Fox doesn’t get, I think, is how bald an action his free pass and distortion-of-debate are. The conventional wisdom he was trying to subvert doesn’t exist. Most people who are aware of the newspaper industry’s plight think what Fox thinks: it’s not clear that alternatives to the big media corporation work out better over the long run. Still might be worth a try.

Now you might say: Wait, he just flashed his “gimme, I’m a columnist” card and the people in his organization waved him through into print with a lame and inaccurate characterization based on zero reporting? That’s not quite how I imagined it, no…

Gomer Fortune calls out over the cubicle: Do we accept no examples, no quotes, no names, no links for documenting trends and widely-accepted beliefs in a Fortune article?

Barney Fortune answers back: Column or a news story?

Gomer Fortune: Column by our editor-at-large.

Barney Fortune: Nah, he doesn’t need examples, quotes, names— what else did you say, links?

Gomer: Yeah, links. He doesn’t have any.

Barney: What’s his assertion?

Gomer (looking down at screen): He’s saying that the newspaper industry has found its salvation, and everyone agrees, its local ownership.

Barney: Oh, for something like that I just give him a free pass on what everyone believes. This is a standard de-bunk column, right?

Gomer: Right, a de-bunk. “No panacea.”

Barney: Hey, that’s basic, everything-you-know-is-wrong journalism, Gomer. He needs the free pass to get to the payoff at the end. He’s got a counter-intuitive thingie in there somewhere, doesn’t he?

Gomer (looking at screen again): Sure does. Publicly traded is the way to go for newspapers.

Barney: Bingo. Value added. That’s how we do a Fortune de-bunk.

Gomer: Got it. One more question, just to be sure. If the free pass is in the first paragraph and frames the whole column, it’s still okay, right? Because at another desk I worked at—

Barney: Let me look at that…

Gomer: —they had this thing: shoe leather reporting they called it. Even for columnists!

Barney (reading): “… People in journalism are beginning to question what had become accepted wisdom in the past year or so - that independent, local ownership is the salvation of the ailing newspaper industry.” That’s a perfectly-played senior-columnist prevailing-wisdom free pass. I don’t know what your problem is.

Gomer: Just making sure. And in the online version, we don’t normally add links do we?

Barney: Add links? Then we’d have to find them… The writer should do that— it’s his column.

Gomer: Right. But…

Barney: And the answer to your question is, yes, Gomer, we accept no examples, no quotes, no names, no links for a standard debunker. By a senior columnist.

Gomer: Gotcha.

Barney: If it’s crucial to the columnist’s point.

Gomer: Right.

Dear Free Pass Fox: The actual conversation that real people in your industry are having about local ownership in the newspaper business is nothing like the fact-free observation you tried to peddle in Fortune. Here, let me show you…

Recently the Philadelphia newspapers were sold to local owners. (See PressThink, A Prayer for the Philly Papers.) I reviewed almost all the commentary on the deal, and I found no “salvation” talk. I did find Dick Polman, head political writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, writing cautiously at his blog about it:

It would be foolish to think that the new PMH, helmed by marketing/advertising executive Brian Tierney, will suddenly rain down money on the Inquirer newsroom, restore foreign bureaus, bring back the Sunday magazine, and hire scores of young and hungry reporters. That’s not how the world works.

So nirvana will not dawn tomorrow; nor will we know, in the short term, whether the various special interests that comprise PMH will adhere to their signed pledge to keep their mitts off the newsroom.

Did you hear that, Free Pass? “Nirvana will not dawn tomorrow.” That’s the opposite of “this is our salvation.” Dick Polman is just one voice, of course. But it’s one more than you’ve got in that lazy-ass column you wrote!

“Are there legitimate reasons to have concerns?” asked Chris Hepp, city editor of The Inquirer, shorly after the sale was announced. “Absolutely. The fact that they signed an agreement was an acknowledgment that they know this model holds out the possibility for some pitfalls. But it’s only fair for us to be aware of the potential for a negative, but not to presume a negative. I’m willing to believe the best.”

Be aware that it could go wrong, but don’t presume it will. That doesn’t sound like “salvation is at hand…” It’s through linking and quoting—you know basic, what’s everybody sayin’ journalism—that we learn how wrong you are, Free Pass.

Like Joe Nocera of the New York Times:

Local owners have sacred cows, but they are also far more likely to have real passion for the city the newspaper is charged with covering. In the case of the new owners of the Philadelphia papers, they also seem to have lots of new ideas they want to try. And because the papers will no longer be part of a publicly traded corporation — with no need to feed the Wall Street beast — the cost cutting might finally ease up.

Maybe we should start thinking about newspapers as more like professional sports franchises. Sure, the owners want to make money, but they also have other priorities, so “maximizing profits” is not the only goal. Newspapers and sports franchises are important local institutions. If more local folks start buying newspapers, I think it might be a trend worth applauding.

Compare your characterization—“salvation of the ailing newspaper industry”—to what actual people actually said: “might be a trend worth applauding.” You’re the hysteric here, Free Pass, posing as Mister Cool. You’re not debunking. You’re bunking.

Comes journalism professor Phil Meyer at PressThink: “There’s good and bad local ownership. Katherine Graham turned out to be good. Walter Annenberg turned out to be bad. But you have to give the benefit of the doubt to the new owners in Philaldelphia.”

And here’s Frank Ahrens, Washington Post, scooping you on your phony scoop:

But lest a generation of newspaper journalists — who have watched corporate parents slash costs through layoffs, budget cuts, bureau closings and the like — gets dewy-eyed over the prospect of local, private ownership, [Dean] Singleton warned: “I don’t think there’s a lot of difference between performing well to please your shareholder or performing well to please your bankers.”

Lest a generation of newspaper journalists get dewy-eyed over the prospect… Is that the sound of salvation at hand? I don’t think so, Free Pass. Former editor of the Baltimore Sun and Los Angeles Times John Carroll at Nieman Watchdog:

With the shrinking of the newspaper’s social purpose, we have seen a shrinking of the newspaper journalist. It has happened slowly and subtly, but, if you stand back, as I have lately, it’s all too clear.

The old, local owners were far from perfect. Some of them were good, most were mediocre, and some were downright evil. But, forty years later, local ownership is looking better every day. Someday, I suspect, when we look back on these forty years, we will wonder how we allowed the public good to be so deeply subordinated to private gain.

It is tempting to find a goat here, to single out some individual and heap blame on him or her for the decline of our business. That might be cathartic, but the problem is bigger than that. It is structural. Most of the people in the corporations, and most of the people in the funds, are doing their jobs by the book. Restoring a balance between financial performance and public duty is probably impossible under this form of ownership.

“The old, local owners were far from perfect” is typical of what I hear when people conversant with the newspaper industry discuss new local owners like the ones in Philadelphia.

This last one is from Laura M. Holson of the New York Times business desk.

Local newspapers remain trophies that confer power, prestige and influence on their owners. And some business leaders profess more idealistic goals: to make their community a better place, using the power that comes with owning a powerful institution.

Of course, there can be a downside to local ownership, because buyers may not know much about journalism. And they may also have personal or business agendas that could surface in the newspaper and damage its credibility.

There’s an upside, there’s a downside to local ownership. Reasons to be hopeful, reasons to be wary. Where did you get the idea that your peers don’t know this? (After all, it’s common sense.) I’ll tell you where, Free Pass: you made it up so that your column would be easier to write. But the day when you could get by with that standard is over. Gone. The bar has been raised on opinion journalism. The Web did it, especially the magic of linking and the powers of Google. Where have you been?

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

“Thanks, Jay, for all the loving attention!” Justin Fox replies in the comments: “Of all the many straw men I’ve attempted to bat down over the years, that was one of the least flimsy.”

Now that is an interesting way of putting it. I thought this was one of my sturdier stick figures.

And here’s my answer. “Your original statement was bull, this is bull with rising steam.”

In the comments, he also corrects a misimpression I had. His column was online-only. It did not run in Forbes magazine. That would have changed things slightly. Like Gomer saying, “In the online version, we don’t normally add links do we?” Frankly, I should have checked that. It would have affected Gomer Fortune’s lines.

On the other hand, the system worked. Fox fact checked me.

This post is part of a genre originated by Berkeley economist and blogger Brad Delong, the Why oh Why Can’t We Have a Better Press Corps series, specializing in “cries of frustration, with details and links.” His newest is Where Are the Heirs of Walter Lippman?

Suppose your mother owned a Florida condo that she rented out during the spring and summer. And suppose your siblings asked you how the agent she hired to rent out the condo was doing. How you would report to them—that’s how the press should report on government. In the case of Judd Gregg, the proper report is analogous to, “Well, he’s worked really hard and he’s said he’s saved a lot on maintenance, but actually the savings are really small.” In the case of George Bush, the proper report is, “Well, he said that cutting the rent would mean that we’d get more money because we’d be able to rent the condo more weeks, but it turns out he’s completely disconnected from reality.”

But that’s not a task that it seems that our daily newspaper press can carry out. Reporters describe themselves as under pressure to do “hard news” rather than “analytical” pieces, and “hard news” seems to mean a “he said, she said” story which opens “the President said X” and goes on to say “experts differ” leaving readers with absolutely no clue and no way to judge whether the guys whom we hired last election to do the public-finance equivalent of the family-finance job of managing our mother’s Florida rental property are in fact doing a good job.

Note that my examples are budget examples. I’m one of the budget people. But I have peers in other issue areas. They see the same deficiencies. Whether they are bombs-and-bullets people, striped-pants-diplomacy people, welfare-and-social-policy people, science-and-technology-policy people—they all see the same patterns.

Justin Fox’s blog, where he says about Why being publicly held is best.

It was certainly not my best work, but because it was at least tangentially about the media, Jim Romenesko linked to it yesterday on his much-read site. And because of that, I got an e-mail today from the people at the NPR show On the Media.

He’ll be on this week’s show. Smashing myths, I guess.

Update, July 15: Here’s the show. And here’s the no-one-else-has-the-courage, super counter-intuitive conclusion from Fox: “Private ownership is a mish mosh. Sometimes its great, sometimes its horrible. It doesn’t solve all the problems that newspapers are having.”


Howard Owens responds at his blog with some examples of what he regards as “salvation” thinking. “The fact is, there has been a good deal of talk in journalistic circles about how advantageous it would be for newspapers to get away from public ownership. ‘Conventional wisdom’ may be an overstatement, but it’s still a train of thought worth addressing before we all rush headlong into this new utopia.”

This part from Owens I could agree with: “What is happening in Santa Barbara is far from the norm. But this whole debate sprung up because of the alleged antics of Wendy McCaw. Those events should give journalists pause. That’s all.”

Matt Welch, now of the opinion section of the Los Angeles Times, also of the Santa Barbara discussion, in the comments:

A life preserver or piece of ratty driftwood does not need to be desirable in the least to nevertheless act as “salvation” to a drowning man. I have seen the local-non-Wall-Street-ownership concept used frequently in such a context … save us, Obi-Won! You’re our only hope! Steve Lopez at the L.A. Times, most prominently in my world.

In this case “salvation” would maybe be hyperbole, but only just. Do not underestimate the desperation of the modern newspaper employee.

Perhaps the most curious thing of all, vis-a-vis ownership models and the Santa Barbara News-Press, is that the journalists there haven’t yet figured out (at least as far as I’ve been able to tell) that it’s pretty damned cheap to start a daily newspaper nowadays. Tomorrow’s salvation could be today’s gumption. If the entire staff quit, then raised money from outraged locals to start a competing daily, McCaw would have a husk of a paper, expensive outdated equipment, and a drastic depreciation on her hands, perhaps precipitating a firesale.

And see this interview with Welch.

Speaking of the Santa Barbara newspaper discussion, Doc Searls, who lives there, has been all over it; and he’s got the links. Most recently here, but also here and here. I learned how to link from Searls (and Dave Winer). Free Pass Fox should take notes from those two.

Richard Brenneman, a reporter for the family-owned Berkeley Daily Planet, at Romenesko’s letters: “I’ve worked for both privately and shareholder-owned papers during my 42 years in this bizarre business, and I have to say that — despite the travails that come with nutty owners (and I’ve seen a few) — give me private ownership any day.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at July 14, 2006 12:03 AM