Media Maneuvers—Here's the back story: Knight Ridder, previously the second-largest publishing company in the United States, was recently bought up by McClatchy, a company only a little more than a third the size. To understand what this means for the industry, I called Dennis Herrick, an instructor at UNM's Communication and Journalism Department who used to be a newspaper broker, owned a daily for 12 years and who authored Media Management in the Age of Giants.
Herrick had a lot of interesting things to say about the deal. For instance, he said it was the first time in the history of the newspaper business that stockholders forced the sale of a chain. That doesn't bode well for those of us concerned about who's making big decisions for the media. Twelve “orphans,” papers McClatchy doesn't want, are being sold off for, the company hopes, about $2 billion, according to an April 1 article in the Los Angeles Times.
But Herrick's not a fan of big chains. “They're jeopardizing our First Amendment protections for the bottom line,” he said. You see, the media industry is unique in its constitutional protection. It gets that protection by providing a public service: informing the public so our government can function properly. But Wall Street stockholders aren't interested in service. They want to see profits. They want to see them now, because they don't usually hold onto an investment for more than three to five years. And they'll sacrifice long-term growth—good reporters and good reporting—for that bottom line.
Here comes the cool part. The Newspaper Guild-Communications Workers of America, a media union, put up a bid to buy several of the orphans on March 28. The Guild is allied with Yucaipa Cos., a Los Angeles private equity firm. Now, I'm not an expert on the integrity of this union or its commitment to public service, but if the Newspaper Guild is all it should be, this just might be the kind of revolutionary thinking that salvages the honor of U.S. papers.
Think of it. A big part of the reason folks are losing faith in their dailies is because they know who's running the show—media giants who care more about profit than they do about honesty and quality. In fact, according to Herrick, 13 newspaper chains own 54 percent of our country's daily print media. “Not since the '30s or '40s have we seen a mass general paper owned by a union,” Herrick said. “I'd love to see it happen. I'd be very interested to see how it works.”
Maybe I'm an idealist. But such a transaction might mean those papers could focus on increasing sales with killer reporting, clean copy and excellent design instead of cutting costs by amputating all those “extras” in a newsroom. And it could be the first step in regaining the public trust.