Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Is corporate journalism dying? Oh, I suppose...

In today's USA Today, author and former journalist Dan Neuhart comments on the sale of newspaper company Knight Ridder:

[Knight Ridder founder John] Knight's company became, if not a prisoner of Wall Street, a casualty. Its big-city papers had greater downturns in profits during recessions than did newspapers in smaller cities. Analysts downgraded Knight Ridder's stock ratings and groused about its profits. The company responded with periodic belt-tightening. Some journalists said it went overboard, notably Jay Harris, publisher of the company's flagship San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News; he resigned in 2001 rather than institute what he called "deep and ill-advised staff reductions.

Last year a large, institutional shareholder — unhappy despite Knight Ridder's 16% operating profit margin, which lagged margins in the mid-twenties for some newspaper companies — pushed Knight Ridder to sell itself. No matter that a 16% margin is exceptional among American businesses. By comparison, hotel companies average an 11% operating profit margin, makers of office supplies average 7% and grocers less than 4%.

It matters that newspaper leaders hold strong journalistic sensibilities when facing shareholder pressure to maximize profits. The nation's 13 major publicly traded newspaper companies publish half the 54.6 million copies of newspapers we read every day...

Investor pressure will also touch our future if newspaper websites — logging 54 million visits a month by the end of 2005, up 30% from a year earlier — replace newspapers as our primary source for comprehensive local news...

And we must wonder: How dedicated will the leaders of publicly traded news companies be to spending the money necessary to publish hard-hitting, top-notch newspapers and websites that profit their communities' well-being, even if it means somewhat lower profits for shareholders?


Part of me wants to yawn...this is old news and my capacity for outrage has all but vanished. Corporate journalism is dying, killed by commercial and ideological pressures of all kinds; the much more interesting question is, what business and editorial models are replacing it?

Speaking of old news: way back on Oct. 25, 2005, music journalist and Can't Stop Won't Stop author Jeff Chang commented on the merger of New Times and Village Voice Media. It's a great comment, and deserves being cited:

Competition in the "alternative weekly" sector has been all but eliminated. The New Times is adding magazines like the Los Angeles Weekly, City Pages, and Seattle Weekly to its list, and will command 25% of the market.

It is now the Clear Channel of alt-weeklies...

From the point of view of the principals, the NT/VVM merger is the next logical step in rationalizing the industry.

Here's a business that started in the McCarthyist 50s as a true alternative--the papers used to be called 'undergrounds'--and took flight during the "whole world is watching" media explosion of the 60s. Lots of assholes got exposed, lots of rebels got their shine, and lots of cutting-edge culture got introduced to the world. Then, just like a lot of lefty orgs in the 70s and 80s, the alt-weeklies began to implode. Those decades were rife with purges, shakeouts, closures, and union-busting drives.

All these burned bridges were long forgotten by the go-go 90s, when dot-com money flooded alt-weeklies across the country. That's when VCs started checking out the scene, and corporate hounds like [New Times CEO James] Larkin started moving in...

But then the bubble burst, and everyone was assed-out again...

What media conglomerates began to learn after 2000 was that it wasn't enough to be the big daddy, to have collected all the pieces on the Monopoly board. Properties actually had to make money, and after the bubble, there was a whole lotta head-scratching going on...

In the meantime, the thing that got the alternative press going in the first place--content--suffers.

The Voice, sort of the alt-weekly of record, has been undergoing an extreme makeover during the past 3 years, heading towards a NT template: shorter, less substantive pieces, writing that veers toward breezy over deep, less investigative and more pop-cultural. Some of the changes have been good, a necessary updating for a new generation of readers. Others have left great writers like Gary Giddins (and many others who, unlike Giddins, decided to stay) completely denatured...

When the paper becomes only about selling the latest CD, concert ticket, movie ticket, sex toy, or call-girl service, what the hell is "alternative" about that?...

I'm gonna pour a little out on the sidewalk for the alt-weekly, then I'm gonna go try and find me a real alternative.


Exactly. Don't mourn, organize! Or, in this case, keep writing, publishing, innovating, and scaling up the true alternatives.

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