AJR  Columns
From AJR,   February/March 2007

The Conventional Wisdom Trap   

When it comes to newspaper ownership, saviors are elusive.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.     

The trouble with conventional wisdom is that often it's stronger on the conventional than on the wisdom. That's certainly true when it comes to newspaper ownership.

Take the case of Knight Ridder. When the beleaguered, fading company was bullied into putting itself up for sale, the prevailing view was that the best ending would be for its papers to wind up in the hands of McClatchy. This aging righthander may even have written a column to that effect (see "White Knight?" Web special). The thinking was, McClatchy had an audacious, dynamic chief executive, and it still seemed to embrace the quaint if not vanishing notion that quality journalism was important.

Actually, McClatchy may well have been the best bet, given the terrifying lack of attractive alternatives. But it's certainly an outcome that evokes far less enthusiasm than it did in the day.

No sooner had McClatchy sealed the deal than it cast off the Knight Ridder papers deemed to be in slow-growth markets and/or incapable of making enough money. The message was clear: Quality journalism is fine, but only when it's way lucrative.

Then came this shocker in late December: Out of the blue, the company jettisoned its flagship Star Tribune in Minneapolis, selling it to the private equity firm Avista Capital Partners.

What a turnaround. When the company bought the Star Tribune in 1998 for an eye-popping $1.2 billion, it served notice that McClatchy was on the move and that its CEO, the body surfing and rock 'n roll loving Gary Pruitt, was indeed a player.

Who would have guessed that eight years later, McClatchy would be dumping its largest paper for less than half of what it paid for it? Instead of an important news outlet, a major voice in a big city, the Star Tribune had become in McClatchy's eyes a drain on the company's profit margins and an opportunity for a big tax break.

In these dark times for ink-on-paper, with readers and advertisers defecting to the Internet in droves, Pruitt had emerged as an evangelist about the bright future of newspapers. This fire sale sent a very different message.

As Colby Atwood, an analyst at the media research firm Borrell Associates, told the New York Times, "They're buying cash flow and tax benefits. It's not the sort of religious commitment that you hope to get from newspaper owners."

Or take the conventional wisdom about ownership. In recent years public ownership of newspapers has gotten more bad ink than Terrell Owens. Wall Street's nefarious profit pressures are so strong, the argument goes, that in a time of transformation and challenge, when a big-picture approach is essential to survival, publicly held newspapers are obsessed with quarterly profits. The result: foolhardy short-term thinking, shuttered bureaus, slashed staffs and little regard for journalism quality.

So maybe it's time to cue up the old private ownership model and escape the tyranny of the quarterly numbers, right? The initial McClatchy sell-off quickly put this theory to the test. The Akron Beacon Journal, the Knight brothers' first newspaper, wound up in the hands of a private company headed by Canadian David Black. Before you knew it, Black had laid off a quarter of the newsroom staff.

Then came the latest sad chapter in the Philadelphia story. The once-mighty Inquirer and its sibling, the Daily News, had suffered repeated bouts of bloodletting before the Knight Ridder endgame. After McClatchy passed on them, the papers ended up with a group of local businessmen.

No matter that the leader of the owning consortium, public relations executive Brian Tierney, had at times been a bitter antagonist of the Inquirer (see "Life with Brian," August/September ). After the relentless shrinkage, the staff was ready to be out from under what columnist Tom Ferrick Jr. called the "cold, dead hand of Knight Ridder."

The new owners made all the right noises. Strong newspapers, they said, were important to the community--their community. They promised not to interfere in news decisions. And rather than cut, they said they would invest in the papers.

But there was at least one skeptic. When the Philly papers were sold, former Knight Ridder head honcho Tony Ridder called me to take issue with a column I had written about the deal. Among other things, he expressed his incredulity about that "investing in the papers" business.

Guess he was on to something. In January, the Inquirer laid off 68 newsroom employees--17 percent of its newsroom staff. The casualties included occasional AJR contributor Natalie Pompilio, a talented, committed reporter who had covered Iraq for the Inquirer. She also was one of a handful who reported from dangerous, devastated New Orleans immediately after Hurricane Katrina.

When this business starts laying off the Natalie Pompilios of the world, that's a truly bad sign.