Save the newspapers

You don’t have to read newspapers to know that the industry is in trouble. There is a growing list of high-profile bankruptcies (most notably the Tribune Company) and Hearst is now seriously threatening to close two major dailies in large markets unless new owners can be found. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer  has only weeks to live. Denver might lose the Rocky Mountain News. And now the wobbly Chronicle puts San Francisco at the top of the list of cities that might shortly lose their main newspaper. At least the Chron still has an “if” in the picture (although not a pleasant scenario to the employees who will bear the brunt of cost savings, which still might not be enough to change the outcome). The P-I is definitely going to cease printing unless a buyer is found, and might simply cease to exist.

The situation is not quite so dire in Sacramento, although McClatchy newspapers and its flagship paper The Bee are both having a rough time and making deep cuts. And this week The Bee’s editor started a conversation about the future of newspapers, so things might be worse than they are letting on. We might well follow in San Francisco’s footsteps, so we should think now about a plan B if we get the bad news that a buyer is needed. 

Considering the global nature of the financial turmoil, it is not clear where such potential buyers will be found. Perhaps this would be a good time for extraterrestrials bearing gold to arrive and inject some capital. Of course, that would add an entirely different level of concern over whether media that is not community-based can adequately cover the community’s issues. My colleague in Washington would probably share this concern.

Even if a bargain-hunting vulture capitalist is willing to snatch up dying papers and run them on the cheap, they would be a sad shadow of their former selves. 

So is this it? Are we witnessing the death spiral of the newspaper? Perhaps the prospective buyers are closer to home. Consider two possible solutions.

A cooperative of subscribers could be formed, to which profits would be returned equally, and under whose governance the paper would be published. This would simultaneously address perennial concerns of bias, while helping the paper to weather the economic storm.

Another model would be employee ownership, although the recent bankruptcy of the Tribune Company shows the dangers of that path. Reporters don’t generally have huge investment funds at their disposal, and in that case they were suckered in over their heads by a much more sophisticated major investor.

There could also be a combination of employee and subscriber ownership, perhaps in conjunction with current investors who would rather surrender some control than see the operation liquidate. In any case, the need for the paper to be profitable would be reduced to the extent that ownership is transferred to people with another motive besides profitable investments (i.e. having a job or having a newspaper in our town).

The value of community ownership is shown by its ability to maintain essential community institutions. This can be seen in the stories of the Green Bay Packers, the Powell Mercantile (in Wyoming) and the Garnet Mercantile (in Ely, NV) and the recuperated factories of Argentina.

There is more to life than profitablity but we need a paradigm shift to achieve it. At a time that the profit motive is failing all around us, we have to get creative in our efforts to find a new way to maintain our own institution.In all cases an operation needs to break even, but the more that profit can be reduced as the reason for investment, the better the survival chances of any newspaper (or any other business). And we should also remember that investment will be needed, and the current financial conditions make it unlikely that many people will be in the position to ante up for their paper, even if there is a great long-term advantage. It will be risky and difficult, but we’ve got to try something.

I grew up carrying The Bee and went to McClatchy High School and the town just wouldn’t be the same without it. But anyone who is hoping for anything to stay the same will surely be disappointed. Change is inevitable and we need to find ways to move it in positive directions.

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