Wednesday, August 5, 2015
The Last Good Owners
A wise old newspaper editor — it may have been Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post, but I’m not sure — was once asked by a journalism student if the editor was the key to a good newspaper. He shook his head.
Nope, he told the kid, the most important person in a good newspaper isn’t the editor, or even the publisher. It’s the owner. Without an owner who’s willing to spend money on news coverage and stand up to threats, no editor, however good, can accomplish much.
If it was indeed Bradlee who said that, he spoke from experience. His owner was Kay Graham, and she was a great owner. Nothing lasts forever, and the Post is now under the ownership of Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. So far, from what I’ve read, he seems willing to spend money and try different things, but the jury is still out on whether he’ll attain great-owner status.
All in the Family
Great newspapers have typically been a labor of love for families that had been in the business a long time and regarded the paper as an extension of their identity. I’m thinking here of families like the Grahams of the Post; the Ochs and Sulzbergers of the New York Times; the Chandlers of the Los Angeles Times, and the Binghams of the Louisville Courier-Journal.
And, to be fair, there were always plenty of terrible family-owned newspapers, where the crusading spirit of the founder had long since faded away, and the descendants were content to make no waves and cash the quarterly dividend checks.
From the 1960s to the 1980s a great many family papers were bought by large chains, which saw their monopoly on a local advertising market as something worth a premium. In a few instances, the chains made the paper better (if for no other reason than it could hardly have gotten worse) by bringing a scintilla of professionalism to it.
In most cases, though, the chains were content to cut the staff, cut other expenses, and raise advertising and circulation rates to a level that a local owner would have blushed at. The customers might not have liked it, but for years those papers were cash cows generating profit margins of 30-40 percent, sometimes more.
Gone Are The Days
The Internet killed all that, beginning in the mid 1990s. The newspaper business will never again be a place where you could almost put a chimpanzee in charge of the operation, and still sit back and collect hefty rents from the advertisers and subscribers. The gutting of the old business model, though, has rained on the just and the unjust alike.
There are a few weekly papers and small-town dailies that are still doing all right, and that have owners who care about the paper and what it means to the community. But of the four owners I mentioned earlier, only the Sulzbergers are still running the paper as a family operation. The Times is the best there is now, but it’s limping along financially.
A lot of smart people don’t think newspapers will be around much longer, and if something comparable were rising to take their place, I wouldn’t worry too much about that. Some day the Times may no longer exist, or will exist without the Sulzbergers, whom I think of as the last good owners, in some greatly diminished form. All I can hope is that it doesn’t happen for a long time, and that I’m not around when it does.