The best analysis on the titanic but little-noticed shift in media last week comes from New York Times media columnist David Carr. “In just over a week,” he writes,
three of the biggest players in American newspapers—Gannett, Tribune Company and E. W. Scripps, companies built on print franchises that expanded into television—dumped those properties like yesterday’s news in a series of spinoffs.
The recent flurry of divestitures scanned as one of those movies about global warming where icebergs calve huge chunks into churning waters.
Those spun-off chunks include: USA Today, the Louisville Courier-Journal, The Cincinnati Enquirer, the Detroit Free Press (all from Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper company); the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun (split off by the Tribune Company—the company the Koch brothers considered buying last year until protests drove them back); and the Commercial Appeal in Memphis and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (dumped by Scripps and its new partner, Journal Communications).
This month’s break-ups follow similar spin-offs in 2013 by both Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. and Time Warner. Carr is typically clear-sighted on what this all means for journalism, but the fine grist of his analysis oddly seems to miss the, really any, culprit.
Carr does chronicle the shaggy treatment the newborn print companies have tended to receive from their former bosses, including saddling them with crushing debt. Time Warner handed Time Inc., the spun-off magazine business, $1.3 billion in debt, he writes: “Swim for your life, executives at the company seemed to be saying, and by the by, here’s an anchor to help you on your way.” For its part, Scripps gave the new print company, Tribune Publishing, “$350 million in debt as a parting gift.”
After years of layoffs, many staff members were immediately told that they had to reapply for jobs when the split was announced. In an attempt to put some lipstick on an ugly pivot, Stefanie Murray, executive editor of The Tennessean, promised readers “an ambitious project to create the newsroom of the future, right here in Nashville. We are testing an exciting new structure that is geared toward building a dynamic, responsive newsroom.” (Jim Romenesko, who blogs about the media industry, pointed out that Gannett also announced “the newsroom of the future” in 2006.)