Anybody Want to Buy a Newspaper?

Anybody Want to Buy a Newspaper?

Under pressure from Wall Street, newspaper journalism is being frog-marched out of the media marketplace. And once it’s gone, how will we know anything?


When is making 20 to 30 percent profit not enough? When the stock price of the company making it is too low to satisfy the firm’s major shareholders. Profit, which used to be the measure of business success, has taken a back seat to share price, even if it means the destruction of the company.

That is what happened to America’s second-largest newspaper chain, Knight Ridder. Private Capital Management LP, the investor that owns 19 percent of the newspaper chain, which operates some of the best and best-known papers in the country, is complaining that KR’s stock is too damn cheap. The company, whose properties include the Philadelphia Inquirer, San Jose Mercury News, Miami Herald and twenty-nine other papers, has tried everything to raise its share price. It has bought back its stock, it has paid out dividends and doubtless consulted Tibetan wisepersons, but nothing had worked until the news broke that management might be selling the whole kit and caboodle. On the news of a possible sale share prices shot upward.

Knight Ridder is reputed to be a well-run outfit. Its papers have won more than its quota of Pulitzers and other awards, and it was the only major media outlet to express skepticism about weapons of mass destruction before the United States invaded Iraq. But quality doesn’t pay in the news business. Often schlock doesn’t either. In the six months ending October 1, eighteen of the nation’s twenty largest papers, the good ones and the bad ones, continued the long-term trend by losing circulation yet again.

Even as newspapers continue to lose paid circulation, many are gaining readers. “The Philadelphia Inquirer has more readers than it has ever had if you factor in the Web. We have well over 1 million readers,” says Anne Gordon, managing editor of the Inquirer, which has been losing paid circulation for many years. Online readership does nothing for the bottom line.

The stock of some companies, like the Washington Post‘s mothership, is high enough to keep its investors very happy, but no thanks to its famous prestige product. What keeps the Post company in the long green is its ownership of TV stations and Kaplan Inc., the megalithic educational services profit producer.

After the excitement on Wall Street at the prospect of the fees to be generated by selling a $3 billion-a-year company, some people began to ask, “Yeah, but who’s going to buy Knight Ridder?” Not me, said the fly, as would-be purchasers wondered if newspapers are not like railroads, steel mills and airlines: big, draggy, low-profit operations with a dubious future in the time of the Internet, when young people sing, dance, copulate and/or go to church but don’t read papers.

Indifferent to newspaper profits being among the highest of all categories of business, investors, convinced that newspapers are doomed, will not bid up their share prices. Newspaper companies, frantic for higher prices for their stock, continue to cut costs, which usually turns out to mean cutting staff. So far this year, almost 2,000 newspaper jobs have vanished.

Other than the wire services, newspapers do virtually all news-gathering and fact-finding for the mass media. It is assuredly not done by broadcast media, where reporters are notable for their rarity, and what passes for in-house generated news stories is a good-looking anchor carrying on an inane conversation with a show business personality. Outside the decrepit world of print journalism, everybody else in the media is essentially in the repackaging business. They take what they read in the morning papers, rework it and present it as their own. Even PBS’s highly regarded NewsHour With Jim Lehrer would be reduced to its tedious, softball interviews with big shots if it did not have warmed-over New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal stories to air.

As hip and edgy and so tomorrow as are blogs, podcasting and whatever else may be the digital thing of the moment, their content is rumor, supposition and opinion, save for the hard facts developed by newspaper and wire service reporters.

Since reportorial journalism, under pressure from Wall Street, is being phased out at a measured and dignified tempo, when the last reporter is handed his congé and departs for a public relations job with a drug company, it is possible no one will notice.

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