Thursday, November 09, 2006

Something a-foot with newspapers

First of all, I'm pleased to use "a-foot" in the title. And second of all, what media blogger isn't writing about newspapers - falling readership, ownership, blah blah blah. Sorry to jump into the fray. I mean, what business do I have? I edit books, and wouldn't know how to write or edit a newspaper piece if my life depended on it. But hell, why should that stop me?

And ain't it curious that both in Los Angeles and here in Boston, rich locals are thinking of buying the newspapers. In Boston, it's retired GE chief exec Jack Welch and adman Jack Connors, and in LA it's David Geffen, bizarrely, and others like billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad and Ron Burkle, who may all end up bidding against each other.

Now my interest in this phenomenon is derived from the same interests that started this blog - stay with me now. I have been thinking lately, due to a chat with a potential author and good thinker, about how we're more connected than ever, with the internet and all, but with the easing of such pathways, we seems to be getting less accountable. I know, this isn't mind-boggling, cutting edge thought, but it's baby steps. I'm getting there.

So offhand, locals trying to buy a paper is good news. These articles talk about local control. The Globe piece points out: "An effort to return the Globe to local ownership would put Boston in line with what is going on in several other cities as pressures from the Internet remake the newspaper industry." In discussing the philanthropist's bid for the LA Times, the article mentions "the Los Angeles civic leaders' interest in bringing The Times back under local ownership. "

The media map that could arise from this movement is not some idealistic, Vermont-esque system of independently owned and operated, mom-and-pop newspapers focusing on local issues. Anti-corporate and invested in community. I mean, I did say David Geffen and Jack Welch, after all - both kings of merger lifestyles. Though the Globe claims:
Like business leaders in other cities who have explored buying their local newspapers from large media companies, Welch, 70, and Connors, 64, see buying the Globe as a civic investment as much as a financial one, say the executives involved in the effort. Welch and Connors hope to return the paper to its community roots and stem continuing cutbacks in the editorial budgets and losses in advertising and circulation.

Instead, let's be honest: these businessmen must be envisioning a way to make these papers profitable. The money is driving the trend with the world's leading capitalists jumping in. What do they see? And what does it mean for the writing in these papers? The subject matter, the editorial choices, the mission of these papers?

Maybe monopolizing corporate control of media will change in newspapers, but I would say those of us with a vested interest in a free and diverse media world should watch this trend closely. The papers could end up competing with each other for the best content online, hoping for national websites linking up to their local paper websites due to the quality of writing - that would benefit the locals, who would hopefully see the benefits of good writing in their physical papers that drop on their doorsteps daily (see nytimes, to some extent). But if these fatcats buy up the papers and then find, as in Philadelphia - the same article in the Globe mentions, "In Philadelphia, the new local owners are already saying layoffs are "unavoidable" because of a "permanent" decline in national newspaper advertising" - that the papers are not turning a profit, we could see a bargain sale happening and the papers truly in freefall, as discussed by Jeff Jarvis in a Guardian piece last week.

I myself still enjoy papers like the Weekly Dig in Boston, the Houston Press, Seattle's Stranger, the Austin Chronicle, even the Village Voice (though less so these days) - free papers with locally oriented editors who insist on critical if often snarky writing. These papers are good for local issues, for my money, and have some great editors working for them.

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