Writing for the Century Foundation, Peter Osnos uses the publication of The New York Times: The Complete Front Pages 1951-2008 to do that which has become terribly passe among media critics: he reminds us both of the importance of the NYT as a cultural institution, and of the fact that most of what it does it does very well:
But the New York Times accomplishes so much, in so many ways, every day, that on scale alone, its role as a chronicler is indispensable. What matters most though is its core values as a gatherer and interpreter of news. In the midst of a crisis in which its very survival is at stake, the Times’ commitment to quality and depth has not wavered. All that is being done to fortify the Times brand—Sulzberger has been talking for almost twenty years about the need to be “platform agnostic” —is about covering the news in all of its dimensions.
Osnos then goes on to suggest–as have many financial analysts–that the NYT Company would be better off divesting itself of the Boston Globe:
What is also true is that the Times’ commitment to protect its primary role does not extend to the Boston Globe (and presumably its smaller newspapers), where cutbacks have been deep and damaging. If ever there were a candidate for a benevolent takeover by community leaders or financiers, the Boston Globe would be it.
While I applaud Osnos’s applause of the Times–what a pity that this is actually an act of editorial bravery–I think his logic as it relates to the ownership structure of newspapers is as wet as was my copy of the Austin American Statesman this morning.
First, the notion of a ”benevolent takeover by community leaders” or financiers both is fantastical and fraught with unintended consequences. First and most obviously, The Globe has value which NYT shareholders would need to extract before the paper was “taken over” by anyone. It is certainly possible that someone with a lot of money, ego, and civic spirit–Jack Welch is often mentioned–could come along and pay $500 million or so for a declining business.
Okay, let’s go down that road. First of all, Welch is not nearly wealthy enough to do the whole deal himself, so let’s assume that he rounds up a team of Brahmins–John Henry, Leo Hindrey, etc.–to throw in with him. Then there’s a bank–you don’t think these guys, however benevolent–would actually do this entirely with their own money, do you? Even though every leveraged newspaper deal in the last 3 years is deeply underwater, let’s assume that a bank steps up to provide, say $100 million of the purchase price.
Something tells me that at the first board meeting of the now independent Globe, benevolence would not likely the most abundant commodity in the room. The unions are yelling at the new owners. The economy remains in the toilet, decimating the rate cards for both print and–yikes! on-line–with CPMs going into a tailspin as new competition for local advertising and the volume of remnant advertising inventory both go the other directoin. Says someone: “wait, how benevolent did we say we were going to be?” (It might be wise to have the phone number for the Minneapolis Star Tribune handy in that regard). Says the bank representative: “well, I’ll tell you exactly how benevolent you’re not going to be; we already agreed on it. ” Somebody should also have handy the phone number for the lawyer who served the Bancroft family, just in case.
You get the picture.
I suppose it’s more likely–because of the smaller check sizes–that truly community spirited individuals could buy some of the Times’s smaller properties, and run them with the attitude of a vanity restaurant owner–”if we make money it’s an accident.”
But here’s what I find so upside-down about all of this. First of all, small, local papers are probably the best situated to be run like real businesses. They have the most defensible franchises , the fewest union problems, the lowest overhead, and there’s not much confusion about what their customers want and need from them: coverage of local government, education, sports, weather, and entertainment. There’s actually not that much distance between “civic mission” and “for-profit strategy.” Playing Newspaper God, let’s leave them to be run like real businesses by the Times Company.
Back to the Globe. Papers in markets the size of Boston are in the most difficult spot. They are confused about what their readers really want, have serious union problems and very high fixed cost structures. As Osnos points out, papers like the Globe don’t serve anything like the “paper of record” function that the Times does. Ultimately The Globe probably has more in common with its small town neighbors than it does with the Times. Globe management should go to the Times Co. board and say, “look, we need to be almost completely on-line with a narrowed range of coverage within a year and a half. That will probalby cream the stock price, but it’s the only sensible strategic move.” So as newspaper God, I say, “let the Globe take the tough medicine but let the Times shareholders pay for it.” This is as it should be. And besides, I am Newspaper God.
Which leaves us with the Gray Lady herself. The logical inconsistency I find in Osnos’s assessment is that because the Times so important to the country, it should be the remaining asset in the New York Times Co. My inner Newspaper God suggests just the opposite: Let the Times Co. continue to run the slimmed down Globe and the local dailies with their eye 100% on the bottom line, as should be in the case when you’ve taken on these pesky critters called “shareholders.”
Don’t sell the Globe; sell the Times. Sell it for something like $1b to a group of shareholders to run it literally as a public trust. That is, as a non-profit, 501c3, the sole objective of which is to provide a maximum of high-quality, innovative journalism in the public interest. It takes donations just like public radio; it continues to accept advertising or corporate sponsorships. And importantly, the buyers agree to raise an endowment the size of a mid-sized, “Little Ivy” university. An endowment the size of Smith College’s–$3b–would endow in perpetuity the vast majority of the Times’s newsroom expenses.
Phone numbers to have handy: Gates, Buffet, Omidyar…
You get the picture.