Wednesday, September 4, 2013

SELL OFF: MORE NEWSPAPERS CHANGE HANDS...AGAIN

I always become a little unnerved every time I read about another newspaper or newspaper group being sold, and with good reason. Sometimes those sales can make things better for the papers changing hands, but sometimes they make matters worse -- anywhere from marginally to much worse.

I know whereof I speak. Seven of the nine newspapers I worked for during my career have been sold at least once since I started there -- and almost none of those puts out as good a news product as it did when I was working there. This, at least to me, seems to be the case particularly when newspapers end up -- for whatever reason -- being acquired by investment banking groups which don't care about the news product so much as they do the money they can make or, in the case of bankruptcy acquisitions, recover.

However, declines in news product quality are not always the direct fault of new owners. Often, it seems to have more to do with the deterioration of newspaper economics in general and the quality and/or dedication to the business and the craft of the talent that has come into the business in the years since I became a newspaper person. Those things, at least in my opinion, are to some to certain degree related.

With the erosion of newspaper economics since newspaper employment peaked in 1990, we've witnessed significant staff reductions and frozen or, in many cases, reduced salaries, all of which have had a chilling impact on talented news people who were already in the business and have served to deter many who might have been talented news staffers from getting into the business. To put it bluntly, dedication is sometimes pretty hard to engender and/or keep when talented people are getting paid wages that continue in relative decline every time the cost of living inches up even marginally. It also keeps getting more and more difficult to attract quality talent at the salaries being offered. To look at it another way, you get what you pay for.

Today we have word of yet another newspaper sell off. According to the Wall Street Journal, News Corp. announced that it has sold Dow Jones Local Media Group -- consisting of 33 largely east coast papers formerly known as the Ottaway community newspapers -- to an affiliate of Fortress Investment Group. News Corp., as you probably know, is those friendly folks who bring you the always "fair and balanced" Fox News Channel and, among other publications, The Wall Street Journal, where the sale announcement appeared. Among the larger or better known newspapers included in the sale are the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y.; the Cape Cod Times in Hyannis, Mass.; and The Record in Stockton, Calif.

On behalf of the new owners, the group of sold newspapers will be managed by Gatehouse Media, which the WSJ story describes as "one of the largest publishers of locally-based print and online media in the U.S."

According to the WSJ story, "News Corp. acquired the papers when it bought Dow Jones & Co. in 2007. It tried briefly to sell the papers at that time but pulled them off the market in 2008. In fiscal 2012, the papers' average daily circulation was more than 188,000 and the Sunday circulation was over 238,000."

What this will mean for the 33 sold newspapers and their staffs remains to be seen, but there is one potentially encouraging aspect to this sale. Although the papers are being acquired by an investment group -- which likely knows zip about running newspapers -- the management of the newly acquired properties is at least being turned over to a company that DOES know something about running newspapers, Gatehouse Media.

Even though Gatehouse several years ago acquired one of my former papers, The State Journal-Register in Springfield, Ill., I really don't know a lot about them and what I have heard is sort of mixed reviews. I will say, however, that I have not really noticed any appreciable decline in the SJ-R -- which I still follow online --  beyond what it experienced toward the end of its ownership by the now defunct Copley Newspapers. And I know of at least one important change for the better.

Under Gatehouse, the editor of The State Journal-Register is no longer required to endorse ONLY Republican candidates for political office as I was forced to do under the rigidly enforced policies in place when the paper was owned by Copley. Because of that policy, I was at one point obliged to endorse for election to the Lincoln Land Community College board of trustees a Republican candidate who was under federal indictment -- and later convicted -- for misdirecting hundreds of thousand of dollar from the state agency he was an assistant director of to a company owned by his wife. My argument that the Democratic candidate was better qualified, more honest and free of any background scandal fell on deaf Copley corporate ears.

My hope for these 33 newly sold newspapers is that they will be part of what I think is becoming an encouraging recent trend in newspaper sales -- acquisition by new owners who are, or who at least say they are, committed to maintaining and/or upgrading the quality of the editorial product.

This has been the case with recent sales of such papers as The Washington Post and The Boston Globe and the earlier sales of Richmond, Va., based Media General's newspapers to billionaire businessman Warren Buffett and the sale some of the properties formerly owned by Irvine, Calif., based Freedom Newspapers -- most notably the Orange County Register and Colorado Springs Gazette and the paper from which I retired as editor four months ago, The Monitor in McAllen Texas.

The Monitor, along with Freedom's other Texas properties -- The Valley Morning Star in Harlingen, The Brownsville Herald, The Odessa American, the Mid-Valley Town Crier in Weslaco, and Coast Currents at South Padre Island -- were acquired a little over a year ago by a new company, AIM Media Texas, headquartered in McAllen. AIM quite literally rescued the Texas papers from the investment bankers who took over Freedom after its bankruptcy and nearly gutted all of its properties as they sought to recover their investment made in the company while it was still owned by the Hoiles family. AIM's top principals are skilled, highly experienced, professional newspaper executives who understand that news content is just as important to the future of a local newspaper as advertising revenues.

Although some of those, like Buffett, who've made some of the recent newspaper acquisitions are not as experienced in newspaper management as AIM's top execs, they have all talked about maintaining and/or upgrading the news product as opposed to engaging in further cuts at their new properties.

Only time will tell whether they are really going to live up to their words, but the talk is sufficiently encouraging that I am slowly growing less unnerved when I hear about yet another newspaper sale.

 
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