My theory? The brief era of corporate newspapering is moving quickly into history.
This week’s ballyhooed purchases of The Boston Globe and The Washington Post highlight a phase of moguls in other businesses snapping up big papers for cheap. Are these for vanity? Maybe, or perhaps a few others see what Warren Buffett saw when he started buying small and medium-sized papers a little over a year ago.
Call it the billionaire play. Closer to my heart, the San Diego Union-Tribune, bought in late 2011 by a real estate billionaire, a year ago purchased the rival North County Times where I worked before landing here. Then they closed it.
What a USA Today columnist coined as rich guys replacing chains as newspaper owners has swept across the country, and particularly in Southern California. San Diego, the Orange County Register .... And then there’s The Los Angeles Times, up for sale with its sister The Chicago Tribune, both bought and bankrupted by another billionaire real estate guy, Sam Zell.
Thinking about this, I guess theory is the wrong word. It’s just an observation of a medium we like to portray as archaic, slow-moving and a dinosaur, but in reality it has changed constantly throughout its history.
Geologically speaking, it wasn’t so long ago that morning papers were pushing out afternoon papers, and communities with several papers were becoming one-paper towns.
The technological changes have been relative lightning. Not that long ago, one color picture in a paper took hours to produce, for instance. Now we just place them.
A professional class of journalists is blink of an eye in our history, and not necessarily such a great development. Education didn’t make their stories better, just a little more all the same and with a lot less personality.
Fox News is back to the future, when papers proudly touted their biases instead of disguising them or pretending humans were automatons.
I think the billionaire phase will pass relatively quickly, and much faster than the corporate model. For journalism, that might be a good thing.
The large papers going broke now once were fabulous wealth engines. That attracted businesses focused on making the financial engine purr, and it worked very well even as circulation eroded slowly, for decades.
The chains rose and got into smaller papers. I once worked for Thomson Newspapers, which in the early 1990s owned more papers in America than any. Let’s just say journalism and journalists were very passing interests and frequently seen as obstacles to the main work of stoking the business.
I’ve worked for two family enterprises since then. Make no mistake, business health is crucial, as it has to be for any business. It’s just not our entire reason for being.
Here, the overriding vision is that our business will do best as we best work to take care of our communities’ interests first. That is, with coverage for readers, solutions for businesses, and support for the nonprofit groups that enhance the quality of our overall community. Little wordy and plain, but that works for me. The context of business is the fuel for our vehicle of service, not the end to itself.
As the corporations lose interest and billionaires take their turn, I see a return to that maverick who just loves journalism and what papers do.
These people have their quirks, to be sure, but their passion is for community and journalism. They built a lot of little papers, and then the generations following them sold out to the chains. The tide will turn to fill the vacuum that the chains abandon as their business model sputters.
Since it’s the metropolitan regional papers suffering the most, this could get really interesting. Imagine Denver, for instance, with a wider variety of community papers and online news services that fill the void that the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post vacate.
My company is well poised to swim in these waters, roiling as they are, will be and always were.
I believe that for the next era of newspapers (including the digital means of distributing them), small is beautiful.
Editor and Publisher Don Rogers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-748-2920.