What If News Wasn't A Profit Center?

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Otherwise in journalism—I mean outside TV journalism– there are big stories about the editor and publisher of the Los Angeles Times defying their corporate owners, Tribune Co., which wants the paper to make even more staff cuts than it has already. And at Tribune’s Hartford Courant, the staff seems openly contemptuous of Tribune Co.

Likewise, the Belo-owned Dallas Morning News dealt off a sizeable number of its editorial staff, some of whom then took some parting shots at the joint. Knight-Ridder sold off its newspapersto satisfy stockholders after its previous modus operandi–taking once great papers and settling for pretty good, didn't fly with the public.Not surprisingly, as newspaper companies diminish their product, they lose readers, which causes another round oflayoffs and so on. If newspaper owners made Snickers’bars, they’d now be about the size of a Hershey’s Kiss about now, and yet, they‘d argue, they’d be just as good as they used to be.

I worked for the Chicago Sun-Times in the mid-80s an early 90s, and so in a way, all of us who were there then learned about downsizing long before most of the rest of the print world. A staffer died of a heart attack at work (admittedly, in the smoking room) and the editor of the paper suffered a heart attack in his office. I left when the hopefully-soon-to-be-extremely-incarcerated Conrad Black’s Hollinger International bought the Sun-Times and had this great idea to make it competitive with the dominant Tribune: Reduce staff. What a concept! Back then, the story that went around was that Conrad Black’s top managers liked to visit their new newspaper properties at night when no one was around, count the desks and then divide by three. That way laying off staff wasn’t a personal thing, you know. I left before they did their long division.

A version of all this happened at the networks in the mid-80s, when all (then) three networks were sold to corporate owners, and all of them reduced their news staffs. Since all those cuts came at about the same time, no network newscast seemed noticeably shabbier. They all sold out together. It was brilliant. You wonder if at that time the networks had tried to improve newscasts by adding resources(not the same as adding programs) if today network news would still be “relevant.” Could it be the cult of personality that makes Couric/Gibson/Williams the focus ofthe broadcast networks news divisions is because besides 60 Minutes, nobody kicks ass anymore?That leaves the anchor as the sole remaining distinguishing characteristic.. I don’t say this meaning to demean the good work of network news divisions. But the old crotchety thing to say is true: They’re not as good as they once were.

A few months ago, Richard Cohen, a columnist for the Washington Post group, commenting on the sale of the Knight Ridder chain, suggested that publicly traded news companies kindly inform their institutional investors that they aren’t in the a business where leapfrogging profits are possible and/or good business, and invite those get-rich-quick money managers to split. Since news media companies (TV certainly included) still produce enormous profit margins and could benefit from developing their Web sites, new investors not intent on making a killing could still inherit a sound investment if the expectation were to be that the stock price would improve, but not dramatically. Their dividend would be knowing their investment meant news organizations would be figuring out ways to do more, not less. But you know, in the process, maybe they’d get filthy rich again. The real trouble with Main Stream Media isn't that it's Main Stream, but that it's just concerned about cash flow.

By P.J. Bednarski

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