I get that your new job for The New York Times is to offer provocative takes on the media. Seven columns in, you are doing just fine with that. But being provocative isn’t a license to be wrong — as you were Sunday.
Newspaper chains should just die and make way for a future that is all digital and mostly nonprofit? Did you think that through?
Let’s take the current crisis — in which the journalists in local newspaper newsrooms are doing what they do best. I can’t think of a local startup that is close to matching the all-hands-on-deck comprehensive coverage of the virus’ impacts and accompanying recession.
Check out the sites of the Miami Herald (McClatchy), Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Gannett) or The Baltimore Sun (Tribune).
Even the loathed, hedge-fund controlled Media News Group, as I wrote a few weeks ago, frees its depleted newsrooms to pursue stories important to their communities — and they do.
For a piece of persuasive writing, it is unfortunate that you led with a subtle but glaring error. You say that Elizabeth Green, admired by me and many others for what she has done with Chalkbeat and is attempting with the American Journalism Project, was musing that she could buy Gannett for $261 million.
That wouldn’t do it. To buy Gannett you would need to come up with the $261 million, its market capitalization, but also its debt of $2 billion. So that’s a sale price of $2.26 billion (aka “enterprise value”).
You make a nod at that issue, saying that a buyer would need to take on Gannett’s debt. But that is not quite right either. A buyer would need to take out the current lender, then try to find funding of its own.
Look at it this way, If someone with tons of cash (Google, Facebook or Mark Zuckerberg himself) wanted to buy Gannett, it would take $2.26 billion in cash. And probably more for a premium offer like the one Rupert Murdoch came up with when he bought Dow Jones or Sheldon Adelson did acquiring the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
To the merits of the broader case:
I have closely watched and praised the tremendous growth over the last decade in local nonprofit digital news startups. The group is not without financial challenges of its own. Here’s hoping the movement continues to grow or, better yet, draws wider support.
This is not necessarily an either-or choice, though. How about both-and instead?
This line of argument may sound self-serving coming from me. On Monday, Poynter’s Tampa Bay Times again acknowledged financial stress and announced it was suspending print editions except on Sundays and Wednesdays while furloughing at least 50 employees.
Times chairman and CEO Paul Tash (disclosure, he is my boss’s boss) told me in a Q&A that the move entails “a nudge” to loyal print readers, many of them older, to try the website or an e-replica edition as an alternative. That’s the only way they will be able to read the Times’ journalism five days a week.
Now is certainly the time to get going triple fast with shedding the crippling legacy costs of paper, printing and home delivery.
Tash’s capsule conclusion: “These next several weeks will teach us a lot. In some ways, we are field-testing the future.”
I also think that the current debate on how Congress can help journalists in this hour of need will have a both-and answer. I am guessing that a stimulus will be split between payments to local journalists who have been laid off or furloughed and to companies (or digital nonprofits) facing life-threatening challenges.
Granted, we need to avoid sending money to the hedge funds that are likely to let more journalists go and drop savings to the bottom line.
There is a way around that, however, that also addresses the more general First Amendment objections to letting the government anywhere near news funding.
A good model is Steve Waldman and Charles Sennott’s three-year-old Report for America nonprofit. Reporters are placed for a year or two at an outlet (either for profit or nonprofit) for a particular project or beat.
Participating on either side of the deal is competitive and juried. Another nice touch: Receiving organizations must come up with a match, often obtained in practice from community foundations, which are just now beginning to see news as a cause that deserves support.
Report for America itself could be a conduit for an infusion of federal money. (When I spoke to Waldman a month ago, he said maybe — depends on the conditions).
Since the aid is a response to circumstances not expected to last indefinitely in such intense form, we could borrow an idea from the Europeans. Give each household a one-year allowance to subscribe to their local newspaper — or donate the same amount to a local news nonprofit.
That subsidy might be extended if it is working, or we could flip back to survival of the fittest.
If you have read this far, Ben, let me try to end on a note of amity. Your final paragraph begins, “none of this is settled and easy.” The issue merits a lot more study and debate. So let’s.
Rick Edmonds is Poynter’s media business analyst. He can be reached at email@example.com.