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Jeff Jarvis

Jeff Jarvis

Posted: November 21, 2005 09:38 AM

Who Wants to Buy a Newspaper?


Jay Rosen has a suggestion for Knight Ridder's sale: Entice local buyers.

I have to disagree with Jay -- or at least get tougher than he does -- on a few key points:

First, buying a paper as it stands today is a no-win deal. Newspapers are not growth businesses. Though profitable, they are shrinking businesses. So any owner who comes in will be forced to make no end of tough decisions: cutting back staff, including newsrooms, and shifting the business from the formerly high-margin and monopoly print world to the lower-margin and highly competitive online world. Those decisions will be costly, bringing severence and possibly shutdown liabilities, as well as considerable unpopularity.

So I would challenge the business and editorial management and staffs of these newspapers to come up with their own tough and specific strategic plans so they can sell their future, not their past, to prospective buyers:

Yes, they should plan their own cutbacks everywhere in the operation, including the newsroom.

They should find the efficiencies that will allow them to increase the value of their products: Do we really need another movie critic? Do we really need to send our own guy to another damned golf tournament? Can we save money on the commodity news that takes up so much resource?

They should create their own strategies for partnering with the public to grow in coverage and local advertising.

The plans should be harshly realistic about revenue and margins five and 10 years out.

Then they should turn around and create a plan for investment in online and other media and in what makes their franchises uniquely valued: reporting.

In the end, they need to present a plan that shows how they will have a business that is not dependent on paper but instead uses any and all media available to serve and inform the community.

And they should get Knight Ridder to do all the tough stuff before a new buyer arrives, setting in motion and paying for layoffs, retraining, and retooling, so together they can sell a business that has a real strategy and higher value for shareholders, for employees, for the new owners, and for the community.

Second, Jay says that oftentimes, the would-be angels who want to rescue local papers are the worst possible buyers (see: the late Abe Hirshfeld at the NY Post; see also: Robert Maxwell, for whom I ended up working, at the New York Daily News). You don't want someone who buys purely on ego, for eventually, bankruptcy trumps fame.

To guard against the loons and larceny, Jay suggests that the paper's editor have veto power over a buyer. I disagree. Editors may pick people who'll promise to increase the size of print newsrooms -- that is, to do the fiscally irresponsible but editorially attractive. Editors are easy to seduce. They are fiscally horny. This has to be about creating a viable longterm business, or it just won't work. So give the larger management team a veto or find a way to convene a vote of the staff.

Third, this will work only if the staff sees the alternate as dire: folding or continued life under a Scrooge regime at Knight Ridder or under a private equity buyer. So KR has to put forward a realistic vision of the future of newspapers -- one that will scare the entire industry. That won't make them popular in the business but it will let them look at themselves in the mirror a few years hence. KR also must open its books to make the exact financial picture for newspapers crystal clear.

Fourth, I would by no means limit this to local buyers and certainly not to industry buyers. Hell, I've moved lots of times and ended up loving the places where I landed. Just because I happen to live in a given town, that doesn't mean I know more or care more than the guy in the next town. That is a wishful fiction of newspapering: that local is a virtue. Quite to the contrary, the fresher and perhaps farther the blood imported, the better. So why not see Craig buy Miami or or The Guardian Philadelphia or Yahoo San Jose? What this industry needs most is new perspectives, not just local perspectives.

Fifth, I would do the very unPC thing among the antimedia crowd and urge Congress, the FCC, and the Justice Department to grant exemptions from crossownership and even antitrust rules so that other dinosaur media businesses in these towns -- TV, radio, online, and suburban papers -- could figure out ways to merge and break down the barriers the built between media. That would build truly local news operations that are better prepared to deal with a future. If you don't like national conglomerates buying local media, then at least allow local conglomerates a fighting chance. I am out there telling media companies that they have to break free of the shackles of their medium -- that newspapers must stop thinking of themselves in terms of their paper, broadcast in terms of their broadcast towers -- and yet that is how we are regulating media: forcing newspaper companies to own just newspapers, not broadcast, as each industry shudders against the fierce wind of the internet. Keep in mind why Knight Ridder is being forced to sell: because it became just a newspaper company in a new world where the medium doesn't matter.