Owners’ greed dooming many newspapers

Scott Swanson

Recently, I visited a community I once lived and worked in. My job there was with a local newspaper that had been owned by a particular local family for decades.

We were were located in what’s known as the Five Cities, a cluster of five or six (depending on who’s counting) cities and unincorporated communities on the central California coast, with strong farming and tourism industries.

We were a good newspaper. I’ll just say that.

We covered local government aggressively. We had an excellent staff, particularly our editor. We were on top of it when we came across local people doing interesting things. We were front and center with the local high school sports. We had great special sections featuring various lifestyle and household topics. Our editorials had impact and won awards.

The Times-Press-Recorder and its predecessors had been covering the area for 100-plus years. I know because I was there when we put out our centennial edition.

We produced two issues a week – which grew to three at one point – and we were neck-and-neck with the daily up the road in San Luis Obispo that covered the entire county. Local businesses got their money’s worth when they advertised on our pages. I know this because they kept coming back.

We were respected.

Then, in the mid-1990s, the family sold out to a newspaper chain. This owner had already purchased two dailies in the region and, before long, had begun cutting non-revenue-producing staff (the ones who produced what readers purchased the paper for – news). It didn’t take long for that to happen at my old newspaper as well.

I was down the road by then, teaching journalism at a university, but I kept track of what was happening because one of my former students had actually become editor of the paper and I still knew journalists who had worked at the TPR, as we called it, who lived in the area and would occasionally let me know what was happening.

Things weren’t going too well in the newspaper business at the time. The industry couldn’t really figure out what to do with the rise of the Internet and not far behind that came social media, which didn’t take too long to become a major competitor with traditional journalism in purveying information – accurate or not.

Newspaper ownership had been flooded by investors who were attracted by the fat profits seen in the glory days of the 1980s. They wanted a cut of that action.

But with the new competition for readers’ attention and affection from the new media, the money wasn’t flowing to traditional news organizations like it used to, and that’s why owners who had no interest in journalism other than dollars started looking for ways to keep those profit margins up. Hence the staff cuts, the shipping of production processes such as ad design, page layout and editing and website functions to centralized corporate processing facilities (often in other states) or to foreign countries like India or the Philippines.

Back to my old newspaper. Shortly after it was purchased, the new owners began transferring production to other facilities and moved the TPR staff out of its longtime building, well known to the community, into rented space in a strip mall. Most of the operations were run out of a sister newspaper 25 miles away.

In May 2016, the TPR finally came to an end, put down by its most recent newspaper chain owner.

I got an email from a former colleague with the sad news. After 129 years of covering the South County, the TPR was done.

The countywide daily I mentioned earlier reported that the reasons given by the publisher of its sister dailies were “decreases in advertising revenue and increases in costs.”

I found that hard to believe. The community the TPR covered has about 75,000 residents, a booming tourism industry, two high schools that would be about 6A-Division-sized in Oregon, two private Christian schools and a major university and junior college within 20 miles. It had a flourishing agricultural community. It had hundreds of businesses to serve that population.

Lack of advertising revenue? I can’t see it. This was and is a thriving area. There is money there.

Here’s what I think: It was nothing but a lack of interest in anything beyond immediate and inflated profits by far-off owners who don’t really give a rip about journalism, who have no connection to the community and zero understanding of what they have. If that sounds harsh, I’m sorry.

The TPR, of course, isn’t alone. It’s happening in Oregon too – and elsewhere. Formerly respected newspapers have become shadows of what they once were, for the same reasons.

Fast-forward to the last few months. Google “Denver Post editorial” and “venture capitalists” and hit the “Images” button. You will see a photo with the words “Commentary” and “Journalism” on a wall behind a large group of people, nearly three-quarters of whom are blacked out.

That photo ran a month ago with an editorial by Denver Post editorial page editor Chuck Plunkett, who called out the newspaper’s venture capitalist owners after an announcement that the Post would be cutting 30 newsroom jobs in the coming months; 25 immediately. At its height, the Post’s newsroom counted more than 250 journalists, the editorial said; it would now have fewer than 75. The Post has won nine Pulitzers in its 125-year history and the photo referenced above was of the staff after the most recent one, five years ago.

“I had to do it because it was the right thing to do,” Plunkett told a reporter from the New York Times, which ran a story on the incident. “If that means that I lose my job trying to stand up for my readers, then that means I’m not working for the right people anyway.”

So why am I relating all this? Because I have never, and still do not, believe that newspapers have to be circling the drain and I feel very badly for communities in which this is happening because, ultimately, the residents will be the losers.

I lived in a community in Southern California that didn’t have a newspaper. Other than very occasional, cursory coverage from a nearby small daily newspaper, we had to get most of our news from a city newsletter that showed up once a month, telling us what great things the city had done with our tax dollars.

Fortunately, I think they were relatively upstanding people. It was a pretty conservative community, politically, and I don’t think things would have gone well if there had been too much funny stuff at City Hall. But I had no way to really be sure of that. There were no newspaper reporters regularly attending meetings, telling us what was going on. And being a bedroom community to Los Angeles and Orange County, it was hard to know who people were and what they were doing in our community.

We had no newspaper.

Clearly, newspapers have to make money. They are businesses. Journalists need to pay their bills if they are going to attend meetings for you and explain how your tax money’s being spent, cover emergency response personnel’s activities, write stories about interesting people doing worthy things in the community, cover local sports and generally tell you what is happening in your world.

So yeah, a newspaper must be profitable.

But the real purpose of a newspaper needs to be more than a profit machine. It should be to inform its community. Everything else is secondary, though not necessarily unimportant.

Newspapers are facing challenges. There are those I’ve mentioned, and now there’s a threat of rising paper prices due to tariffs on newsprint.

But quality, trustworthy journalism can and is being done. One young, entrepreneurial publisher I recently heard about has started half a dozen new newspapers in under-served communities in the Midwest that are doing very well.

To wrap this up, here’s a question that I’ve often pondered since becoming a newspaper owner nearly 15 years ago: Who really owns a newspaper? Of course, in one sense it’s the individual(s) who purchased the property and pays the bills and hires the staff that produces your newspaper. But if you didn’t read it, we wouldn’t have a newspaper. And thus, in another sense, the community owns its newspaper, at least the subscribers and advertisers who value what it provides and support it.

And I think in communities where newspapers’ legal owners are driving them into the ground in a pursuit of nothing but dollars, those readers and advertisers need to rise up and demand that something change. It’s for their own good.