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Wednesday, 29 March 2006 00:00

Media consolidation just ain’t good

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It happened months back, but the request was typical of what we hear everyday in this business: will you do a story about us?

That’s a request I like to get. We are, after all, in the business of telling stories, whether it’s about your government or your neighbor.

The reason this request was a bit different, and why it caused some gut-wrenching decision making, is that it came from an advertiser who had done something that was only marginally newsworthy. This time, the request didn’t seem to meet the criteria we set for deciding to do a story on a particular business. Unfortunately for us, a couple of competitors thought it did merit a story.

Was it our mistake, or were we holding the line on integrity in journalism by not letting the advertiser have too much sway on which story was printed? I’m not sure of the answer, but I do know that it’s a question we have to face often. I certainly don’t blame any business owner for wanting publicity. The problem is that at papers large and small — and other media outlets — it is getting ever more difficult to determine just what is news gathered by trained professionals and what is a thank you to someone who just signed a large advertising contract.

Perhaps even more important in this debate is this question: do readers care or even consider the decision-making process that goes into deciding whether something is newsworthy?

 

A big, big world

It was some time back when a friend who works at a paper owned by the largest newspaper chain in the world surprised me with this comment: “Corporate isn’t all that bad. Pay’s pretty good.”

That’s a paraphrase, but it stuck with me because I was so surprised that it came from a seasoned journalist whose commentary on the media I respect. I was reminded of those words a few weeks ago when news broke that North Carolina’s two largest newspapers — those in Raleigh and Charlotte — were soon going to be owned by the same company. The company, McClatchy, already owns the News and Observer of Raleigh and was purchasing Knight Ridder. Knight Ridder has The Charlotte Observer and The State, South Carolina’s largest newspaper. The deal is expected to finalize this summer.

I write often about the newspaper business, partly because it’s what I’ve invested a good portion of my life doing. For that you’ll have to indulge me or just skip to another article.

The truth, though, is that the health of newspapers reflects on the direction of this country. There’s a correlation, and many in this profession watch it at work each day.

This particular deal between McClatchy and Knight Ridder came about largely because Wall Street investors had lost confidence in Knight Ridder, which is about three times as large as the company that eventually bought it. Knight Ridder was profitable, but because it was losing paid circulation — paid newspaper circulation overall has dropped 13 percent since its 1985 peak — investors wanted out. Its stock dropped, the owners of the stock wanted to sell, and so the deal occurred.

So the sale of this huge newspaper company — which owns the Miami Herald and The Philadelphia Enquirer — was instigated by investors worried not about the health of the company but the value of their stock holdings. Anyone who has watched the stock market even from a distance knows that stock price fluctuations and company health don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. The stock market is about speculation, and the feeling right now is that newspapers are not a good investment.

When this deal is done, about 12 companies will own most of the large metro newspapers in this country. A similar trend is developing not just in media but in manufacturing. Large consolidated companies search the world for cheap goods and cheap labor, the prime concern being profit. Communities throughout the South and all of America are devastated by the departure of huge companies to overseas countries.

At least in the news business our product can’t be produced overseas (at least not yet). Still, the decimation of once-great companies is happening nonetheless.

 

Does it matter?

What can we expect as newspapers become just parts of huge corporate interests and stockholders. It’s hard to guess, but it doesn’t take a stretch to imagine reduction in newsroom staffs, fewer pages, and little investment in investigative stories. It’s already happening.

As someone who tries to follow the news from our state legislature, I wonder how this merger will affect those stories. Reporters from Charlotte and Raleigh are arguably the best at covering state politics. Will the coverage soon become the same? I’m afraid that, in time, the papers will consolidate resources. It only makes sense. When that happens, the followers of state government will lose, as will citizens who rely on competing newspapers to outdo each other in their coverage.

Why does this matter? Remember that request for a story I mentioned earlier? When newspapers become all about profit, those requests won’t ever be denied. There will be no need for trained reporters and editors to take part in any vetting process. Editors and reporters will make great salaries, great benefits, and not worry about the integrity of their product. Because that’s what newspapers will have become — just a product.

Columnist Molly Ivins put it this way: newspapers may be dieing, but it’s a shame that they are committing suicide. By that, she meant by cutting staff, doing more surface-level stories, and succumbing to the capricious whims of investors and editors, publishers and editors are killing their own golden goose.

There’s no cadre of investors looking over our shoulders to second-guess what we do at our little newspaper, but we also don’t have the resources those investors bring to the table. Still, amid all this change and turmoil in the media world, it is a good time to be a small independent company where the entire staff is dedicated to producing the best newspaper possible.

Only time will tell where all this will shake out, but count me as one of those who believes fiercely that the continued consolidation of the media spells only bad things for this country.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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