Mrs. Pynchon meets George Steinbrenner

Could leverage buyouts by private investors rescue newspapers? That’a the question posed by an article in the February Columbia Journalism Review entitled “A Way Out ?”

CJR contributing editor Douglas McCollam covers some familiar ground about the financial travails of publicly-traded newspapers but adds some noteworthy details. For instance, a share in the Washington Post, which went public in 1971, “rose from $26 a share to almost $1,000 a share in late 2004. But as of early December it had dropped more than $250 for the year and did not appear to have touched bottom.”

Another point that jumped out was the notion that taking a short-term financial hit by investing in newsrooms (by continuing to pay the salaries of guys like me!) had improved market share in the long-term. McCollam, quoting a newspaper industry analyst, notes that during World War II when rationing made newsprint expensive, the New York Times ran more copy while its competitors upped their ad ratios, the result being that by the War’s end, “the Times had achieved a market dominance that it has yet to surrender.”

But it is not clear to me that a similar strategy today makes business sense given the current environment in which Internet web sites can scrape news out of papers, park it next to advertising, and make money with neither newsprint nor news gathering costs.

That harsh logic, I fear, undermines the case for leveraged buyouts as the salvation for newspaper journalism, at least with its current structure of cororpate chains. It is true enough when McCollam cites newspaper investor Dean Singleton of the Media News Group, among others, to make the point that — despite their rap on Wall Street — “newspapers are ideal candidates for leveraged buyouts because they have such high operating margins, meaning they can service a lot of debt without drowning in it.”

Yet in his summary, McCollam writes:

“What newspapers really need, above all else, is ownership that values journalism and understands that the work of gathering, writing, and publishing the news is an inherently inefficient business that is in a period of profound transition.”

Aaah, now I get it. This is not a business proposition but a prayer that Mrs. Pynchon, having stood so solidly behind TV editor Lou Grant, might clone herself and continue to support many newsrooms in the manner to which they have become accustomed.

But I shouldn’t be too snarky because I think McCollam needs just one refinement to his “we’re-looking-for-a-few-good-publishers” schtick. What if we thought about the LBO publisher as the equivalent of a sports franchise owner. This would mean taking papers private town by town, or at least region by region (as I suggested once before). Prospective owners would have reasonable expectations of good returns in the long run, but understand that in some measure they’re making an investment out of a sense of civic pride. Such deal occurs in the sporting world.

So if I were trying to sell a movie called, “Save the Newsroom,” my elevator pitch would be Mrs. Pynchon meets George Steinbrenner.