I told ’em so. But the market told ’em better

A year ago, when the Knight-Ridder chain was putting itself up for sale, I shouted from the peanut gallery : why not sell off the papers individually.

Now the Tribune chain is up for sale. The first bids for that batch of properties were so disppointing that it has sparked speculation that the chain might part itself out. Llocal buyers are reportedly lining up to buy star papers like the Los Angeles Times.

Can big chains be broken into a series of local newspaper franchises? And will this be good, bad or indifferent for the practice of journalism? I say: yes, and it depends.

The Knight-Ridder sale strongly suggested that there are no corporate appetites, nor wallets, large enough to pay the asking price for newspaper chains. Dean Singleton of MediaNews acquired the KR papers with help from Hearst Corporation (my ultimate boss) but turned around and sold back some of the papers in a deal so complex that it left observers scratching their heads to figure who owned what and why.

But when the Tribune Company recently put itself on the block the only bids were some lowball offers from private equity firms like the Texas Pacific Group that are little more than bottom feeders with big checkbooks. But not big enough to swallow a media chain that Tribune, one of the toughest and smartest media managements, couldn’t make perform. So now the Associated Press is reporting that:

“A breakup of Tribune Co. appears increasingly possible after the media conglomerate reportedly signaled its willingness to consider offers for its parts.”

The formerly family-owned LA Times, one of the great U.S. papers and one chafing under corporate rule, is particularly hot for local ownership, with Hollywood moguls and other rich investors already jockeying for position to own this prestige operation. ( David Geffen is reportedly selling paintings to raise money for a bid.)

So all that will be interesting to watch but, as the saying goes, I don’t have a dog in that fight. What does concern me is what happens to newspaper journalism at the other end of this transformation. A guy willing to sell his art to buy a paper might make a benevolent owner. But local ownership is hardly a panacea.

I’m thinking of the sad tale of the Santa Barbara News-Press, and the firing of editor Jerry Roberts — who ran that paper until he clashed with the paper’s local owner. I don’t need to dwell on the details. This is an embarrassment to newspaper journalism and no doubt a painful experience for both the residents of Santa Barbara and the paper’s remaining staff. I am not a disinterested party. Jerry Roberts is a former editor of mine and was a great guy to work for. My heart goes out to him and his family. For the purposes of this blog, however, suffice to say that local ownership is no guarantee of good journalism.

Indeed, the Santa Barbara fiasco suggests another reason to revisit my year-old suggestion that the best ownership model for newspapers might be a hybrid form in which majority ownership and operational control rest at the local level, with a profit-sharing stake held by the corporate chain.

In part this corporate oversight might be a pair of ethical eyes looking over the shoulders of local owners to inhibit excessive meddling in the news product. At the operational level the corporate core could provide backshop support — is it really necessary to have 20 or 30 separate payrolls, human resource departments, research & development operations, and etcetera?

Plus newspapers are competing in a Googled world. Local owners might welcome a little corporate bulk behind them as they try to reinvent the newspaper business model when the readers are taking more content online.

Of course, no one asked me for suggestions before and likely no one of consequence will heed me now. But silence would be self-defeating and now that the market has at least partially vindicated my suggestions, maybe some of these thoughts will filter up to wherever they might do some good.

One thing I’ve come to appreciate after 10 years in private business and nearly 15 years as a newspaper reporter covering Silicon Valley. The big people are just as puzzled as the rest of us. The consequences are simply bigger when they goof.