Jeff Bezos hasn’t called. Neither has Warren Buffett.
Heck, the sports group that bought the Boston Globe for a song from the New York Times hasn’t even called, and I’m pretty sure they are out there seeking advice as to what to do next.
Not that I’d be able to offer financial advice, but hey, we were just profiled in the New York Times as folks who know how to make newspapers work. The headline in the Aug. 10 International Herald Tribune, “Where Newspapers Still Thrive,” even suggested as much. (We’re flattered.)
So, if they call, I’ve been scrambling for a downhome tidbit to share. How’s this? Today, residents and communities are hungry for centers that bind and hold us together. Newspapers can fill that role.
Maybe I’ll hang by the phone, just in case — but, trust me, I won’t be holding my breath.
In the meantime, the upheaval in the media world this summer is worthy of reflection.
Most recently, Amazon founder and multi-billionaire Jeff Bezos’s purchase of The Washington Post from the Graham family (after eight decades of ownership) counts as the biggest surprise in decades. For newspaper junkies the Graham family’s decision is breathtaking and heart-wrenching.
This is a family who had the right stuff for the news business. Their principles have been stellar, their actions bold and courageous. In breaking the Watergate story during the Nixon administration, The Post and legendary publisher Katharine Graham defied the administration and enormous public criticism to pursue the story and bring injustice to light. Few media outlets have ever dared to risk so much for the public good. And that was just one of many prize-winning stories and principled stands on which the newspaper has built its reputation.
Earlier this summer, newspaper stories had been covering the transition from Publisher Don Graham to his daughter Katharine Weymouth. And then, wham, news broke of the sale to Bezos in early August. Don Graham talked with great humility about his disappointment in himself for not being able to figure out how to stem the paper’s losses and make it profitable. The family heartbreak to lose such a national legacy was palatable.
It was also heroic. The Grahams made the decision because they wanted to give the paper — the institution — the opportunity to stay vital through another owner who had the financial wealth to absord the immediate financial losses and the vision to, perhaps, shake up the newspaper’s business model and find possibilities where few others have been successful.
What we know of Bezos is that he is keen on detail, customer-driven, and likes to fix business models that are broken. That is potentially good news for the industry, but before Bezos pursues that chapter we hope he recalls Eugene Meyer’s (Philip Graham’s father-in-law who bought The Post in June 1933) seven principles he wrote for the newspaper. Here are four Bezos should post prominently above his desk:
• The first mission of a newspaper is to tell the truth as nearly as the truth can be ascertained.
• The newspaper’s duty is to its readers and to the public at large, and not to the private interests of its owners.
• In the pursuit of truth, the newspaper shall be prepared to make sacrifices of its material fortunes, if such a course be necessary for the public good.
• The newspaper shall not be the ally of any special interest, but shall be fair and free and wholesome in its outlook on public affairs and public men (and women).
That the New York Times sold the Boston Globe for $70 million this summer to owners of the local sports teams, after paying $1.1 billion 20 years ago, cements the story on large regional dailies: Their fortunes have waned. That a local group has stepped in to reinforce a message of local coverage and local ownership bodes well in that market.
Billionaire businessman Warren Buffett’s foray over the past couple of years into the newspaper business (he has purchased dozens of newspapers as investments) reinforces the message. Newspaper properties that dominate the local news scene and put money back into their news product can be valuable properties. Hopefully that is the tack Mr. Buffett, who founded Berkshire Hathaway Inc., will pursue.
Which brings us back to the Addison Independent and the New York Times story on my three daughters who, as fifth-generation journalists, have followed their father and uncle into the business. Elsie, 26, began that journey three and a half years ago when she joined the Essex Reporter and Colchester Sun, now heading up those operations as the managing editor. Polly, 29, took over the Mountain Times in Killington and Rutland County two years ago with her partner, Jason. Christy, 28, joined the Addison Independent in sales a year ago and now is sales manager and assistant publisher.
Why, the New York Times reporter asked them, would three young sisters join an industry in decline?
Because it’s not, they responded. The community newspaper business is driven by challenge, excitement and purpose. With the digital world on the rise, there are more opportunities than ever before to reach deeper into the community and to interact with the community online, through video and audio, and print. Similarly, advertising vehicles are more diverse than ever and multiple avenues can be tailored to each customer. Community newspapers that dominate those aspects of the local market have promising futures.
Wow. That was news to the national media world. Who would have thought that the big daily story — which has captured national attention for the past decade — would be so different than the thousands of community newspapers across the country?
As importantly, the world of journalism today is more dynamic than ever, while also being in greater need. What is becoming clear is that a well-edited source of news that holds the public trust is desperately needed to stand apart from the sea of mediocrity spewing from information sources (blogs, community forums, and many other partisan outlets) that don’t make it their business to focus on facts. What we also know is that the plethora of news outlooks create dysfunction at the community, state and national level because so many are operating from different sets of fact or bias.
Putting the distribution method aside, what we know in the media world is this: News that is important to readers, and is reported accurately and fairly, is a valuable commodity that sells. That requires professional editors and reporters who know enough background to put stories in context.
What we need to understand is that today’s marketplace is no longer monolithic, it’s fractured. Today’s challenge is to efficiently package that news to reach one’s marketplace.
If they do it right, community newspapers will continue to hold a natural advantage in their markets and can reach their audiences in print, on the web, through mobile and other digital devices — making them stronger than ever and the glue that binds communities together.
It is, as my daughters said in the New York Times story, an exciting time to be in journalism and in the newspaper business. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, but it is challenging, entrepreneurial, creative, engaging and every day feels as if you’re giving back to your community.
Now that’s a business, as Jeff and Warren must also be thinking, with a promising future.