Ben-Franklin-at-Printing-Press

A most interesting, and broadly important, corporate takeover battle is taking place in full national view but unfortunately, it's apparently attracting only modest attention from the general public, perhaps because of declining numbers of the public view the issue at stake as all that important.

That issue is the future of daily newspapers, framed against the hostile bid by Alden Global Capital, a New York hedge fund that has bought and then proceeded to suck the life from scores of newspapers in this country, to buy Gannett, owner of the country's largest newspaper chain.

If Alden's hostile takeover succeeds, the hedge fund's Digital First Media company would gain control of Gannett's 100-plus local newspapers as well as Gannett's flagship publication, USA Today. Digital First, which has a long record of stripping the staff and assets of newspapers, would become the largest newspaper chain in the country.

In the view of traditionalists, journalism, the kind that presumes investment in people and tools to deliver the kind of information that enables the informed public opinion that some of us believe democratic governance requires, would suffer another grievous blow at the hands of Digital First.

But the intriguing question is: does anyone other than those instilled with traditional journalistic mores, or moral compass, really care in an era of internet and social media and social network platforms that reach audiences with whatever information or messages they wish to receive or share. And there is coming to be an almost limitless number of those information alternatives, well beyond Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube, each attracting not only customers but also ad revenue in increasingly clever and user-intrusive ways.
 
As far back as the turn of the last century, local daily newspapers were attracting ambitious men who wanted to own a lot of them. First, it was newspapermen like William Randolf Hearst and E.W. Scripps, and a small-town New York newspaper owner named Frank Gannett, who all had a personal zeal to expand their newspaper holdings as much for personal influence as for profit.

Soon companies that owned groups of newspapers, each of which could be expected to post profit margins approaching 50 percent, realized that as public companies they could return dramatic shareholders profits. Thus emerged newspaper companies like Knight-Ridder, McClatchy, Newhouse and Lee Newspapers and a host of smaller, lesser-known chains. And of course Gannett, the nation's largest.

But even the most committed newspaper groups, while pressing to maintain quality coverage for each of the communities they served, realized that delivering continually increasing profits required cost-cutting focus in all areas, not just logical ones like travel and meals and entertainment but also, inevitably, personnel.  

Then as daily newspapers began a long and slow but steady decline in circulation and advertising revenue, both the result of waning customer interest, newspaper acquisitions become appealing for far different reasons than the surging profits that once marked the industry.

So the sharks began to circle and there were a number who created profits by acquiring newspapers and imposing devastating cost constraints, which inevitably meant editorial staff reductions and thus the quality of the news coverage.

And Alden's Digital First found even greater investor appeal, realizing that after they bought a newspaper at a distressed price, they could not only reap the cash flow and lay off employees, but then sell the buildings the newspapers had owned. Thus disappeared or shrank dramatically dailies of onetime major prominence like the San Jose Mercury News, the Denver Post, the Orange County Register or the Oakland Tribune, which Alden merely closed.
At first, readers looked to television to provide news in a much more timely fashion than newspapers. Then social media platforms emerged to provide people with an outlet to feel like they could escape from the real world and interact with people who shared like minds and common interest on one of the web-based communities.   

Suddenly alternatives to conventional media like newspapers provided places to unplug from the grind of corporate America, family or whatever a person needed a break from, which was frequently the onslaught of information about wars, politics, disasters, or combinations of all three.

Meanwhile, most daily newspapers have fallen short in efforts to replace lost circulation and advertising revenue with revenue from digital news and product offerings. Though the device of luring readers to websites and then requiring a subscription in order to proceed beyond the first paragraph is benefitting those with higher-quality editorial offerings.  

So what of that conventional wisdom about the fate of newspapers holding the key to the health of democracy?  

Well, first those engaged in the demonizing of media for political reasons are having an active impact on the declining acceptance of newspapers. In addition, an article in Wired magazine last week included an article entitled "Journalism isn't dying. It's returning to its roots."

"If men like Ben Franklin or Samuel Adams, both newspapermen returned to today, they'd find our journalistic ecosystem, with its fact-checked-both-sides-ism and claims to 'objectivity' completely unrecognizable," suggested the Wired writer. Both founding fathers wrote under numerous pseudonyms and Franklin pioneered placing advertising nest to content.

"We take journalistic objectivity to be as natural and immutable as the stars, but it's a relatively short-lived artifact of 20th-century America," the Wired article continued. "Even now it's foreign to Europeans-cities such as London cultivate a rowdy passel of partisan scribblers who don't even pretend there's an impregnable wall between reportage and opinion."

The Wired article, written by Antonio García Martínez, who worked on Facebook's early monetization team where he headed its targeting efforts, suggests that "While the tone of journalism might be headed back to the 19th century, clearly the business models are not. Revenue-wise, the Great 21st Century Journalism Shakeout will likely end with smaller organizations inventing new business models that the villains-the internet and social media-enabled."
There's a local aspect to this column: it's the observation that this state benefits unusually from the number of local and family-owned daily newspapers operating here, compared to other states.  

But those newspapers in Spokane with the Spokesman-Review, Vancouver with the Columbian and Seattle with the Seattle Times, plus Yakima and Walla Walla that I also include as a local family owned since they are Seattle-Times owned, face dramatic financial challenges that do threaten their survival.

I also include the Lewiston Morning Tribune among the local, family-owned in this state because The Trib serves an audience across parts of Southeast Washington and the Palouse, through its Moscow-Pullman Daily News. And also because two of the stories about the community service that comes with local ownership relate to the late A.L. Alford and his son, A.L. "Butch" Alford Jr., former publisher, now president and chairman of TPC Holdings, an umbrella for the Tribune and Daily News. Butch succeeded his father upon his death in 1968 and passed the publisher Baton to his youngest son, in 2008.

Seems that years ago, The Trib was writing some stories critical of Potlatch, the then locally based lumber-products public company that was a major advertiser, when the CEO one day paid a call on publisher A.L. Alford Sr., and made it clear there would be no more Potlatch advertising in the Tribune unless the critical stories stopped. So the senior Alford, without further ado, asked his assistant to please show their guest to the door and the CEO, true to his word, stopped advertising and the critical stories continued.

A few years after he became publisher, Butch Alford was appointed to Idaho Board of Education and took the occasion to write a front-page column detailing his various business and community involvements and ties, explaining to readers that he felt it important that they be able to be aware if his newspaper's coverage seemed to be influenced at any time by his involvements and interests, so they could call him to account if it seemed appropriate.

Without offense to the journalistic stints of our founding fathers, I'd personally prefer that the future of newspapers was in the hands of those like the Alfords rather than Franklin. I only hope the future is not in the hands of Alden. Or Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg.