The antique media: back to the future

The quaint practice of leveling forests, chopping trees into pulp, making paper and then printing news upon the paper, and trucking the product to neighborhoods for distribution to readers about 12 hours after the news was fresh, is cycling downward. As it does so, some interesting patterns are reappearing from the past.

Anyone who has ever seen the movie Citizen Kane remembers the scene of a gleeful Kane, played by Orson Welles, explaining to his banker how many years his inherited fortune would allow him to publish a then—money—losing newspaper. For him, and for many others in the business, newspapers were personal enterprises, intended to express a personal point of view and influence the general public and politics. "You supply the pictures... and I'll supply the war," as Kane proclaimed.

For a few decades, newspapers appeared to be going corporate, bought up from founding families, homogenized, cost—engineered, made into cash—generating powerhouses. This was the era of claimed impartiality, and much of the public bought the line that there newspapers were not like those of the past, or those of Europe, which had strong points of view.

But a funny thing is happening, as newspapers become less attractive as businesses. Wealthy people are stepping forward and buying up their home town papers. The Los Angeles Times, whose biased coverage has driven away readers and advertisers at an uncommonly high rate, has become a drag on the Tribune Company, which acquired it not too long ago. Three local billionaires in Los Angeles have indicated some degree of interest in buying the local rag. Two of them are outspoken liberals.

Meanwhile, a transaction has been finalized giving control of The New York Observer, a weekly newsprint product known for covering media, politics, and society, to a 25 year old law student with a wealthy father, a Democrat sent up the river for various disgraceful criminal acts. He claims to be interested in it a business opportunity, but the large steady losses are not promising. But the Observer's elite and socially active readership would be most attractive to anyone wishing to cut a fine figure in the Big Apple scene. At a reported $10 million price tag, it is cheap prestige.

This shift in ownership pattern will only hasten the decline of an already senescent industry. Fewer and fewer readers will grant any credibility to claims of impartiality from such papers. They will become vehicles for personal agendas. But of course some prominent examples already exist, with no buyout necessary.

It must be noted that, as this process unfolds, the New York Times, which has remained under family control for generations, thanks to a dual class shareholding pattern, has become cutting edge in a retro sense. Lots of postmodern irony here. Pinch Sulzberger was ahead of his time in being an heir handed control of a newspaper through no merit of his own.

Thomas Lifson   8 01 06

The quaint practice of leveling forests, chopping trees into pulp, making paper and then printing news upon the paper, and trucking the product to neighborhoods for distribution to readers about 12 hours after the news was fresh, is cycling downward. As it does so, some interesting patterns are reappearing from the past.

Anyone who has ever seen the movie Citizen Kane remembers the scene of a gleeful Kane, played by Orson Welles, explaining to his banker how many years his inherited fortune would allow him to publish a then—money—losing newspaper. For him, and for many others in the business, newspapers were personal enterprises, intended to express a personal point of view and influence the general public and politics. "You supply the pictures... and I'll supply the war," as Kane proclaimed.

For a few decades, newspapers appeared to be going corporate, bought up from founding families, homogenized, cost—engineered, made into cash—generating powerhouses. This was the era of claimed impartiality, and much of the public bought the line that there newspapers were not like those of the past, or those of Europe, which had strong points of view.

But a funny thing is happening, as newspapers become less attractive as businesses. Wealthy people are stepping forward and buying up their home town papers. The Los Angeles Times, whose biased coverage has driven away readers and advertisers at an uncommonly high rate, has become a drag on the Tribune Company, which acquired it not too long ago. Three local billionaires in Los Angeles have indicated some degree of interest in buying the local rag. Two of them are outspoken liberals.

Meanwhile, a transaction has been finalized giving control of The New York Observer, a weekly newsprint product known for covering media, politics, and society, to a 25 year old law student with a wealthy father, a Democrat sent up the river for various disgraceful criminal acts. He claims to be interested in it a business opportunity, but the large steady losses are not promising. But the Observer's elite and socially active readership would be most attractive to anyone wishing to cut a fine figure in the Big Apple scene. At a reported $10 million price tag, it is cheap prestige.

This shift in ownership pattern will only hasten the decline of an already senescent industry. Fewer and fewer readers will grant any credibility to claims of impartiality from such papers. They will become vehicles for personal agendas. But of course some prominent examples already exist, with no buyout necessary.

It must be noted that, as this process unfolds, the New York Times, which has remained under family control for generations, thanks to a dual class shareholding pattern, has become cutting edge in a retro sense. Lots of postmodern irony here. Pinch Sulzberger was ahead of his time in being an heir handed control of a newspaper through no merit of his own.

Thomas Lifson   8 01 06