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Will billionaire owners bring passion to journalism?

November 4, 2013

Something interesting is happening in the journalism business: billionaires are buying newspapers.  Not just a copy of the newspaper, but entire print and digital publishing companies.  Amazon’s Jeff Bezos purchased the Washington Post.  Boston Red Sox owner John Henry purchased The Boston Globe.  And the shrewd old investor Warren Buffett seems to be avoiding the big cities but purchasing dozens of newspapers in smaller markets.

Only time will tell whether these new owners will be good or bad for the newspapers and the communities they serve.  I’m betting that, on the whole, the new owners will bring more good than bad — especially if they bring fresh ideas, a culture of success, and a passion for journalism.  It is encouraging that new Boston Globe owner John Henry had this to say to the newspaper’s readers:  “I soon realized that one of the key things the paper needed in order to prosper was private, local ownership, passionate about its mission.”

I’ve never believed that newspapers should be treated like Wall Street investments.  That’s why in 1991 I transferred 100% ownership of my own family’s community publishing company to a non-profit journalism trust that allows Independent Newsmedia Inc. USA to invest all after-tax profits in our mission of community service journalism.  If a newspaper is going to be worth a damn, it had better exist for something more than just profit.

As journalism author and educator Dan Kennedy writes in the Nieman Journalism Lab, “the newspaper business is not now and never was compatible with ownership by publicly traded corporations and the quarterly demands of Wall Street.  For more than a generation, corporate chains slashed newsrooms, first to drive up profit margins, later to stave off mounting losses. The debt they took on to build their chains is one of the prime reasons for their inability to set themselves on a new path.”

During the past decade of industry and economic upheaval, the culprits in the industry have been the chains that snapped up newspapers, gutted them to maximize profits, and often ended up in bankruptcy.  Nearly everybody got hurt:  the newspaper, community, employees, lenders and vendors.  Too often, the only people who got rewarded were the very same over-paid financial wheeler-dealers who engineered the takeovers and made the decisions that led them to moral and financial bankruptcy.

The heroes have been the hundreds of independent local newspaper owners, editors and publishers who did what they had to do to survive without forsaking their passion for community service journalism.

The new billionaire newspaper owners will surely be an improvement over the greedy chains that ruined so many decent newspapers over the past decade.  Perhaps they’ll even prove themselves to be as passionately committed to community service journalism as the smaller local owners, editors and publishers who made their newspapers great long before the big financially-driven chains came along to do their damage.

One Comment
  1. Jon Hillegas permalink

    Interesting comments and analysis, Joe, and you should know. I totally agree, and hopefully we’ll see more quality and local factual non-biased print.

    Sent from my iPhone



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