Monday, August 05, 2013

A Tale of Two Newspapers

Everyone's talking about Jeff Bezos buying The Washington Post. But it's also been a dramatic week for two newspapers close to my heart in different ways: The Boston Globe and The Cleveland Plain Dealer. Two days ago, The Globe, like the WaPo, was sold to an individual billionaire with a high profile. Today the Plain Dealer, which has not been sold, stopped delivering the newspaper. It will still be printed every morning, but it will only be delivered three days a week. Nearly one third of its reporters were laid off on Wednesday. It's not the first round of buyouts or layoffs at the PD, and it's not the second either. The newsroom is now down to about a third of what it was in the 1990s.

The Plain Dealer will be "digital-first" from now on. On the first day of this bold step into the future, naturally, the electronic version of the newspaper crashed. Digital-first means you try to log into the website first, and when that doesn't work you go out and see if the drugstore will sell you an actial copy of the paper. But hey, you get what you pay for, right? And the web side of the business is strictly non-union.

Now, plenty of people will tell you that this is an inevitable consequence of our modern age. The newspaper has to die, because the internet demands it! Also, video killed the radio star, which is why you no longer own a radio. But apparently, it's not inevitable everywhere. The Boston Globe got sold to John Henry, the principal owner of the Boston Red Sox, for a Filene's-bargain-basement price of $70 million, even when other bidders offered more. Henry isn't talking layoffs. Boston is going to stay a two-newspaper town, and the premier newspaper is going to keep competing hard.

(Anyone who thinks that Henry bought the newspaper to get more or nicer coverage for the Red Sox, by the way, has no idea how the Boston sports media works. The Red Sox are not going to get more attention from Henry's Globe, because it is literally impossible for the Red Sox to get any more attention than they already do. And the coverage is not going to get nicer or softer, because the readers won't read that. The gold standard for Boston sports coverage remains a complex brew of idolatry and hostility. Boston baseball reporters don't play softball.)

Starting today, Cleveland is a less-than-one-newspaper city, with a Plain Dealer that is somewhat less than a newspaper. And that brings Cleveland one step closer to becoming something less than a city. It is part of a great city's death. Boston, a city that has thrived in the information age, will keep the major newspaper that a major city needs to function and thrive. The New York Times seems to have deliberately sold The Globe to an owner whose other enterprises are tied to Boston's civic health, and who seems motivated to protect the city's basic ecosystem. That's a choice on the Times Company's part. And the way Henry eventually runs his newspaper (or Jeff Bezos runs his) is a choice, just as the Newhouse family's decision to gut The Plain Dealer was a choice.

There's more than one route to profitability here. John Henry is not stupid with money. But he might have to be content with a lower direct return. A good newspaper in the internet age is only modestly profitable. A gutted newspaper is more profitable for a while, as long as you keep cutting costs faster than you lose revenue, but that's not a sustainable business model. That is selling copper wiring from abandoned houses.

Cleveland is a city being slowly run to death by economic rationalists whose business model adds up to sheer madness. It illustrates American business's suicidal focus on cost containment, with everyone trying to run the leanest operation in a city suffering economic famine. It is cheaper to lay off workers, and so stores no longer have enough consumers. The stores scale back, and their suppliers go hungry. It no longer "makes sense" to run a department store downtown. It no longer "makes sense" to run a daily newspaper.  And then you are trying to attract new enterprises to a city you have to leave to find a Macy's, trying to recruit employees to a city where you can't get a newspaper delivered on Monday or Tuesday. It makes no sense.

Cleveland is a city of assets whose value has been allowed to decline, and assets whose value is ignored. It is a city of grand buildings left unrenovated and unoccupied, because no one chooses to value them. It is a city where a great newspaper is allowed to become a part-time enterprise, because no one chooses to see its value. And little by little it has become a place torn down by its owners, stripped down to be sold for parts by people who do not live there, who do not need or wish for the city to thrive. The car that could be rebuilt is sold for scrap metal. The business that could be made profitable is closed.

Don't cry for the Washington Post. There are worse things than being bought. The worst thing that happened to The Plain Dealer was its out-of-town owners keeping it.

cross-posted from Dagblog

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