Four Newspapers Taken Off the Wall Street Monopoly Board

While newsrooms are anxious about MediaNews’ acquisition of four former Knight Ridder papers, it offers one advantage: MediaNews is a private company, not a public one.

In recent months, American newspapers seem to be flipping ownership at a rate once reserved for, say, Florida condos. This, despite the fact that owning a newspaper these days would seem to offer all the potential downside of the aforementioned properties (specifically, uncertain long-term financial prospects and that “slow-march-til-death” feeling) without any of the perks — namely, shuffleboard.

The latest chapter in the saga of Newspapers As Commodities (think potato futures) came yesterday with the announcement that the Denver-based MediaNews, with financial backing from the Hearst Co., has purchased four papers — the San Jose Mercury News, the Contra Costa Times, the Monterey County Herald and the St. Paul Pioneer Press — from the McClatchy Co. for roughly $1 billion dollars.

The four papers that MediaNews is acquiring were bought by McClatchy just weeks ago as part of its purchase of Knight Ridder, and are among the 12 Knight Ridder properties that McClatchy is trying to unload because they are not in areas of rapid population growth.

MediaNews already owns several newspapers in the San Francisco Bay area, and the deal clearly strengthens its presence there, where its properties practically encircle San Francisco and, not so incidentally, the struggling San Francisco Chronicle. (At Harvard Business School, this sort of thing is known as “the noose strategy.”)

Naturally, any new acquisition of a media company tends to touch off a heavy dose of hand wringing and bellyaching from journalists concerned about the future of the business. So far, today has been no exception.

“Staffs in the newsrooms of the four newspapers questioned whether the clustering strategy would hurt the quality of the newspapers’ content and steer coverage in a new direction,” reported the Washington Post.

“What we don’t want is a cookie-cutter approach to news where all newspapers can share content,” Griff Palmer, database editor for the San Jose Mercury News, told the Post.

“[A] group of local business people had hoped to make a bid for the Pioneer Press,” reported the Pioneer Press. “The announcement Wednesday ‘just smacks so much of cartel-like behavior,’ said Linda Foley, president the Newspaper Guild-Communications Workers of America, which was partnering with Yucaipa in its ‘worker-friendly’ bid for the 12 newspapers.”

“We still need to protect the resources to cover the community,” Jack Fischer, visual arts reporter at the Mercury News, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “We don’t know if he [William Dean Singleton, owner of MediaNews] is committed to that or not. A lot of his history suggests otherwise. We already can’t cover the things we once did.”

But for all the cost-cutting concerns currently permeating the newly acquired newsrooms, from where we sit the MediaNews purchase of the four papers offers at least one advantage: MediaNews is a private company, not a public one. And while private owners can either build a great newspaper (see Jones, Dow) or a wretched one (see Annenberg, Walter), the one thing they do not have to do is dance to the tune of Wall Street analysts interested only in squeezing every nickel that can be squeezed from press outlets.

Appropriately enough, it was also yesterday that, according to an article in Editor and Publisher, during a luncheon at the American Society of Newspaper Editors conference in Seattle, former Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll bemoaned the current crop of newspaper owners and warned of the inherent conflict between those devoted to readers and those devoted to shareholders.

Under MediaNews’ management, the editors of these four papers won’t have to worry about pleasing Wall Street. They’ll simply have to worry about pleasing William Dean Singleton. And despite his earlier reputation as a newspaper butcher, Singleton’s philosophy of newspaper management appears to have evolved in recent years, an evolution noted in a 2003 CJR profile of Singleton, which asked, “Who is the real Dean Singleton?”

Scott Sherman wrote, “Is he a mass murderer of newspapers, or is he a man whose hardheaded pragmatism has enabled him, in a difficult period for the industry, to preserve many more newspaper jobs than he has eliminated?

“‘Dean wanted to be the most profitable newspaper publisher there ever was — until he realized that the measurement of a good newspaper publisher isn’t his profitability but his journalism,’ says longtime Singleton-watcher David M. Cole, editor and publisher of NewsInc., an industry newsletter. ‘So now all of a sudden Dean has gotten the journalism bug.’”

A bug which, for the time being, remains safe from the big-footed investors who have trampled through other public media organizations (see Ridder, Knight). And yesterday, Singleton gave every indication that he intends to keep the heavy-footed bottom-liners out of all of his newsrooms.

“Mr. Singleton said that he had no plans to take his company public because he would lose control,” the New York Times reported today. “I can’t imagine having the Wall Street analysts run my company for me,” he said earlier this week, according to the Times. “It’d drive me nuts.” Sounding a little like John Carroll, Singleton declared:

“When you go public, you make a pact with the devil.”

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Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.