Meanwhile, Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft are investing massively in ever more sophisticated search technology. Along with other non-newspaper sites like Wikipedia, Amazon, and eBay, such pure Internet entrepreneurs capture the lion’s share of traffic that can bring in ad money. And none of them has expensive newsrooms to feed. The New York Times and its affiliated papers get visits from 13 million distinct individuals a month. But the nation’s top thirty newspaper Web sites together have under 100 million such monthly visits, while Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo have well over 100 million each, according to Nielsen Net Ratings. The search engines do share some of this ad revenue with newspapers through a variety of ad partnership models—Google wrote checks of $780 million to its ad “content partners” in the last quarter of 2006—but the other large Web entrepreneurs are pure rivals.
On the other hand, newspaper companies themselves are increasingly investing in the purchase of Web income-generators, such as the Times’s 2005 acquisition of About.com, and Dow Jones’s decision to sell six of its fifteen Ottaway dailies in late 2006 and use the proceeds to purchase Factiva.com, a subscription-only search company. In 2000, the Tribune Company and Knight Ridder bought CareerBuilder.com, later joined by Gannett; it’s now the most popular online recruiting site. Here again, independent newspapers with shallower pockets do not have this capacity. They have to invent their own Internet services, and hope that if they build the traffic, ad revenue will come. And, as attractive as it is for publishers to use Web properties to subsidize lower-return newsrooms, a purely financial calculus by a Wall Street profit-maximizer would say: spin off or shut down the lower-yield newspaper and keep investing in the lucrative Web property. All of which shows that newspapers may well require owners with values that go beyond the marketplace.
Are there other economic models, either of ownership or of revenue, that might provide some relief from Wall Street pressure and Internet competition, and allow newspapers to invest adequately in a hybrid future? Tycoons once ran newspapers not just for the income, but for the influence and prestige. Sometimes, family-owned papers have been willing to ride out business cycles and to invest more in the newsroom and in far-flung correspondents than a pure market calculation of optimized revenue would otherwise dictate.
New forms of ownership might include a new generation of civic-minded local owners, or more nonprofit foundations, modeled on the Poynter Institute’s ownership of the St. Petersburg Times or the British Guardian, which has been owned by a nonprofit trust on behalf of the employees since 1933, when the young paper’s editor, Edward Scott, was killed in a boating accident and the Scott family set up the trust. Far from causing the Guardian to rest on its laurels, the trust has enabled the paper to be one of the great innovators. It has one of the most imaginative and interactive Web sites around, with 13 million monthly users, roughly matching The New York Times and its affiliates. The Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, speaking at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, recently observed that the Scott trustees do not demand “the sort of returns many big American media organizations are used to. . . . Trustees understand that serious public service journalism isn’t always compatible with enormous circulations or huge profits.”
In Minneapolis, after the sale of the Star Tribune to Avista Capital Partners was announced, the new private-equity owners paid a call on the newsroom, swore fealty to the sacred profession of journalism, and insisted that they were in it for the long haul, and not for a quick turnaround and sale. If so, however, they will be playing very much against type. Absent some dramatic sales to community owners, such as a hoped-for breakup of the Tribune chain, the dream of nonprofit foundations or benign billionaires seems remote.