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.
The more likely economic salvation of newspapers will come from Web ingenuity, married to new business strategies and revenue sources. In this respect, the immensely lucrative search engine companies that now provide newspapers with both digital readers and online revenue are something of a mixed blessing. “Some day,” says Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence, “the lawyers for The New York Times and for Google are just going to fight it out.”
An eternity ago in the Internet era, in 1997, Microsoft tried to launch its own version of a digital daily, called Sidewalk. Newspapers, sensing the threat, declined to cooperate with it, and Sidewalk bombed. Yahoo has also experimented, not very successfully, with generating original content. If you go to its site, you can find Yahoo’s own war correspondent, Kevin Sites, showing you some of his video scoops, and inviting you to become a Yahoo freelance. Google, by contrast, declares that it is not in the business of competing with journalists, and that it scrupulously respects copyrights. “We are an engineering company, not a content company,” says Google vice president David Eun, adding that Google not only provides new revenues but can teach newspapers how to optimize their Web strategies.
As both a source and a diversion of ad revenues and readers alike, Google is both competitor and partner to publishing companies. One executive I interviewed termed Google a “frenemy.” Another called the process “co-opetition.” Looking down the road, there are other “frenemies.” Mochila.com is a fast-growing Web syndicator of content to newspapers. The idea is that with newspapers squeezed and laying off producers of newsroom content, Mochila can license high-quality content from freelancers and offer it to newspapers, and perhaps eventually to consumers. The content also comes bundled with ads sold by Mochila, and the revenue is split with newspapers. This is also a delicate balancing act. The cheaper content and new revenues are found money. But if newspapers increasingly become purveyors of freelance content, they lose their distinctive franchise. And all those intermediaries are more claimants on the ad revenue pot.