Opinion

Jack Shafer

The new Medicis funding journalism

Jack Shafer
Feb 12, 2014 23:39 UTC

 

Neil Barsky, a former Wall Street money manager, became the latest Medici of journalism this week when he hired Bill Keller, former executive editor of the New York Times, to head his new non-profit journalism enterprise, the Marshall Project.

The Marshall Project, which will scrutinize the criminal justice system, joins a busy flotilla of non-profit journalism organizations already patrolling the news beat. Everywhere you look, a rich patron has founded, funded or seeded a substantial non-profit journalism outfit in the last half-decade: Herbert Sandler and ProPublica, John Thornton and the Texas Tribune, Pete Peterson and Fiscal Times, the Koch brothers and the Franklin Center, John Arnold and WNET, scores of other local and regional operations funded by minor Medicis, and well-established enterprises, such as the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Center for Public Integrity.

If you expand the definition of non-profit journalism to include for-profit outlets that aren’t making any but depend on a reservoir of money earned elsewhere to keep them afloat, you’d factor in Jeff Bezos and his Washington Post, John Henry and his Boston Globe, the Scott Trust and the Guardian, Pierre Omidyar and the $50 million he has pledged to First Look, and Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and Al-Jazeera. Widening the definition to include state-sponsored or licensed outlets such as the BBC and NPR, both of which walk the investigative beat, and the pool of cash grows larger still.

What looks like a lurch of patronage money to investigative journalism has coincided with the newspaper death spiral. As economist Mark J. Perry noted in a much-reproduced chart, newspaper advertising revenue peaked at $65 billion in 2000, with the most dramatic and steady rise of revenue coming between the early 1970s and 2000. These years happen to overlap with the golden age of both investigative and “accountability reporting.” It’s not that newspapers shunned watchdog journalism before 1971; they just didn’t do that much of it, as a visit to the newspaper microfilm archives of your public library will confirm. Reportorial dependence on government and corporate spokesmen in those ancient times would appall most modern readers, who have become accustomed to investigative and adversarial journalism in their newspaper diet.

Investigative journalism, like far-flung foreign, domestic, state and regional bureaus were affordable only because newspapers had more money than they knew what to do with. Chains like Gannett used their profits to buy more newspapers, but papers like the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Knight Ridder chain, to name a few, spent on journalistic expansion. (Don’t worry, the shareholders of these papers did okay, too, while the money poured in.) But as newspaper advertising revenues fell from $65 billion in 2000 to about $20 billion in 2012, investigative journalism contracted, as did coverage of foreign news, statehouses and localities. (I don’t want to reduce the popularity of investigative journalism to economics alone — see this learned paper (pdf) by Mark Feldstein on the role culture and politics have played.)

Buzz off, Waxman — Congress can’t tell a newspaper how to do business

Jack Shafer
Jan 8, 2014 21:21 UTC

Oh to be a fly on the wall Jan. 15, when Tribune Co. executives meet with the staff of Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., in a command performance to explain the media conglomerate’s plans to spin off its newspapers — which include the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Baltimore Sun — into a separate company named Tribune Publishing.

Waxman called for the meeting in mid-December after Tribune filed its blueprint with the Securities and Exchange Commission, arguing in a letter that the restructuring may not “be in the best interests” of his constituents, who live in the Pacific Coast-hugging congressional district that runs inland to include Beverly Hills. The spin-off will essentially defund the newspapers, Waxman argued, specifically the Los Angeles Times, which his district depends on for news. Under the terms of the restructuring, the Tribune Publishing newspapers will pay a cash dividend to Tribune Co. The newspapers will also lose their real estate holdings, forcing them to pay rent for their current facilities.

Waxman worries that the deal endangers the long-term survival of the Los Angeles Times, which like most other newspapers has shrunken its newsroom as advertising and circulation have fallen over the past decade. In a second letter to Tribune, which he also made public, Waxman wrote, “At a minimum, you appear to be putting the profits of the Tribune Co. ahead of the interests of the public in viable local newspapers.” In it, he asked Tribune to forward to his staff a raft of relevant spin-off documents before the Jan. 15 meeting.

News never made money, and is unlikely to

Jack Shafer
Aug 15, 2013 19:26 UTC

Sometime in the mid-1990s, the Web began to peel from the daily American newspaper bundle its most commercial elements, essentially the editorial sections against which advertisements could be reliably sold. Coverage of sports, business and market news, entertainment and culture, gossip, shopping, and travel still ran in daily newspapers, but the audience steadily shifted to Web sources for this sort of news. Broadcasters had dented newspaper hegemony decades ago, absconding with breaking news and weather coverage, and inventing new audience pleasers, such as traffic reports and talk. But it was the Web that completed the disintegration of the newspaper bundle that dominated the news media market for more than a century. In addition to pinching the most commercial coverage from newspapers, the Web has also made off with the institution’s lucrative classified ads market, simultaneously reducing its status as the premier venue for content and advertising.

This isn’t to say newspapers deserted the commercial news categories. Newspapers have maintained their presence in the sports-weather-business-entertainment-culture departments to attract readers who attract advertisers. Even so, circulation has eroded and ad revenues have fallen to below 1950 levels in real dollars. The units of the newspaper bundle not yet ransacked by the Web — international, national, state, local, and political coverage – have (to paraphrase Frank Zappa) little-to-no commercial potential. Traditionally, newspapers have struggled selling space to advertisers by invoking these news varieties unless the news is absolutely spectacular or sensationalized. As the bundle fragments, it becomes more difficult for publishers to support non-commercial news.

Outlets such as Politico (a child of the Web) and the Bureau of National Affairs (a pre-Web entity, now owned by Bloomberg), which were designed to commercialize news about politics, the federal government, regulatory affairs, political campaigns, law, and lobbying, have succeeded in targeting an elite Washington, D.C., audience with this kind of news. But those successes don’t subtract from the fact that Washington news is a loss leader for most mainstream newspapers. The same is largely true of international and national news. No mass audience is willing to directly pay for such news outside of the one already served by the New York Times (combined daily print and digital circulation, 1,865,318). Even At the Times, subscribers now contribute more revenues than advertisers, indicating that they value its mission more than Madison Avenue does.

Jeff Bezos is an owner who knows how to deliver

Jack Shafer
Aug 5, 2013 23:21 UTC

As the American newspaper business began its red-ink slide in the late 2000s, I fully expected a billionaire to rescue the financially struggling Washington Post. But I never thought its savior would be Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who purchased the paper today for $250 million.

I put my money on Michael R. Bloomberg’s money, in a July 2012 column titled “How Bloomberg can still run Washington” because he seemed like such a logical buyer. Unlike Bezos, Bloomberg already owned a media empire comprised of a news service, a cable channel, a weekly magazine, and more. Unlike Bezos, Bloomberg had toyed in semi-public with the idea of buying either the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, or the Financial Times. Unlike the 49-year-old Bezos, who has been building spaceships and an eternal clock with his mad money, the aging (71 years old) Bloomberg seemed to need one last great gesture in his career before called to paradise. He wasn’t ever going to be president, a campaign he had gamed out. As for running the World Bank, a job Bloomberg was reportedly shopped to fill, well, that would be a step down from Emperor of New York City.

My matchmaking ploy failed. Washington Post Co. CEO Donald E. Graham, whose family owns a controlling interest in the company that owns the paper, humorously rebuffed my proposal in a tart email. Bloomberg didn’t knock on my door offering to pay me a finder’s fee. My idea was completely forgotten — even by me! — until today.

The long, slow decline of alt-weeklies

Jack Shafer
Mar 15, 2013 23:41 UTC

Alternative weekly colossus Boston Phoenix cracked and fell yesterday, ceasing publication after 47 years. According to a Phoenix executive quoted in the obituary in today’s Boston Globe, the alternative weekly was losing more than $1 million a year, and a format switch last fall from newsprint to glossy had failed to attract the sort of national advertising it desired.

Once one of the leading alt-weeklies in the nation, the dead paper leaves behind $1.2 million in debt and roughly $500,000 in assets. The fact that its owner didn’t — or couldn’t — sell the publication to cover some of its debt signals the illness of the greater alternative weekly market.

Like its daily newspaper counterpart, the alt-weekly has enjoyed a terrible half-decade of plummeting revenues, circulation and page counts in the 100-plus markets currently served. One large chain that owned papers in Chicago, Washington, Atlanta, Charlotte and elsewhere filed for bankruptcy in 2008 and was eventually spun apart, but that financial disaster was as much about clueless proprietors overleveraging themselves as it was the decay of the alt-weekly business model.

Does anyone care about newspaper ombudsmen?

Jack Shafer
Mar 4, 2013 23:54 UTC

Last week, Washington Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth discontinued the ombudsman position, replacing it with an ambiguously defined “reader representative” to whom readers will be able to address their “concerns and questions,” as soon as the paper gets around to appointing one.

This “ombudsman lite” slot is a radical dilution of the old position. As conceived back in 1970, the ombudsman’s job was, in former Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee’s words, “to monitor the paper for fairness, accuracy, and relevance and to represent the public in whatever strains might arise from time to time between the newspaper and its readers.” (Emphasis added.) The Post ombudsman was “resolutely autonomous,” Bradlee wrote. Working on contract rather than staff, the ombudsman was given the independence to write about whatever he wanted to write about. He couldn’t be assigned. He couldn’t be edited. And he couldn’t be fired, Bradlee continued.

On paper, the power to write such a weekly column and dispatch internal memos of rebuke to the newsroom sounds like a job fit for a hanging judge. But the occupants of this perch have generally shied away from using their power to inflict public punishment or embarrassment on the Post. On some occasions the paper has filled the job with experienced government functionaries, such as Joseph Laitin, Bill Green, Sam Zagoria and Robert J. McCloskey, but usually the job has gone to journalistic veterans, such as Geneva Overholser, Andrew Alexander, Richard Harwood, E.R. Shipp, Michael Getler, Deborah Howell, Joann Byrd, Robert C. Maynard, Charles B. Seib, Patrick Pexton (who just completed a two-year tour of duty) and others. No matter what the ombudsman’s background, the tendency has been to pull punches whenever the Post erred. Instead of roasting the paper for its transgressions, the ombudsman could be relied on to sympathize with the hard job of newspapering and gently explain the newsroom’s mistakes to readers. Worse yet, some ombudsmen have played Monday morning quarterback with their columns, detailing from the safe remove from deadline pressure how they would have assigned, reported, written and edited a flawed story had they been in charge.

Goodbye Globe, hello global New York Times

Jack Shafer
Mar 1, 2013 01:13 UTC

The New York Times Co. has been shedding its non-core assets, smoothing its cost structure, strengthening its balance sheet and rebalancing its portfolio with such haste over the past two years that only a cruel and unusual press critic would urge it to quadruple those efforts.

I am that cruel and unusual press critic.

The company was a diversified media outfit 10 years ago, owning eight television stations; two radio stations; 16 newspapers in addition to the New York Times, the Boston Globe and the International Herald Tribune; and a slew of websites. It had a market cap of about $7 billion. Today, the emaciated operation is worth a notch over $1 billion on a good day.

The television stations were liquidated in 2006, but the most aggressive dismantling began 20 months ago, as piece by piece the Times Co. steadily broke off chunks of itself and put them up for sale. To Barry Diller’s IAC/InterActiveCorp went the About Group for $300 million and to Halifax Media Holdings its Regional Media group of newspapers for about $145 million. The company shed its stake in the Fenway Sport Group (Boston Red Sox) in two installments for a total of $180 million and sold off its share in the job-search engine Indeed.com for $164 million. The stripping of the old media conglomerate to its Times-ian essence—the Times itself and the rebranded International Herald Tribune as the International New York Times—will be complete when it finds a buyer for the Boston Globe and its allied properties. One research analyst predicts the Globe could go for $175 million provided the Times Co. covers the pension liabilities.

The best of the year in review!

Jack Shafer
Dec 13, 2012 21:52 UTC

From their lazy fingers to your scratchy eyeballs, journalists are now transmitting their “year in review” articles and “best of 2012″ lists if, unlike the New York Times Book Review, they haven’t already published their lists of 100 notable books or their 10 best round-up.

In the coming days, a torrent of best-of-year-in-review copy will crack, crumble, and flow like a calving glacier from the keyboard in business, sports, arts, and editorial sections across the land and plop into readers’ laps. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of beat reporters, political columnists, gossip columnists, tech columnists, and art critics of every denomination will type out their arbitrary listicles about the best and worst of the year and otherwise describe the 11-and-one-half-months just past. Lined up, one-by-one, the best-of-year-in-review packages resemble the floats gliding down wide boulevards during a New Year’s Day parade: colorful, big, but pointless. My own news organization, Reuters, builds its own floats, as its “Year in Review 2011″ package proves.

Only a scold would insist that every best-of-year-in-review story is crap. I look forward to the top 10 list critic Mark Jenkins assembles each year for inclusion in the Village Voice‘s “Pazz and Jop” music poll, but mostly because he keeps a keener eye on the topic than I do. I’m sure that if I spent more time sifting through best-of-year-in-review articles I’d find more delicious copy to savor, but the same can be said for extruding all of Craigslist through a strainer in hopes of trapping a few edible morsels.

Marcus Brauchli, one-term editor

Jack Shafer
Nov 14, 2012 00:42 UTC

As the daily newspaper winds down after a century of dominating the news business, so does the job of editing one. Editorships of the top papers were once comparable to lifetime appointments to the federal bench, with all the perks and prestige that came with a judgeship. A.M Rosenthal led the New York Times for 17 years. Benjamin C. Bradlee served as executive editor of the Washington Post for 13 23* years, and after him came Leonard Downie Jr., who had the job for 17 years.

Today, the top editor can rely on no more longevity than your average NBA coach, who fully expects to be dribbled out the door (or take the initiative to make a fast break for it) after a few seasons. The latest editor given his walking papers is Washington Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli, who after four years at the job has been given the new title Washington Post Company vice president and assigned to evaluating new-media opportunities. His replacement, announced today, is Martin Baron, currently the editor of the Boston Globe. By comparison with other newspapers, the Post is a safe harbor for editors: The Los Angeles Times has cycled five journalists through its top job since 2005. Prior to editing the Globe, the itinerant Baron held the top job at the Miami Herald from 1999 to 2001.

Baron arrives at a paper much diminished from its salad days under Bradlee and Downie, when the Post was the leading mass-advertising vehicle in Washington and corpulent with profit. Under Bradlee’s and much of Downie’s tenures, the paper’s biggest problem was finding something to spend all that money on. It established domestic bureaus in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Austin, Denver, and Miami. It expanded its business pages into a freestanding section in the early 1990s. * It created local bureaus to serve the suburbs that circle Washington, filled them with reporters and produced zoned editions. It experimented with new weekly sections covering consumer tech and lifestyle.

How Bloomberg can still run Washington

Jack Shafer
Jul 19, 2012 00:14 UTC

At the age of 70, Michael R. Bloomberg nears an actuarial end that not even his $22 billion net worth can reverse. By giving him a measly 13 years of life expectancy, the law of averages has made the New York mayor acutely aware of time. In 2006, he installed a countdown clock in his mayoral headquarters that marked time until the end of his second term. As his third term commenced in 2009, Bloomberg escalated his war on time, putting a stopwatch to meetings. Was he racing the clock, or, as the co-inventor of the Bloomberg Terminal, did he think that a firmer grasp on life’s raw data would prolong his life?

Before he’s ushered to his reward, Bloomberg – whose current term as mayor ends at the close of 2013 – yearns to do something as grand as revolutionizing Wall Street, making billions, and running New York City government. Ordinary billionaires find this sort of psychic remuneration in philanthropy, but Bloomberg, a generous donor, is no ordinary billionaire. Philanthropy gives him a kick, but not the kick he craves. Back in 2006, Bloomberg’s special something looked to be a presidential campaign. He took foreign policy lessons from a centrist, priced the cost of the race at an affordable $500 million, and played the big-town flirt as he explained to one news organization after another how he didn’t really want to run for president – while reminding them what a splendid president he would make.

He didn’t run because he came to understand that he couldn’t win as a Democrat, a Republican or an independent. It’s for the best that he didn’t become president: His idea of governance is giving orders, as if he’s the people’s CEO. It’s also for the best that when the Obama administration shopped him to fill the vacancy at the World Bank, as its president, he declined the position because he didn’t want a boss, as New York’s Gabriel Sherman reported.

  •