Thursday evening my buddy Tom Abate, senior business reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle invited me to join him at a Media Alliance event at the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Community Center (why no heterosexual?) in San Francisco: The Coming Media Monopoly: Concentration of Press Ownership and Its Effects. [I tried to get in for free and save $5 by saying I was with the media :-) ]
MediaNews, the new owner of the San Jose Mercury News and Contra Costa Times, will soon control nearly two-thirds of local daily newspaper circulation; the two largest weekly newspaper chains, Village Voice and New Times, merged; and there's been an escalating scramble by several large media companies to control the expanding market for ethnic and foreign-language readers. Can journalism survive in an era of Wall Street mergers and acquisitions?
Panelists included: Linda Foley, president of the Newspaper Guild, Tim Redmond, editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Sandy Close founder of New America Media, Stephen Buel, editor of the East Bay Express and others. Moderated by Erna Smith professor of journalism at San Francisco State University. There were no bloggers represented, no online media at all, just a bit of radio, no TV. It was all from the point of view of the newspaper industry as if there were no other media worth discussing.
Tim Redmond pushed the tired line that corporate owned newspapers don't want competition and independent alternative newspapers are better. And that MediaNews has a monopoly on local news and that's a bad thing.
Stephen Buel made some very astute observations, pointing out that corporate versus independent ownership of alternative newspapers was not necessarily a bad thing, it often meant professional standards and professional management improved the journalism.
Sandy Close spoke about community, and the lack of diversity in the media, and how will communities have their voices heard in this fractured media world.
Linda Foley was the most interesting. She clearly sees the writing on the wall in regards to the problems facing the newspaper industry and realises that things have to change drastically so that local communities can support their local newspapers.
She and her union are against the MediaNews acquisition of the San Jose Mercury News and the deal with the San Francisco Chronicle that makes partners out of former competitors. Ms Foley made some great observations, such as about adopting a code of ethics for journalists. She said that means that those in other professions and in other businesses also have to adopt ethical codes.
She also said that her union is still working with bankers trying to set up a management buyout of several Knight-Ridder newspapers. She was told that bankers/investors like it when workers own their own companies and she liked the scenario of workers owning their newspapers.
It was a long evening because the many panelists promised brevity but each ended up speaking for a very long time. As Tom Abate pointed out, journalists like the sound of their own voices.
Finally, it was question time and I stood up and pointed out that professional journalism is under attack. There is less professional journalism now than ever before and that is because it is more effective to sell products next to a search box than next to journalism.
You can sell shampoo next to a search box but you can't sell shampoo next to a news story about beheadings in Iraq.
And the reason Google and the others can sell advertising cheaper than the newspapers is that they don't have to pay for the journalism. My former employer at the Financial Times sold advertising to pay for the journalism. Google, Craigslist and all the other fine internet service companies can sell advertising very cheaply because they don't have to pay for the journalism.
But journalism is a social good and those companies are detracting from the social good by cherry picking the lucrative advertising at a discount to journalism. Yes, professional journalism varies in quality, but media is how society thinks things through, it is how it tackles serious problems.
And we need a professional media to make sure the information we have is of high quality yet the professional media is being decimated. Citizen media is great but it is amateur and produces (mostly)amateur results, it isn't able to fill the information gap.
I also advised that the workers not buy their own newspapers (just yet) because this is a way to squeeze even more concessions out of them. The management of the newspapers is still way behind in understanding what is happening to the economics of their business and in many cases, stuck in the headlights like a deer. I don't have any confidence in the management.
IMHO, it is much better to have the workers walk across the street and start with a clean slate and not have the crusty legacy culture and ancient business processes of their current employer. They can buy their former brand once the rest of it crumbles away...
I went on and on in this manner for quite a while, taking my lead from the panel for brevity, before being forced, finally to ask my question: what will be the new economic model for journalism?
The panel wasn't able to answer that question because it was a trick question there is no answer yet. But, I know parts of the answer. And I know the panel knows part of the answer.
And the answer is not in opposing the MediaNews ownership of the local newspaper chains--that is a product of the poor economics of that business and the need for even more cost cutting.
In part 2 - I'll share with you my thinking about the emerging new economics of media and how society will pay for professional media.