Some nice folk hoping to help craft a better future for my alma mater, The Baltimore Sun, stopped by the office a few weeks ago and asked me some questions about what I thought about the Koch brothers, those politically passioned gentlemen, purchasing the half-empty husks of what remains of the Chicago Tribune newspapers.
I replied in detail, but of course, they needed a shorter sound bite:
Okay as far as it goes, but I’d like to be a little more clear about why the Koch family isn’t really cut out to be a publisher of American newspapers. It isn’t that they are rightist libertarians and I am not, honestly. As I said in my remarks, but which do not convey fully in the edited clip, I’d be as distressed if Ariana Huffington or George Soros wanted to purchase and operate The Sun. Why? Because 1) they are engaged in ideological advocacy and 2) they aren’t from Baltimore and their ties to my community are insufficient to guarantee a responsive and locally committed newsgathering organization.
The second criteria is one that I would apply — and do apply — as well to the national corporations that decades ago began scarfing up America’s locally owed newspapers and stringing them into chains, congealing the nuance and idiosyncracy of various American cities into a generic product. And then, armed with an economy of scale, they took their monopolistic creations to Wall Street, where the analysts explained that by cutting costs — reporters, news hole, coverage — they could actually make more money putting out weaker, shittier newspapers than good ones. Wall Street was right in the short term. Wall Street is always right in the short term. The long-term health of an industry? The future beyond the next fiscal quarter? Sustained economic growth? Not really the Street’s problem.
No, for the long term, print journalism showed contempt for its own product — and for its connection to the cities and regions it claimed to serve. And when the internet then arrived, and newspapers needed to demand a real revenue stream from within the new delivery model, they had already eviscerated themselves. Unsure of their own product, they gave it away, and foolishly so. And now, it is a long, hard fight to maintain and restore that weakened product through the obvious, inevitable and belated advent of the newspaper paywall.
You would have to look long and hard to find an industry in which the captains so thoroughly butchered their own future. Not even the American auto industry in the 1970s, with its Gremlin- and Pacer-adorned contempt for the American consumer fully on display, did as poorly. After all, Detroit lost out to the Japanese and Germans, and let’s face it, to the better cars that were actually being built overseas. The newspaper industry took a beating from the internet, which, while democratizing commentary, has proven itself thus far incapable of providing much in the way of first-generation beat reporting and high-end journalism, save for what it leaches from mainstream media. If only the newspapers themselves had, in the run-up to digitization, maintained the substance and vitality of their actual product.
Living through the first stage of institutional decline at a chain-run newspaper, replete with buyout after buyout and the paper’s homegrown perspective being marginalized at the expense of from-elsewhere editors who regarded Baltimore as a way-station to some higher promontory in the parent company, I am opposed not only to the Koch brothers or George Soros or any other ideological player buying a newspaper and pretending to journalism, I’m also dead set against chain journalism.
There have been consortiums of potential buyers in Baltimore for more than a decade now — and they have asked Tribune Company time and again to sell The Sun back into local ownership, undoing the last three decades or so since the Abell family took the money and severed the ties between Baltimore and its newspaper. At times, offers were made for The Sun that Tribune executives now only wish were on the table at this late date, given how spare the future of print journalism has become. And yet each time, the Tribune company held the property hostage, all the way into bankruptcy.
And now, with 120 or so reporters and editors covering the same metro area that used to occupy the efforts of 500 such folk, comes the Koch brothers, introducing the additional threat of political advocacy to what remains of The Sun. Honestly, if they were rabid rightists from Baltimore who nonetheless declared and observed a willingness to leave the news pages alone, I would trust their effort more than the corporate greed to which The Sun and other regional papers consigned themselves a couple generations ago. The executives of Times Mirror, and later the Tribune Company, had no political agenda other than appeasing the Wall Street analysts, making their quarterly numbers and getting their bonuses. But that was enough to mortgage the future of American print journalism.
Being right-wingers isn’t the unpardonable sin here and I said so on camera, though the point got lost in the editing. Even a right-wing, libertarian greedhead can make a promise to keep mitts off the news columns and keep it, if only to broaden the readership for a more centrist product. But there’s nothing that out-of-town ownership can do to care enough about whether the Baltimore Sun actually covers Baltimore and covers it well. They’re not from here. And so, the very mission and purpose of the newspaper itself can never matter to them the way it should.
If newspapers are going to be great again, it will be because they reasserted control over an on-line revenue stream and because they are run by and for and about the people of the cities in which they are published. The neglect of that second principle is the original sin of print journalism in America, and only a return of a newspaper to local ownership and control offers any real chance at ideological indifference and reportorial quality.
Selling the paper to the Koch brothers will hurt Baltimoreans in fresh ways. But having The Sun remain a Tribune Company hostage is a futile exercise as well. In the end, what will be required is for Baltimoreans to own and operate a newspaper about the region in which they live. If it can be The Sun, then so be it. But if The Sun remains in the sway of those who are not vested in the city that the paper covers, then it will continue to fail. And eventually, when the need is great enough, Baltimoreans will gravitate to a new, online news entity that actually demonstrates daily, unaligned journalism. The last three decades convince me that there isn’t a middle-ground here worth talking about.