Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Farewell Gallant Knight

The news that Knight Ridder sold itself to a much smaller newspaper chain has saddened me to a surprising degree. Sure, I'm supposed to be all New Media Guy, crowing about another signpost on Old Media's road to the hinterlands. First off, I think new media triumphalism is a bunch of hooey. The hard times of what Jeff calls Dead Tree Media are not brought on by the rise of computer-based media, they are brought on in the main by the prolonged death throes of reading in America. People aren't eschewing newspapers in favor of blogs, they are in the main ignoring both in favor of American Idol and PlayStation. No one whose vocation or avocation is wedded to the written word can feel good about that.

Second, I'm saddened because the sale is an artifact of the further commodification of the news. In a way this is probably a case of things aren't the same, but they never were. But the old school journalists writing rememberances in the BJ harken back to the days when newspapers were about the news qua the news, as opposed to the news as a lure for eyes on advertisements. Whatever media arises triumphant, it likely will have a lot less concern for informing the public and more for it's bottom line. That's a world I feel less good about.

Third, it bothers me that Knight-Ridder, homegrown institution that it is, will be no more. Since learning the history of John S. Knight in high school journalism class, it's been a point of civic pride to see a Knight-Ridder byline. During the seven or so years I lived out of state, seeing the byline was a connection to home. It feels like a part of Akron history is being extinguished

Finally, I worry about the furture of our paper. McClatchey has declared its intention to sell off the BJ and a slew of other papers whose balance sheets are insufficiently gaudy. So who will buy it? I am most worried, of course, about a purchase by NewsCorp or Sinclair or some simlarly right-wing media group. I accept neither the pat liberal criticism that the BJ is hopelessly conservative , nor the pat conservative criticism that it is hopelessly liberal. On balance the reportage is on balance. The fact that the editorial stance pisses me off as often as it inspires me is probably a healthy sign.

The response, gauged in part by the comments in this BFD post, has been pretty much a yawn. Don't mistake me, ABJ is far from a perfect newspaper. As K-R has been on the current austerity tear, its local reporting has visibly suffered. While some stars like Willard and Oplinger still do good work, increasingly local coverage has looked more like civic boosterism than journalism. Editorially, they tend to dig into positions driven by certain agendas -- most notably hating Arshinkoff. I hate the courthouse coverage because, well, be grateful I haven't subjected you to one of my Phil Trexler tirades.

Most of all, I hate paragraphs that look like this.

Or this.

But for all its faults, this is my newspaper. Growing up in Wadsworth, the BJ was the reason I identified as being from greater Akron. It's a big part of the reason I feel like I'm home living here. When it was a Knight paper, the Beacon Journal was unmistakably the Akron paper. What will the future hold. Will the new owners further slash local reporting to contain costs? Will they turn it into an outlet for a narrow political viewpoint? I'll be carefully scrying the internet tea leaves for answers.


redhorse said...

You and I both will be scrying the tea leaves.

The end result of the paper's quality is being driven by economics and papers sold now. Whomever buys it might just bring a notably fresh perspective and model, which may increase the overall quality of the paper.

Dad's paper has been sold several times (at least three that I remember) and each time the upper echelon's were cleaned out. New publishers, managing eds, and hard news eds were brought in. Each time the difference in the paper was nuanced.

Perhaps that will be the Beacon's story, but it makes for some nervous waiting in the meantime.

Jill said...

Really nice post, Pho.

keng said...

I was really surprised at the other papers that are also being spun off: San Jose Mercury News (one of the first papers with an internet presence in the early 1990s) and the Philadelphia Inquirer. As a foreign immigrant to Akron coming from a competitive newspaper town (Chicago), the Beacon Journal garners a lot more outside respect than larger papers in many other larger cities. If you've ever tried reading the Milwaukee Journal or even the PD, journalistically, the ABJ is a better paper. IMHO, I think its future is a lot brighter, than, say the Contra Costa Times or the St. Paul Pioneer Press, two other papers that also going to be cut loose.

Let's hope, at any rate!

Geoff said...

There are two options on the front burner. One suitor is MediaNews Group. This would seem to pose a threat to the quality of the B-J, because MNG owns some of the worst papers in America (Denver Post and Detroit News, to name two).

Option two is an employee buyout, funded by some combination of the union, the employees and venture caps. Given the parties involved with that package, I'm not real optimistic. If it happens, the cuts that result will probably be the most draconian.

There is speculation that Advance/Newhouse wants the B-J, so that no one in NEO can buy a paper without paying them money. Then, after a decent interval, they'd say "we tried to make it work and fold or merge it).

The problem is that even W's DOJ would probably frown on one company owning the PD, the Sun chain and the B-J, so that would probably have to wait until a few other deals fall through.

Final option is Gannett, who owns WKYC and seems to like to have both a paper and a broadcast station in the same region.

Frankly, there aren't any good exit scenarios here. K-R was the only chain that was committed to independent reporting and quality (they've done by far the best work on Iraq), so any other option makes the B-J worse.

Anonymous said...

Mainstream Media Gal thanks Pho for weighing in on the sale of KR and continued uncertainty at the BJ. Disputes his notion that local coverage looks ``more like civic boosterism than journalism.'' Yeah, budget cuts, hiring freezes, positions left vacant, and cuts to news hole have cut into space for local coverage and geographic news reach within the region, but not the quality of local reporting. And I just don't understand where this thought comes from: `Editorially, they tend to dig into positions driven by certain agendas -- most notably hating Arshinkoff.'' Nevertheless, liked the overall theme of the post.
Some say the union-organized buyout (note -- union funds would not be involved... union pension funds would...) holds out the best hope for worker bees' futures. Employees are realistic this scenario wouldn't result in getting the keys to the candy store. But Wall Street pressures would be considerably less of a factor... Remember folks: Blogs would have considerably less to blog about without the MSM. Thanks for listening.

John Ettorre said...

An extremely thoughtful and on-target post, even for you. Blogger triumphalism has of course gotten beyond tiring and into the mindless idiocy category. Only the most myopic kind of people would celebrate the slow, sad decline of institutions that knit communities together in unique ways as only century-old newspapers can do. These institutions of course have to get off their asses and better adapt to the new demands of readers and citizens, but if they're weakened, we're all weakened. And no squad of volunteer citizen journalists is going to begin to replace it. Now, intelligently supplementing and challenging it is a whole different story...

Wendy Hoke said...

Whatever media arises triumphant, it likely will have a lot less concern for informing the public and more for it's bottom line. That's a world I feel less good about.

Right on, Pho. Thanks for a great post.