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Local media is now a cut-and-run game

Commentary: The sale of the Seattle Weekly confirms a disturbing trend: Washington's titans are too busy creating global juggernauts to worry about the state of local media.

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The main objection to creating a local ownership group was that this entity would almost certainly have been outbid by a national purchaser, so why bother? The advantages of scale for a national buyer — centralized administrative functions, national ad sales, proven formulas, a non-local's willingness to make callous cuts in staff and quality — normally prevail and enable them to bid higher.  A cynical axiom pertains: The company that bids the highest will likely do the most damage to the publication it is buying (needing to recoup the purchase price). Meanwhile, the selling party must worry about a shareholder who would sue if a lower, but more civic-minded bidder were accepted.

It would have been different in a bigger city, such as New York, where owning a highly visible media outlet is a kind of badge of brassiness, a sure invitation to the liveliest dinner parties in town. You would also know that someone else, vainer and richer than you, would happily come along and buy your publication, whether or not it made money and so long as it kicked up a lot of dust.

Why not here? Our Scandinavian and Asian penchant for privacy and public shyness is one factor. Another cause is our distance from D.C. and Manhattan, where momentous news is hotter and readers feel more connected to the big issues of the day. Also, we have a frontier fondness for disruptive, new, never-before-tried things — and print is sadly retro.

Also, too many cautionary tales, I came to learn, dampened local ardor. One was the Bullitt family saga, where the two generations involved in KING were high-profile, more-liberal-than-the-town, eccentric, patrician figures. These charismatic Bullitts and Ancil Payne, a later CEO, were hard acts to follow. Nor did the family manage to get its tradition passed on to the third generation, selling the company in 1991 to the Providence Journal (later bought by Belo of Dallas, the current owner).

The other leading media families are the Fishers, who ran the solid Fisher Communications stations (KOMO, for one) with low profile, and the Blethens, who are now into the fifth generation of owning The Seattle Times Co. The Fishers have spent recent years under shareholder pressure to sell the company. The Blethens are well loved in their company but much less so in the city, where they are socially aloof.

The Times, too, is a cautionary tale for how a family-owned newspaper can stunt its chances by failing to diversify into broadcast or expand to enough cities to have real staying power. (Similarly, it would have been smart for KING under the Bullitts to buy the Hearst-owned Seattle Post-Intelligencer.) The Blethen dynasty is yet another discouraging story for local ownership: a struggle to keep the many cousins from feuding over dividends, years of declining revenues and ever-rising public criticism.

Lastly, there’s the famous “Seattle nice.” Publications shouldn’t be “nice,” so doing the real job of journalism in this uneasy, boosterish town seems oddly disloyal. (It’s in fact the deepest kind of loyalty.) Sociologists observe that civility in cities is directly related to size. In very large cities you can go to a dinner party, tell people you meet there that they are badly mistaken, and not worry that you will run into them next week walking down the street. A big-city sense of anonymity breeds candor, just as fear of repercussions induces tongue-biting. Seattle, in many ways and despite its self-image, is still a smallish city.

Not that our caution about contentiousness is entirely misplaced. There is certainly no lack of it in the brutally competitive workday worlds of our major companies. And our national political life has become way too angry, spoiling the fun of debate. “Our spirits are corroded by living in an atmosphere of unrelenting contention — an argument culture," writes Deborah Tannen in "The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Dialogue" (1998). Modern media suffers from a growing aversion to more screeds and white-hot harangues, just as modern media economics seems to require more heat than light.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Jan 15, 9:49 a.m. Inappropriate

David: If you hired some 6'11" reporters who could drain 3's from the arc, you'd have a better chance of scoring points with local investors. With the fall of local control of the media, we seem to have lost our appetite for 'Crosscutting' journalism in this town.

007

Posted Tue, Jan 15, 2:23 p.m. Inappropriate

Wow ! I enjoyed reading your piece and found some things to agree with. I too think it is a sorry state for our Metro community to be journalistically served by an inbred corps of sychophants ..... "doing the real job of journalism in this uneasy, boosterish town seems oddly disloyal". They fear the appearance of disloyalty so much, that they put much of their efforts into avoiding views and topics contrary to the current (Liberal?) standard. The irony is that the news outlet workers become what they distain. Dissent is repressed, deep investigation is throttled, mild criticisms are dramatized into cancerous eruptions from a clique of the mentally disturbed. Our local press/media is a homogenized cliche' of the fuzzy headed hippyism of the 60s. They have been thoroughly trained by the elite of our educational institutions.
By the same token, the circulation and advertising sales departments tag along, and crossbreed, with the mouthpieces. They are as bewildered as the business managers, by the lack of enthusiastic support of local business people.They fail to notice that they (media)are trying to sell a product to people (business owners) whose personal opinions are consistantly held up for public ridicule. At the same time, the patronage businesses get the protection of "The Cloak of Invisibility". E.G., in Seattle, would you feel most welcome as a nightclub owner or as an oil product distributer ?
I want to end my digression.
The big city vs little city comparison is incorrect. Big cities can support "publications" of opposing views because they have sufficient populations of opposing views and audiences. In some cities the cocktail parties are integrated making for lively conversation and dynamic movements of information and opinion. Seattle Metro has and maintains a culture of exclusion and homogenization. Attending a Seattle gathering can be a creepy and disturbing experience.

Hey ! How many Conservatives do you have on the Crosscut staff ? Do you mentor conservative voices, in a comparable way, as those of the tag-a long staus quosters ? I think not.
It would be fun to have a local writer worth looking for and reading.
Later.
Jamesmi@frontier.com

Jamesa

Posted Tue, Jan 15, 5:52 p.m. Inappropriate

An interesting idea, the Bullitts buying the P-I, but since the early 70s the FCC has had a rule prohibiting one company from owning TV, radio and newspapers in the same market. No could do, though they would most likely be contemplating the 3X/week print model. Which is what Hearst should've done...

orino

Posted Tue, Jan 15, 7:57 p.m. Inappropriate

Brewster makes some good points, but here is one more ingredient to add to the stew. The Weekly was always an odd duck. From the outset it offered quality journalism, but it never had a clearly identifiable core constituency nor an overriding point of view. It came across as a jumble of incoherent impulses. It was torn between trying to be hip enough to appeal to a young avant-garde crowd, but not so hip as to offend the civic movers and shakers at the Rainier Club. In the end it was embraced by neither group. The Weekly was held together by the energy of Brewster's idiosyncratic vision, and when he sold and left, the centrifugal forces took over and The Weekly began an inexorable process of disintegration.

Compare The Weekly to The Stranger. The Stranger may have its shortcomings, but its sense of identity is clear. It consistently serves a well-defined and cohesive community. And that community rewards The Stranger with an intensity of loyalty and support that The Weekly never approached even at the pinnacle of its success.

woofer

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