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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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