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 'Seattle Weekly' and 'The Stranger' have long battled one another and established media for a place in Seattle.

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.

The sale, yet again, of  Seattle Weekly  to out-of-town owners makes me wonder, yet again: Why is there such a paucity of local owners of our media? Are we too busy building global corporations to pay attention to paltry things like publishing?

It’s got so the Weekly's sale, from a New York-based entity to a Phoenix-based group to a Denver-based company to (now) a Victoria B.C.-based chain is characterized, in the words of Seattle Weekly editor Mike Seely, that “we have local owners again.” There’s a gram or so of truth to that description since Sound Publishing, owned by Black Press in Canada, has a lot of slender local weeklies. Cold comfort to localists, but that’s about the best we can do. (For a thorough story on the low-profile Black newspaper chain and its 170 newspapers in western Canada and the Pacific Northwest, here is a fine story in The Weekly from 2008.)

Last week also brought the news that Fisher Communications, owners of KOMO, may be putting the company or some components up for sale. There would be no shortage of buyers, says a Seattle Times story, but you can be sure that none of them would be local. And there would go the last of the locally owned television stations, gone the way of our banks.

Contrast that with stories from other cities, where civic leaders are buying faltering local dailies at rock-bottom prices. Last April in Philadelphia a consortium made up of a Democratic power broker, a parking magnate and a Republican fund-raiser and insurance executive ponied up a paltry $55 million to buy The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Daily News, and Philly.com. Former mayor Ed Rendell brokered the deal, then stepped back because of worries that he was too big a conflict of interest. You can find similar stories in San Diego and Santa Rosa. Yet when the Post-Intelligencer was closing its print edition (dating back to 1867) and an effort was made to find local buyers to keep it going, no such saviors were to be found.

For the first 21 years of its life, Seattle Weekly was locally owned, and its board members included some of the important names in the city, such as Bagley Wright, Douglass Raff and Alan Black. But the trend of local groups selling to acquiring chains was clear during that period. Probably the most beloved of the local media companies, the Bullitt family’s KING Broadcasting, was sold to a Providence-based, then Belo, a Dallas-based group. A Harriett Bullitt magazine,  Pacific Northwest , was sold, eventually winding up owned by a Minneapolis-based group and renamed Seattle Magazine.

Radio stations joined the sales parade. The Eastside Journal, now shrunk to some slender weeklies owned by Sound Publishing, passed through various hands. The dailies in Everett and Tacoma drifted from family ownership to, respectively, the Washington Post and McClatchy.

What new publications were started (The Stranger, from Madison, Wisconsin, and Seattle Metropolitan, from Portland) came from outside talent, money and formulas. Crosscut, locally generated and owned, was one counter-example. And I tip my hat to green developer Greg Smith and tech entrepreneur Rajeev Singh, who bankrolled Publicola.com, now owned by the Portland-based group that publishes Seattle Met magazine.

Leading up to the sale of Seattle Weekly in 1997, I tried as publisher of the enterprise to find local buyers. The company was making money, had a second paper, Eastsideweek, and a book publishing company, Sasquatch Books. The price would have been in the mid-to-upper seven figures. No takers, though plenty of out-of-town bidders.

The turndowns by the locals were illuminating. The new, tech-oriented wealth of the town, while loaded with cash, could not see any future for ink-on-paper publishing. Older wealth feared the public exposure that goes with owning an irreverent periodical. Investors couldn’t see an easy way to “scale up” the venture, such as expanding to other cities or other kinds of magazines.

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.

The saddest aspect of these recent media acquisitions is that they are acts of "harvesting." The temptation, in an economic sector where expansion no longer seems likely to be rewarded with good profits, is to buy properties at low prices, strip them of costs (older staffers, high-mindedness, topic-areas with few advertisers) and harvest the revenues that remain. At the end, the corpse is discarded.

It's the depressing coda in the newspaper world, reminiscent of another Northwest specialty of absentee ownership in our forests, mines, grasslands and fisheries: cut and run.


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