Mark Glaser is good at letting his mind jump outside of the box once in a while, and if nothing else, his ideas are worth a little contemplation.
His latest column Glaser gets a little wild on the topic of alternatives to public ownership of newspapers.
I’m still not convinced this is a public vs. private debate. The structure of newspaper ownership is not an either or proposition. There are private ownership models that suck, such as the single owner of the single newspaper. Many years ago, I worked for a one-owner newspaper where the drive for profits and the complete disregard for ethics was much worse than any public newspaper I know of. On the flip side, I have high regard for E.W. Scripps and McClatchy, two publicly-traded newspaper companies with great ownership models that to this point, at least, have worked very well at keeping Wall Street out of the newsroom.
Structure is important, but no structure can save you from bad leadership. It takes smart people making smart decisions with a clear vision of where to take the business. That’s why the St. Pete Times works. It has nothing to do with the non-profit status of the paper. Some of Glaser’s suggestions, such as “citizen ownership” could potentially muddle the lines of leadership. And the minute you set up a clearly defined leadership structure, you’re going to offend some people, which leads to a break down of citizen participation.
As for white knights putting up the initial financing for a citizen buy out of the LA Times — that’s a lot of money. I don’t care how altruistic they feel about the community, they are going to want to protect their cash. If they have even a single capitalistic bone, they are going to want to grow profits. Even if that were to happen, the subsequent small investors, such as the Pasadena grandmother putting up her last free $100, will not want to lose money. Fiscal responsibility requires a steady hand and sometimes leads to decisions that newsrooms find distasteful. In abstract, I’m not sure this model is the answer. I see more conflict and inertia than I do a return to glory. That’s not to say that with the right structure and leadership in place, it couldn’t work, but it would be easier to get cats all running in the same direction than to manage the LAT by citizen committee.