The public vs. private debate

I’ve stepped into the middle of an argument on Jay Rosen’s blog, and Jay calls me out, so I might as well respond to Jay here.

Rosen takes Justin Fox to task for suggesting that newspapers might be better off remaining in public ownership.

Relevant quote from Fox:

Now that Wendy McCaw has driven away most of the editors from the newspaper she owns, the Santa Barbara News-Press, a lot of people in journalism are beginning to question what had become accepted wisdom in the past year or so – that independent, local ownership is the salvation of the ailing newspaper industry.

Rosen responds:

Fox told me something I didn’t know, but don’t for a moment believe. No one believes it. Newspaper people, known to be struggling with big problems for a long time, have at last found The Answer? Fox says so. It’s conventional wisdom, he says, that local independent ownership is their salvation.

The statement is bull. What conventional wisdom says (maybe) is that local independent ownership is worth a try again, and might work out better than corporate chains have. Why would a journalist describe prevailing wisdom in his own business as way dumber than it really is? Because it’s the cheapest way there is to sound smart: defy the conventional wisdom that you just spent $0.0 and zero man hours compiling.

In the comments, in response to a comment I had left earlier, here’s what Jay addresses to me:

And I would say to Howard Owens: Go ahead, Howard, show me some samples of all the talk going around claiming that “private ownership will save newspaper journalism” that doesn’t acknowledge “private has its pitfalls” too. I don’t believe you can.

OK, let’s start with Editor’s Weblog:

The news business shouldn’t be about business, many journalists argue. Yes, ideally, journalism is about facts and clarity, education and explanation, everything good and true in this wayward world — ideally. But that’s a Utopian vision, and journalists who ground themselves in the principle of gritty, tell-it-like-it-is reporting often foolishly refuse to acknowledge the financial needs of their newspaper.

Those needs cannot be denied. However, they might be lessened if Wall Street wasn’t such an imposing force. Private ownership may prove itself this struggling industry’s saving grace.

No equivocation there.

How about, the Washington Post.

Morton has become a convert to the return-to-private thinking, which he said has its journalistic benefits.

“The fact is, Wall Street is so short-nosed and is so dedicated to maximizing return on investment to the exclusion of almost everything else, you’re going to have situations where, basically, you have a lot of public shareholders who have interests that are inimical to good journalism,” he said.

Yes, there’s a note of caution in the next graph — the even private equity owners expect a return on investment. But this isn’t the same as warning, as is the issue Fox is writing about, that private owners might be more prone to put personal interests ahead of journalistic standards.

Then there’s this piece from where even Laura Rich Fine is praising local ownership. In the entire piece, I don’t see much in the way of caution or concern.

The fact is, there has been a good deal of talk in journalistic circles about how advantageous it would be for newspapers to get away from public ownership. “Conventional wisdom” may be an overstatement, but it’s still a train of thought worth addressing before we all rush headlong into this new utopia.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying all privately held newspapers or newspaper chains are poorly run. Most are just fine. If I wanted get even more long winded, I could rattle off an impressive list of good, privately held newspapers and newspaper chains (and a few that aren’t doing any better of a job of dealing with the new competitive pressures than public companies). What is happening in Santa Barbara is far from the norm. But this whole debate sprung up because of the alleged antics of Wendy McCaw. Those events should give journalists pause. That’s all.

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