A 'local' plan for the nation's newspapers

Posted: Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Minneapolis Star Tribune emerged from bankruptcy reorganization on Monday. It has a future. So do America's other metropolitan newspapers.

Last week, Rep. Carolyn Mahoney, D-N.Y., held a hearing in Washington on the future of newspapers. If we had been there, here is what we would have said: Newspapers have a future, but a different one than was envisioned in the 1980s and 1990s.

Those were high-profit years, temporarily wonderful for the people in journalism but unfortunately wonderful also for those whose only interest was to make money from journalism. They were out-of-town, financially minded investors, often rapacious to the point of injury.

They called their papers "properties" and collected them like strings of pearls. Typically, they acquired by leveraged buyout, leaving the papers struggling to pay bank debts by hacking away at journalism, content and service.

Then came the Internet, which siphoned off classified advertising, and the recession, which pounded everyone. Newspaper companies started to fail. Of course, the failures complained about the Internet and the recession, because those things weren't their fault. The debt, however, was - and the failed companies were the ones most loaded with it.

The Star Tribune had $400 million in debt, a fantastic amount.

Financiers are now saying the business model of newspapers doesn't work. Their leveraged-buyout, absentee-owner model doesn't work. We think a lower-profit, lower-debt, all-local model does work.

Most readers still want their newspaper in print, so they can scan it, carry it and clip it, and the printed paper works as it always did.

If we were talking to Congress, we might ask for some policy things. Our industry cannot carry as heavy a tax load as it once did.

But we believe newspapers can support themselves once this recession is over, as long as they stay local: local news, local features, local entertainment, local opinion, local service and local ownership.

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