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Newspapers and their Rich Suitors

David Carr, NY Times: Dubious Mix: Rich Suitors, Ailing Papers. Each potential buyer of the Tribune papers has said, mostly through surrogates, that profits are not the point, but men who spent their lives piling up money hate to watch it evaporate. And any experienced business reporter will tell you the average titan has little understanding or sympathy for aggressive newsgathering. “They say they are not interested in making money and they are not going to interfere in the editorial process, so what exactly is the deal here?” said Edward Wasserman, a professor of journalism at Washington and Lee University.

What’s the deal? Several guesses:

First, they see the big local newspaper as an extension of authority. The publisher in any big city has the ear of the power structure in a way that even the richest mogul does not, because even in an era of diminished expectations newspapers still have the power to raise a ruckus. Sure, other media can be influential, but the newspaper — still the main (if poorly used) repository of community history and events — carries weight beyond its actual reach.

Second, and related to the first point, a newspaper is a nifty ego boost. Brian Tierney, the new principal owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, was just a PR guy before — a high-profile and rich PR guy, for sure, but nothing more. Now he’s the owner of the biggest newspaper in town. People are talking about him.

Third, it’s ridiculous to entirely write off newspaper companies. Yes, the business model is under attack. And yes, it won’t be the same business in a few years that it is today. But the lack of innovation — caused by a fundamental lack of imagination inside an industry that used to think selling advertising meant answering the phone — can be fixed by new, smart thinking. Tierney and his colleagues are going to remake the Inquirer, and it will never be the same paper it was. But it could easily become a great local media and journalism company that once again becomes indispensable to the community it serves.

Many, maybe most, of the rich new owners will be out to milk the dying cow, or to use the newspapers as ego-trip vehicles for themselves and their friends. But the ones who are willing to make less money on their investments than Wall Street has been demanding from the publicly held companies, and who see journalism as something to support because it matters — they will help, not hurt, journalism in this new era.

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