One of Going Private's favorites, The Stalwart, wonders aloud after the "specialness" of newspapers. In particular, our friends wonder, if there isn't a little bit of hypocrisy both from the papers and critics of media occupying the public capital markets. Having delved into this topic yesterday at some length, I obviously have an opinion.
Sayth The Stalwart:
"...one of my big pet peeves is the idea that the media (newspapers in particular) should somehow exist in this extra-market state. A lot of old-school journalist types think that the news media should be solely focused on reporting the truth and holding government and large corporations accountable, and that it shouldn't have to worry about pesky things like the profit motive."
My own commentary had more to do with structure than with the question of newspapers turning a profit, but this was likely an oversight on my part.
It is certainly true that taking the "we need to be independent in order to properly speak truth to power," argument to its extreme suggests that even profit should be abandoned as a goal for "pure" media. And, indeed, this argument has its emotional appeals. One suspects that unpopular (but valid and important) journalism wouldn't sell particularly well. But two facts blunt this argument significantly. First, there is already at least one active marketplace for non-commercially viable journalism (and it produces what I think is the best programming out there). Second, as I pointed out before, media need not rely on the public markets for capital anymore.
The Stalwart goes on to quote Gary Weiss over at Salon:
Public ownership has been a disaster for newspapers not just because it invites hostile takeovers. Quite simply, much of what newspapers do has no clear investment rationale. Entire segments of the business -- such as foreign bureaus and investigative reporting -- are inimical to profitability, particularly when viewed on the quarter-by-quarter basis favored by Wall Street.
Well, of course this line of argument, to which I am typically quite sympathetic given my view on the "tyranny of the quarterlies," seems to rely on the fact that investment in foreign bureaus and investigative reporting are somehow big cost centers that do not create return. Let's examine that for a moment.
The CBS Evening News used to be the gold standard of reporting, way before I was ever aware it even existed. Their international news, it seems, was the "go to" desk to inform yourself about world events. Now that program is hosted by Katie Couric, who departed her position as "permanent co-host" for the Today show, which cannot be described as much other than a candied morning program (it doesn't get more substanceless than Bryant Gumble after all) that I struggle to describe without using the word "schlock." Couric reportedly turned down a $20 million a year salary offer to join CBS. Despite this, she remained pretty much the highest paid news anchor with a $15 million a year salary.
Let us pause for a moment and consider the import of these kinds of salaries for what are described as "media personalities." Quite obviously, this is celebrity salary. This is professional athlete salary. It is so large because CBS is paying for entertainers. Why is this? Dan Rather purportedly quipped that "...it was the day that the news became entertainment that all was lost." (Ironically, Rather, after being effectively forced out at CBS over the purported forgery of the "Killian documents," joined Mark Cuban's HDNet. Like I said. professional athlete salary. So much for the evil of news as entertainment, Mr. Rather.
It comes, therefore, probably as little surprise that the CBS Evening News has fallen from grace. In fact, it has also fallen quite a distance from the low bough of mediocrity. Reuters, a plucky schadenfreund to other media, runs this (today, ironically) under the headline "CBS eyes more hard news for ailing Couric newscast":
"On the short list of things to improve at CBS News is the standing of "CBS Evening News With Katie Couric," which started with a lot of fanfare in September but has faltered. Last week's viewership was the lowest since at least 1987, probably longer, according to Nielsen Media data issued Tuesday."
Yes, it is a long cycle, but pulling news out of a network news program eventually implodes as a strategy. At the tail and of that cycle you end up with something like "To Catch a Predator," which relies more on shock value for ratings than it does "investigative reporting," but captivates the audience in a blind, brainlocked trance. A perfectly suggestible state to pepper them with advertisements for Triple Action Gold Bond Medicated Powder.
I think the best non-entertainment shows on television today are Frontline, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, The Nightly Business Report and Nova. (And this only because Louis Rukeyser is dead). All of these, of course, are on public television. (For entertainment I'm a fan of Rome, production of the consummate "for pay" television network, HBO, and I am pissed, by the way, that it's run its course). That says something. But what?
Perhaps that the American public no longer has a taste for real news. True, societies in luxury often find news of foreign wars and economics tedious (unless a conquest is being celebrated). But public television is, in a microcosmic way, its own free market with scarce resources that are lusted after by multiple programs. Frontline documentaries (don't miss the one on "The Media," they are all available free online) are almost all made by freelancers. After all, you have to convince a producer your production is worth making. They call their customers "sponsors," but in reality that's advertizing. It just has a lovely liberal burqa over its feminine head.
So how to preserve the integrity of news? What if we didn't bother? Surely, proponents among Going Private's readers of information asymmetry would enjoy a world where political slop dominated the WSJ. A dumbed down market is a boon for smart players who do their own homework and rely on The Journal primarily for "reading the street," nicht so? Sure, it would be sad to lose The Journal to a slot "somewhere between O'Riley and Fox News," but then, you see disaster, I see opportunity.
And, then, the "nothing more than another rich family without Dow Jones" Bancrofts could always take the damn thing private.