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When City Paper was for sale last fall I called anyone who might have a clue as to how this transaction could end up with City Paper in better shape rather than worse—anytime I found ten free minutes. During those months, City Paper’s editorial staff watched other alt weeklies hemorrhage or fail, and well all saw death as a real possibility.
One of the people I called—several times—was Dan Kennedy. He’s a journalism professor at Northeastern University and worked at the dearly departed Boston Phoenix for 14 years. I knew he was writing a book about a new generation of newspaper owners, so I demanded a summary and lessons in advance, which he offered. His earlier book, The Wired City: Reimagining Journalism and Civic Life in the Post-Newspaper Age, starred Paul Bass, a newspaper editor and publisher in New Haven, Connecticut, who founded a still-successful non-profit news site in 2005. (Bass, by the way, took my calls and provided support during this period as well.)
Six months later, City Paper is alive and Kennedy’s book is out. He’s also coming to D.C. to speak about it next week at the National Press Club. The Return of the Moguls: How Jeff Bezos and John Henry Are Remaking Newspapers for the Twenty-First Century takes lessons from three major newspapers with new owners. They are Bezos’ Washington Post, John Henry’s Boston Globe, and Aaron Kushner’s Orange County Register.
Kennedy also looks at several other news outlets, and finds a distinction between owner types that’s often lost in the morass: owners who care to stand behind great journalism, and owners who don’t. In the former category, dating to way back when, we have the New York Times. In the latter category we have the recent case of the Denver Post and any number of other papers where corporate overlords sucked capital while cutting journalists. He notes that this distinction isn’t a new one, and doesn’t always add up to success for the good guys.
One of the greatest strengths of Kennedy’s book is the historical context he provides. A pragmatist, Kennedy spares us both theories and romanticism in favor of real lessons from the successes and failures of newspaper owners.
City Paper’s own newsroom no longer has the feeling of operating under the pressure of an ocean, but that doesn’t mean we’re in the clear. Local newspapers are still scrambling to find new business models and succeed at them, and it would behoove anyone interested in producing or consuming local news to read Kennedy’s book.
I’m pasting an excerpt from the The Return of the Moguls below. It’s a brief recent history of the Vermont news landscape, including their alt weekly Seven Days.
There are no billionaire newspaper owners in Vermont. But the state’s most populous city, Burlington, has long been an outpost of Gannett Company, the largest American newspaper chain. The publisher of USA Today as well as more than a hundred other daily newspapers in thirty-four states, Gannett is the prototype for the sort of publicly traded corporation whose insatiable demand for profits led to drastic downsizing years before the current crisis took hold. As recently as 2008, many Gannett newspapers reported margins of 20, 30, and even 40 percent. But that was a long time ago. In 2015 the company earned just $149 million on revenues of $2.9 billion, or 5 percent. Both those figures were lower than they were in 2014. Gannett may be a behemoth, but, like all newspaper companies, it is a wounded behemoth.
Vermont’s largest daily newspaper, the Burlington Free Press, which traces its roots to 1827, has been part of Gannett since 1971. Burlington is a small place. Although it is the largest city in the state, its population of about 42,000 would be the size of a middling suburb in most parts of the country. Thus the Free Press is not a major metro on the order of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Boston Globe, or the Orange County Register. And it has been shrinking — in the most literal sense. In 2012 the size was chopped from a broadsheet to a daily, which led to grumbling from more than a few traditionalists. Far worse, paid weekday print circulation dropped from nearly 50,000 around the turn of the century to about 16,000 in 2016 (Sunday circulation was 21,000). Despite Gannett’s heavy emphasis on digital, online traffic was just short of 650,000 unique visitors per month, and mobile traffic was minimal. The Free Press’ journalistic reach had shrunk as well: A newsroom of nearly sixty full-time journalists had been reduced to about twenty-five by late 2015.
Yet something had happened in Burlington and the surrounding area that mirrored what I’ve observed in other places. In Connecticut, online-only projects such as the New Haven Independent, CT News Junkie, and the Connecticut Mirrorrose as established newspapers such as the New Haven Register and the Hartford Courant cut back. The same was true in rural western New York, where the Batavian, a for-profit online-only news service, took its place alongside the Batavia Daily News, and in Southern California, where Voice of San Diego emerged as one of the most closely watched nonprofit news projects in the country even as the San Diego Union-Tribune suffered deep cuts and ended up in the hands of “Papa Doug” Manchester before being acquired by the company now known as tronc, with a lowercase “t.” (In the spring of 2018, a Southern California billionaire, the surgeon Patrick Soon-Shiong, announced that he would purchase the Union-Tribune and the Los Angeles Times from tronc.) Likewise, in Burlington, as the Free Press shrank, other news organizations helped fill the gap — specifically Seven Days, a thick, healthy alternative weekly with a strong news sense; VT Digger, a nonprofit site that covers politics and public policy at the state level and that was beginning to offer local coverage; and Vermont Public Radio, an NPR affiliate with a decent mix of local and regional reporting.
The Return of the Moguls: How Jeff Bezos and John Henry Are Remaking Newspapers for the Twenty-First Century, by Dan Kennedy. Published by ForeEdge, an imprint of University Press of New England. Kennedy will speak on Wednesday, June 13, at 6:30 p.m. at the National Press Club.