Staff-owned papers could revive industry

It is easy to see why many believe the newspaper industry is in a state of decline. Online news sites, media pundits, and bloggers bring into question its relevance every day.

It is easy to see why many believe the newspaper industry is in a state of decline. Online news sites, media pundits, and bloggers bring into question its relevance every day.

Within the past year alone, layoffs have hit newspapers in almost every major city. And the recently announced sale of Knight Ridder to McClatchy proves that the business of newspapers is anti-climactic at best; while McClatchy announced a $4.5 billion bid for the country's second-largest newspaper company, it followed with plans to sell off 12 of Knight Ridder's papers in the same breath. Even if the industry isn't in a state of decline, it's most certainly in a state of transition.

So maybe that transition needs to be one that moves away from the idea of newspapers as a business and gets back to what they were intended to be: publications that inform a community and bring it together. At least that's the notion behind The Newspaper Guild-Communication Workers of America's (TNG-CWA) bid to buy those 12 papers, which include The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News, Akron Beacon Journal, The Monterey County Herald, and the San Jose Mercury News. What is particularly interesting is that the TNG-CWA's plan involves a "worker-friendly" buyout, which means that if successful, it would be the journalists who would ultimately own the papers.

"Certainly, it will put those papers in the hands of those who have the papers' best interest at the forefront," says Linda Foley, president of the TNG-CWA. "This will no longer be about profit margins for private equity funds. It will no longer be about profit margins for absentee shareholders. It will be about how good of a job we do of putting out these papers and serving the communities where we're located."

Of course, there is still a sense of reality inherent in the planned bid; however idealistic the group's plans, the bottom line is still to make money. Yet Foley says that money will be invested into the employees, which ultimately results in a better product.

"We know that these newspapers have to be run as businesses," she says. "We believe that they can be run as successful businesses. After all, they already are. Not a one of these loses money."

And TNG-CWA is able to put its money where its mouth is. The effort is being backed by The Yucaipa Cos., a "worker friendly" investment fund, so that employee financial commitment is not needed to go ahead with the bid. Ultimately, Foley says, the company, called ValuePlus Media, would be owned by employees and run by managers with both "business acumen" and newspaper experience.

"We felt that the employees, with the stake that they have in this, plus the knowledge they have of these newspapers, the sweat equity that they've put into these newspapers to build them to where they are, that they deserve to have a say in it," Foley says. "The best way to do that is to muster their forces and make a bid to own these papers."

Conglomerate media ownership has certainly had its critics. Some maintain it eliminates the individuality of each media outlet, while others say that the concentration on the bottom line hurts the quality of the journalism. PR pros bemoan the all-too-common layoffs, which often mean losing valuable contacts and established relationships.

So could a newspaper company owned by journalists be the answer? Foley certainly hopes for less of an emphasis on business, with a back-to-basics approach that will benefit the employees and communities who have lost out in the current model of newspapers. "We're bringing the papers home," she says.

After all, a staff-owned company is one thing. But a newspaper company owned by those who actually have an emotional and financial stake in it could be just the thing to make the industry's transition go more smoothly.

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