With Vancouver’s Columbian filing for bankruptcy, and many industry observers expecting the same for the The Seattle Times if it too fails to renegotiate its debt, I want to take a moment to distinguish between the poor fundamentals of the newspaper industry as a whole, and the poor business decisions of some of its most troubled publishers.
No doubt this is a difficult time to own and operate a daily newspaper. The growth of the Internet and changing consumer habits have been undermining the once dominant dailies for more than a decade, but the sudden, recession-induced plunge in advertising revenues has greatly accelerated the process. Local news monopolies, reliable cash cows for much of the past century, are slashing budgets and staff nationwide as they attempt to weather the current economic storm, while the industry as a whole struggles to invent a sustainable online business model.
Quite frankly, the fundamentals suck, and thus it would be understandable if those at the helm of papers like The Times and The Columbian take some solace in the woes of their fellow publishers. But not too much.
For while the whole industry is struggling, the financial precariousness of some of our most threatened papers is at least partially due to the awful business decisions of their owners, in particular, the incredibly over-leveraged position they find themselves in as a result of ill-advised acquisitions and other bone-headed ventures.
For The Columbian, it was the construction of a new $40 million office tower that landed a shrunken newsroom back in its old digs, and publisher Scott Campbell in bankruptcy court. For The Times, it was Frank Blethen’s ill-fated foray into the Maine media market that has left him with a couple hundred million dollars of debt coming due, and no obvious means of raising more capital. Both papers are currently losing money on their daily operations, but neither would be struggling to survive this particular recession if the bankers weren’t pounding at their doors.
And they’re not alone. Indeed, while most local papers have remained at least marginally profitable despite the industry-wide turmoil, their corporate parents are being crushed under mountains of debt incurred via highly leveraged acquisitions. It’s not that most newspapers are losing money—in fact, on average, the industry’s operating margins remain higher than most of its advertisers—it’s that they simply can’t sustain the 20 to 30 percent margins on which many of these deals were predicated.
For all the whining about Google and bloggers and high taxes and changing demographics and the reluctance of consumers to pay for content, it’s not the core business of newspapers that has put so many dailies at death’s door, but rather, the poor business decisions of their owners.
Over the years we’ve heard a lot from the conservative editorial boards at the The Times and The Columbian and elsewhere about the need for folks to take personal responsibility. It is time they demanded the same of their own publishers.