Thursday November 24, 2005
Happy turkey-day, folks. This morning, we’re looking at an essay by our man Michael Lewis, “Just when we thought we’d outgrown childish name-calling …,” written in response to this article in the Herald. The whole thing is worth reading, but his basic point is that the Herald is taking three people’s unsubstantiated accusations and giving them inappropriate legitimacy.
What’s not proper is a headline that states that the hotel has communist ties – because that’s what “Hotel plan bashed for communist ties” says. It doesn’t say “alleged communist ties” – it assumes that if “activist and radio personality Ninoska Perez-Castellon” and city commissioner and radio commentator Tomas Regalado bash it, it’s got communist ties. That’s worse than allowing name-calling in print – it’s not only dignifying the ridiculous in a major newspaper, it’s accepting the name-calling as fact.
Michael ends with a riff about how we live in a free country, people are free to say what they want, newspapers are free to print whatever they want, he’s free to respond anyway he wants, and “[y]ou can decide which media sources you also want to skip.” And that is precisely where we have to disagree.
Now, Miami Today does some wonderful reporting (mostly on business), as does the New Times, the Sun Post, and other local weeklies. But Miami remains a one-paper town. For whatever its flaws, the Herald gets a lot of reporting done that nobody else is in a position to do. The people who criticize it the most are also the people who care the most about newspaper reporting, and so the people most likely to read it. This very blog relies on the Herald for some of its content.
The Herald has bigger issues, though (in fact, the entire newspaper industry does). Knight Ridder, the company that owns the Herald, is up for sale. Why? ‘Cause of the shareholders. It turns out, though, that the company is not loosing money. In fact,
Despite the gloom about the business on Wall Street, Knight Ridder and other newspaper companies remain profitable. In the third quarter of 2005, Knight Ridder reported operating income of $96.3 million, down from $126.5 million for the same period last year. Revenue for the quarter grew to $723.8 million from $708 million a year earlier.
Doesn’t sound so bad, right? The problem is that the company is publicly traded, and stockholders don’t care about a newspaper’s level of service to its community, or even, amazingly, about profits — they care about their stock prices. When the stock prices go up, they’re happy. When they go down, they demand changes, even if those changes are bad for the company in the long run (in fact, shareholder demands sometimes lead to the dissolution of companies).
There’s nothing wrong with newspapers being for-profit organizations, but when that for-profit status hurts their long-term success, maybe a transition to non-profit status is the answer. Think about it — the newspaper could continue to operate as it has, collecting ad revenue and subscription fees (in fact, it could solicit philanthropic contributions), but it’s board of directors would be replaced with a board of trustees, who’d have the community’s best interests in mind, along with the organization’s (those interests seem pretty compatible for a newspaper). We’ve heard of non-profit newspapers starting from scratch, but never of such a transition. In fact while the internet is full of stories about non-profits becoming for-profits, the only instance we could find of the reverse was a little software firm. Is it a good idea? Is it even possible? We welcome our readers’ input: the comment boards are open.
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