Sometimes I think the dumbest people to talk to about the newspaper business are newspaper people, of which I am one, obviously. Is it possible to scream blindness? David Carr, The New York Times's media columnist -- one of the few media reporters on whose word I truly hang, often -- has a piece in today's paper that shrieks it. Or else he's being polite.
Carr is writing about that great figure of world journalism, Rupert Murdoch, one of the few major newspaper owners one can think of who has been officially dubbed "not a fit person" by the British Parliament.
What an industry!
Murdoch is presiding over the splitting up of his empire into two entities, one for newspapers and the other for broadcast and everything else, or as they are already known on the street, Carr reports, "Badco," and "Goodco."
It caught my eye, because, of course, one of the models for this move is our own locally headquartered national media company, the former Belo Corp., which did this same thing five years ago. Now we have Belo This and Belo That, and I guess there must be some kind of Belo This-n'-That supposed to be over This and over That, but I refuse, on principle, to learn any those names, so I call it all Belo Whatever.
Here's the deal. Media companies own TV stations, which still make money, although at nowhere near the rate they did back in the day. And then they own daily newspapers, which are pretty much the equivalent these days of cash landfills.
Got too much cash strewn around junking up the property? Truck it on out to the Daily Newspaper Landfill, where, for a very reasonable fee, they will allow you to dump it on them.
So anyway, Carr goes on a little about how hard it's going to be for Murdoch to recruit top talent to run the new daily newspaper division as a distinct entity. "What will he or she be taking over?" Carr wonders aloud.
C'mon. We get this, right? That person will preside over the funeral. Even those of us who are stained by ink and wretched should get this. Especially us. I admire Carr so much, I'm going to chalk up his reticence to his feelings of pity and to his being a gentleman, neither a constraint from which I suffer.
This is a trash-hauling operation. It is the beginning of the end of the end. It's how it's done. For reasons born of the peculiarities of the industry, the body of a newspaper must be embalmed before, not after it dies.
Pardon me, but I have lived through this, or died through it, as the case may be, when a cash-starved and stumbling Times-Mirror Corp "sold" The Dallas-Times Herald to Billy Dean Singleton in 1986. This was not three years after John Morton, the great guru of all media analysts, pronounced in a Newsweek article that Times-Mirror was in "super shape."
At that time Times-Mirror was losing on every competitive front in its core business -- newspapers -- not just in Southern California but everywhere in the country except Long Island, where children are required by law to be literate. Otis Chandler, who was running the outfit, was selling off Canadian timberland to keep his coupon-clipping dividend-hungry cousins at bay.
So three years after the Newsweek "super shape" piece was published, William Dean Singleton shows up as our new "owner." I happened to have a friend at the time (believe it or not) who was a successful venture capitalist. He asked me what I thought of my new boss. I said I didn't know what to think but hoped he would pull us out of the woods and into a bright future.
There was a lot of coughing. He said he really didn't know much about Mr. Singleton. Then he tells me this story about how back in the 19th century when even urban families still owned horses, a family might get pretty attached to Old Bess, the loyal mare. But, you know, Bess is getting pretty long in the tooth and tender at the hoof, takes in more grain than she puts out work, and ... it's time.
It's just time. And you know for what. Not "the farm." In those days, farms did not take in or feed bad horses.
At this point in his odd narrative, my friend paused thoughtfully -- quite a long pause, I recall -- and then he said, "You know back then every town had a guy, and we still use the term today in the private equity business: They him called 'the knacker.'
"The knacker would drop by the house and maybe knock on the kitchen door and say to the lady of the house, 'I understand you're thinking of letting old Bess go.' So he'd pay her two bucks for Bess, and then he'd lead the poor old horse out of the yard and do what she didn't have the stomach to do, which was to walk Bess down to the Bottoms and peddle her for four bucks to the glue factory."
A much longer silence ensued. Finally I pointed to my own chest in the international sign language for "Bess, moi?"
"Jim," he said, "daily newspapers may be losers, but they've got fantastic customer loyalty with the golden oldie demo who still read them and the third-generation business-owners who still buy the ads. There's money to be made on the way to the glue."
I remember thinking on the way home, "I've got to stop talking to these damned capitalists and just stick to my newspaper friends. That, or shoot myself."
But, look, that's what all of this is. It's slow-mo liquidation. It's the knacker walkin' the tired old lady down to her everlasting reward. People don't invest in daily newspapers. They invest in the reading of the will.
But nobody in the daily newspaper business will say that. Ever. I guess in a way it's just not allowed.
So, anyway. This is a good time to be elsewhere. Think about it. My last name even sounds a little like Schadenfreude.
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