Newspapers and civic responsibility CHRIS KATTERJOHN Commentary:

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Lately, a bunch of wealthy, hotshot CEOs and politicos have made noises about buying some well-known metropolitan daily newspapers that are considered in play.

The names are Hollywood producer David Geffen and the Los Angeles Times; retired General Electric CEO Jack Welch and the Boston Globe; and Baltimore civic leaders Walter Sondheim Jr. and Ted Venetoulis and the Baltimore Sun.

What’s going on here? The business is dying, isn’t it?

Circulation of major dailies has been in a downward spiral in recent years. The Audit Bureau of Circulations last week reported overall average daily circulation of the nation’s newspapers dropped 2.8 percent in the six-month period ended Sept. 30.

The Pew Research Center reported earlier this year in its 2006 Annual Report on the State of News Media that circulation in the nation’s top 50 dailies dropped an average of 4.1 percent in 2005.

Profits ain’t what they used to be, either, so what’s the appeal?

Ego is certainly a part of it. How can you not feel big and powerful if you control your city’s daily newspaper? It’s heady stuff.

But I’d like to think some of these folks are interested in returning the nation’s newspapers to the business of covering their communities with less concern about margins and big returns for public shareholders.

After all, most of these characters and their investor groups already have enough money. They don’t necessarily need a new business venture to crank out the 25- to 30-percent margins of yesteryear. A 15- to 20-percent margin would do just fine if it came along with the status of being a big-city newspaper publisher.

Venetoulis even recently told a Washington Post reporter, “Everyone [in the investor group] needs to understand this may not be the best business venture around and the return may not be what they expect. This is part of civic responsibility.”

Civic responsibility-I like that.

In recent years, newspapers have cut staffs in newsrooms across America to bare bones in an effort to appease Wall Street in an era when the Internet is taking more and more readers and advertisers away.

It’s not good for the public. Here’s why.

The thorough, aforementioned Pew study on the state of the media found as one of six major trends that “the new paradox of journalism is more outlets covering fewer stories.

“As the number of places delivering news proliferates, the audience for each tends to shrink and the number of journalists in each organization is reduced,” the study said. The result is that more people are covering the same stories using the same sources.

That means what we are reading on the Web and in our newspapers and seeing on our television news is becoming more homogenized, with fewer perspectives on fewer stories. That can’t be a good thing.

Say what you will about newspapers and print journalists, but what they have going for them-and the reader-is that they have been trained to investigate, interview and write stories that accurately reflect the news, put it in context and, in some cases, provide analysis.

That’s our value proposition. You never know what you’re getting on the Web, and most television news is pretty superficial (because of time constraints).

It seems to me that well-financed local owners who have a sense of civic responsibility and the financial wherewithal to invest in the product and qualified people to put it out-both in print and on the Web-would be a good thing for newspapers.

Speaking as someone who has worked for a newspaper that’s been locally owned and chain-owned-twice each way-I’ll take committed local ownership with resources over chain ownership any day. In the 16 years our local group has owned IBJ, we’ve made investments in our publications that I know wouldn’t have been made otherwise.

And I think IBJ is all the better for it. Is there a local group out there that wants to buy The Indianapolis Star?

Katterjohn is publisher of IBJ. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to

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