Monday, May 24, 2021

Failure of local deep pockets to save Tribune Co. is also a bad sign for community newspapers that need buyers

The $633 million sale of Tribune Co. to hedge fund Alden Global Capital is likely bad news not just for journalism in the major cities where Tribune has newspapers, but for smaller news outlets that may need help from local business interests and philanthropists to survive or maintain quality.

Efforts to find other buyers fell short because not enough deep pockets in Tribune markets were interested in maintaining their newspapers, writes Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for The Washington Post. Ann Marie Lipinski, curator of Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation and a former top editor of the Chicago Tribune, told Sullivan that the outcome “represents a failure of civic leadership” in many communities, especially Chicago. "After all, the city’s many corporations include Boeing, United Airlines and Walgreens," Sullivan notes. "There’s a healthy population of plutocrats along the shore of Lake Michigan."

Screenshot of part of right rail of Gallatin North Missourian
web page shows its three publications. To enlarge, click on it.
On a smaller scale, some local weekly newspapers have been shutting down because they couldn't find buyers. One of the latest examples is the Gallatin Publishing Co. of Gallatin, Mo., which announced May 5 that it would shut down Friday, May 28, unless it could find a buyer for the weekly Gallatin North Missourian and the monthly Lake Viking News.

Publisher Darryl Wilkinson, 67, told The Rural Blog on Monday that he has since sold the monthly, to the lake's property owners association, and a real-estate and auctions website to his daughter, who is a commercial photographer, but two prospective buyers for the weekly, both with no newspaper experience, decided against it. He also has for sale a three-county shopper and a commercial printing operation. All the other operations have been subsidizing the weekly, he said.

Asked about the possibility of a philanthropic buyer, Wilkinson said, "I did not pursue that as actively or aggressively as other avenues. . . . I firmly believe that the market should determine a lot of things." But he said a local attorney has been trying to assemble a group to buy the weekly, telling him, "I cannot image a county seat without a newspaper; it's like a community without a school."

Philanthropy, conversion to non-profit status or becoming a public-service corporation are options for community newspaper owners and their communities. Wilkinson said his newspaper deals in "meat and vegetables" news that is nutritional for the community, but "This internet-driven world is all about dessert," and fewer people appreciate the value of a news outlet that can separate facts from gossip.

Sullivan writes, "Even in their shriveled states, local newspapers still are doing the crucial work of holding powerful individuals and institutions accountable, and helping to knit together communities.
The just-sold newspapers are essential to their communities’ well being. In fact, it’s no exaggeration to make a more sweeping statement: that healthy local journalism is essential to the functioning of American democracy. But it’s dwindling, as more local papers either close their doors or become mere shadows of what they once were."

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