Wednesday, January 24, 2007


Read All About It!

The article at the link below - written by a print journalist - takes a bemused approach to the recent efforts of several billionaires to buy, of all things, newspapers. What can one say anyway when Jack Welch wants to buy The Boston Globe? Other contenders for the role of press lord include Hank Greenberg, Ron Burkle and David Geffen. Why do they want to do a Citizen Kane gig in a medium where readership is declining faster than Orson Welles on a ski slope? One reason, according to Vanity Fair reporter Michael Wolff, is that they don't like what the papers are saying about the corporate world. They shake their heads in indignation over the "anti-business" press, and want to buy their own megaphone to broadcast their own highly biased view of things. But it's more than that.

During a vacation I took a few years ago in Canada, I visited the Beaverbrook Galley in Fredericton, New Brunswick. The art was great, but I happened to see a video about the life of Lord Beaverbrook, and that was indelible. Beaverbrook was a short, homely, womanizing scamp, a ne'er-do-well minister's son who could talk his way into your wallet and your knickers alike. He made a fortune helping run a financial pyramid scheme, was brought to trial, but bribed the witnesses against him and absconded with his ill-gotten millions to the UK. Here he bought a big house, partied by night, and by day established a tabloid empire that greatly increased the profitability of British journalism, if not its quality. He became a propagandist for the War Ministry during World War One, scoring major political points with shameless recruitment films that lured hundreds of thousands of impressionable boys into a bloody mess. Meanwhile, he cheated on his wife, bullied his sons, and in general left a slime trail of immorality across the broad landscape of his life. Evelyn Waugh once said that the Devil had to exist, for how else could one explain Lord Beaverbrook? Here was a man who entered the newspaper business for no other reason than to satisfy his own vanity and lust for power. Jack Welch and his confreres apparently wish to follow his example.

The trouble is that owning a newspaper in today's economy is beyond risky - it is simply a losing proposition. Newspapers are the preferred medium of an older generation that is rapidly disappearing, with an average age of 56. As Wolff points out, the average age of our would-be press lords is even older than that. So what we have here is an example of entrepreneurs deluded by their own senescence into embracing a product with an aging market. However, as Wolff also suggests, the very strength of their interest may have the power to rejuvenate an outmoded medium in unexpected ways. Most adults want some kind of news. As the network evening news dumbs itself down to the level of Parade magazine and newspaper subscriptions are plummeting, more and more people are getting their news on the Internet. And who are the biggest providers of news on the Internet? Why, the same newspapers whose print readership is declining. If newspapers and magazines can transform themselves from a print medium with a high overhead into an Internet medium with a much lower overhead, they may eventually be able to survive on, and even profit from, new revenue streams such as advertising pop-ups and online subscriptions.

The viability of the news media in general will never be extinguished. An appetite for news will always be with us. That is the saving grace of newspapers - and also the reason why the covetous attention of billionaires remains more dangerous than amusing. Do we really want a "free press" to be replaced by the private propaganda tools of rich men? But do we really have a choice? This is yet another danger of an executive compensation system that pays rich men far more money than they will ever need. They can afford to throw all that excess money at schemes to protect their efforts to make yet more money, regardless of the cost of those schemes themselves. If a Democratic Congress proves less amenable to corporate lobbying, the billionaires will simply shift their attention ever more urgently to The Fourth Estate, and guarantee their money-making futures by muzzling the truth.

"Billionaires And Broadsheets" from Vanity Fair

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