Saturday, May 16, 2009

David Geffen and The New York Times

Film industry billionaire David Geffen wants to buy The New York Times. Not a copy here or there; not subscribe so it’ll be delivered to his doorstep every morning. No, Geffen wants to buy The New York Times Company.

That may seem like an odd thing for a successful businessman to desire. With print news organizations suffering from a mix of economic crisis, the loss of their cash-cow classified advertising business, and some poor decision-making, we’ve already seen some major changes in the newspaper landscape in this country, and we can expect to see some more. The Tribune Company, owners of the Chicago Tribune and more recently (and controversially) of the Los Angeles Times, filed for bankruptcy after it was bought in a debt-laden deal by real estate billionaire Sam Zell. The San Francisco Chronicle reportedly just barely escaped being closed or sold for parts, and the Boston Globe is losing more than $80 million a year.

Huge debt overloads, depressed advertising revenue, and still largely unproven online revenue models have driven a number of papers to the brink of insolvency. Newspapers were traditionally very profitable ventures, and in turn they play crucial roles in informing, uncovering, entertaining, and occasionally provoking citizens. Is the for-profit life of papers over? Can citizens get the news and critical information they need from the new wave of journalism ventures?

One such is the brand new East Bay Citizen, a news blog created and just launched by Steven Tavares. It takes its inspiration from the idea that hyperlocal news is not covered well by the aging and money-losing giant news organizations. Tavares predicts the growth of many very localized news sources to fill in the gap.

But Times is a different animal, a local newspaper that has become a national and even international news brand. What can be done with it?

Geffen is planning to turn The New York Times into a nonprofit news organization, according to a report in Newsweek. The idea has been implemented elsewhere, such as the St. Petersburg Times in Florida, which has been run by a nonprofit for decades. Newsweek says that its sources tell it that Geffen "envisions himself as the next Nelson Poynter, the late proprietor of the St. Petersburg Times and a legend in journalistic circles for his fierce independence. The Florida newspaper ... is the widely recognized prototype of the nonprofit structure that is now generating growing interest in some quarters of an industry facing an existential crisis. Poynter, who died in 1978, willed his control to the nonprofit and highly influential Poynter Institute, viewing the mechanism as the optimal way of preserving the St. Petersburg Times' independence and local ownership. Today, under the complex ownership structure, the St. Petersburg Times operates in many respects like a for-profit newspaper."

Would it work for The New York Times? First of all, Geffen's not even assured of gaining control. He failed in a bid to buy a minority interest in the company. And The Financial Times' John Gapper urges The New York Times' Ochs-Sulzberger family, which controls ownership of the firm, not to sell until they've returned it to profitability. A May 16 profile in Financial Times suggests that Geffen's outlook and unlikely success just might make the Ochs-Sulzberger clan look kindly upon him.

But the effort is likely to be watched intently, including by northern Californians.

"Here in the Bay Area, a group led by investor Warren Hellman and attorney Bill Coblentz has been discussing how to preserve the Chronicle by changing its business model," Commonwealth Club President and CEO Dr. Gloria Duffy wrote in her May 2009 InSight column in The Commonwealth magazine. "Active consideration has been taking place in the philanthropic community about what donors can do to help preserve media capabilities to inform the public about important societal issues."

"I would make an appeal, to every philanthropy at all levels, and lay it all on the line," journalism legend Jim Lehrer told Duffy during an April 5, 2009, Commonwealth Club program in Lafayette. "This is important. And I would try to figure out a way to create a serious nonprofit major news-gathering organization for everybody. In other words, you would do the Walter Reed [Army Hospital] story, but you wouldn't do it just for the Washington Post -- anybody could run it." He went on to describe a news service that would be available to everybody at no cost. It would have to be constructed in a way that "it has the trust of everybody. But it would have to be serious; you'd have to be willing to break some china every once in a while. Or otherwise, forget it."

Perhaps Geffen and Lehrer will sit down together to discuss the future of news. In the meantime, you can watch the entire Lehrer-Duffy conversation here:

This is a slightly reworked post I originally wrote on the Commonwealth Club of California's blog.
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