Should Universities Marry Newspapers?
Three experts talk about a world where colleges offer to pick up the tab
The idea emerged at a conference of writers and publishers sponsored last fall by the College of Communication to discuss the uncertain future of journalism. Universities, with their considerable (if shrinking) endowments, and their dedication to sharing information and knowledge, might make worthy spouses for newspapers, enterprises whose business model has been run over by a truck. Universities, after all, have been supporting public radio for decades, and the pairing seems to work.
Since then, newspapers’ need for a lifeline has gone from urgent to desperate. Last week, the Boston Globe reported that corporate parent the New York Times Company is threatening to shut it down within 30 days if the paper fails to negotiate $20 million in concessions from its unions. The Globe is said to be facing a loss of $85 million this year. In January, Yale chief investment officer David Swensen and financial analyst Michael Schmidt reported in an op-ed published in the New York Times that the past five years have seen a 50 percent drop in the Times’ profit margins from where they had lived happily during the previous 15 years. At the Washington Post, the decline was 25 percent. And in cities all over the United States, newspapers that were once money machines are for sale, or worse. The Philadelphia Inquirer recently filed for bankruptcy protection, and so has the Tribune Company, which operates the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and six other daily papers.
BU Today put the question to three authorities, two former newspaper editors and one of the most respected analysts of the newspaper business: what’s good and what’s bad about the idea of newspapers turning to universities for life support?
Lou Ureneck is chair of the BU College of Communication journalism department. He is a former editor of Maine’s Portland Press Herald, page one editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, and editor-in-residence at Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism.
James E. O’Shea, currently a fellow at Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, was famously fired from his job as editor of the Los Angeles Times in January 2008 after refusing to make newsroom cuts demanded by the publisher. Before moving to the L.A. Times, O’Shea spent 27 years at the Chicago Tribune, where he was managing editor from 2001 to 2006.
Lauren Rich Fine is a practitioner in residence at Kent State University’s College of Communication and Information and director of research at ContentNext, which reports on the business of digital media. She is a former managing director at Merrill Lynch and a nationally known authority on the changing business of daily newspapers. Fine was once described by the Toronto Star as “the most powerful media figure you don’t know.”
What follows is an edited version of their conversation.
Fine: As somebody who would really like to see newspapers survive, I want anybody to own them. The attraction of having a university with a serious journalism program own one is that they have people there who are equipped, presumably, to produce a newspaper. It’s not obvious that they have the right capability to run it as a business.
O’Shea: I agree with Lauren. After having run a couple of newspapers, I’ve found they’re very, very difficult and complex organizations, and I don’t know that there are enough rich people out there to sustain a long-term endowment solution.
Ureneck: Universities at some levels see themselves as stewards of culture. They operate museums, they run orchestras, they embrace libraries. So if we think the newspaper is making a cultural contribution that’s important to society, then perhaps universities have some stake in this. And there is the model of the radio station. For example, here in Boston we have an outstanding National Public Radio station, WBUR, which is a part of Boston University.
Fine: If you could get some type of support like NPR does, or other types of supportive people who care about what journalism stands for, it’s a beginning, but still isn’t really the solution. I think most newspapers still have too much in the way of costs in terms of how they produce the paper each day. And Jim, I say this very respectfully, but there are probably too many editors and too much concern about quality control.
O’Shea: Everybody dislikes editors and everybody needs them. That’s been proven again and again over the years.
Fine: One, just one.
Ureneck: I want to go back to the economics of newspapers. Presumably, if universities were stewards of newspapers, they’d be nonprofit institutions and we wouldn’t want to see them lose money, but if they could just break even, that would be good enough.
Fine: A lot of private newspaper companies out there are owned by wealthy families who have made it clear, I think, that they’re less concerned with making a profit than they are with sustaining the enterprise. Here’s the challenge: newspapers became almost exclusively supported by classified advertising, which migrates to the cheapest medium — in this case the Internet.
O’Shea: I disagree entirely. Newspapers are not profitable because they’ve chosen to charge too little for their paper. They also got into a lot of trouble borrowing money to buy back stock, and they took on so much debt.
Ureneck: Lauren, do you see any future for a subscription component as a serious revenue stream on the Internet?
Fine: Absolutely not, and I don’t think newspapers made a mistake. I think once you created this incredible thing called the Internet that allowed everybody to have a voice, the value of the edited paper was devalued because people felt that there were other ways to get information — in some cases the wrong way. I’m not saying that’s good, but I think it’s irreversible.
But to your point about a university-owned product, their ability to get feet on the street and do the marketing differently, to engage the community in some way that I think has been lost through the years — I think that’s where the university model becomes more interesting. You start to get this passionate group of people to get out and reenergize the community and change the way that you deliver the paper in some manner.
Ureneck: You know, those of us who are close to this business see a calamity ahead: the public getting less news and less trustworthy news and information in the future. What’s your sense of the public’s awareness of this potential problem?
O’Shea: I think there’s a growing awareness that there’s trouble on the horizon. I don’t see anybody saying, ‘Oh my God’ yet. I think right now most people seem to say, ‘Oh, they’ll probably figure their way out of it.’
Fine: I don’t think consumers are that stupid; I think they figure this stuff out.
I want to say one other thing to your earlier point. Universities do have all the right resources. I’ve only been on a university campus for a year now, and I know it’s not an unusual one. It is really difficult to get things done in an academic environment where everyone has their own daily routine, and trying to pull this off in a university setting would be incredibly challenging unless you had a separate management to do it. We all agree it’s a tough thing to do, but academia is not known for moving things quickly.
Click here to read the entire transcript.
Art Jahnke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article also appears in the Spring 2009 issue of Bostonia.10 Comments