Opinion Columns & Blogs

Morem calls it on the print business

File this one under, “Will print newspapers survive? Part 2” as an adjunct to last week’s musing on the fate of my profession.

When I started out in the ranks of ink-stained wretches, I worked for a guy by the name of Ralph “Scoop” Morgan at his family-owned paper, The Cambrian in Cambria. In addition to his Runyonesque nickname, he was the real deal in newspapering: a fearless teller of the truth. I couldn’t have had a better mentor in not only showing me the ropes, but also how much fun it is to be the first to find a story and then blab it.

Alas, Scoop died, and the paper was subsequently sold to the J.P. Scripps chain that owned the then-Telegram Tribune and 10 other smaller dailies throughout California.

John P. Scripps was a benevolent owner. All he wanted from his papers was a 5 percent profit to maintain his lifestyle of yachting to Mexico to bet on the races.

Alas, Scripps died, and his string of papers were swallowed by the much larger newspaper chain Scripps Howard — which must have had J.P. spinning like a well-oiled turbine in his grave, he being the black sheep of the family by striking out on his own to California from his native Cincinnati.

Scripps Howard (thought by some as Skimps Howard for its parsimony) sold the franchise after about eight years to Knight Ridder, which eventually sold us to McClatchy.

I offer this background for several reasons.

First, when I got into the game, there were numerous competing newspapers that were still owned by families. Then, the MBAs arrived as heads of newspaper corporations and started buying out their competition in much the same manner that any merger or acquisition would develop a monopoly in its market. It was a costly move in the short run as chains accrued debt, but fabulously lucrative in the longer short run.

As newspaper chains such as Gannett began posting annual profits as high as 33 percent, the culture of newspapering changed. Corporate publishers began referring to their individual papers as “profit centers” and readers as “market share.” The so-called “golden age of newspapering” didn’t last all that long, maybe 20 years.

But here’s the thing: With the advent of the Internet during this time, did newspapers pile any of their huge profits into cornering that technology as a news dissemination technique? Sure, Knight Ridder tried to use computer programming for news delivery in the early 1980s, but it was such a financial fiasco that it sent a chilling message to the money managers: This doesn’t work.

Yet, as I noted the demographics of readership (not market share, thank you) last week, print readers are heavy in the 40-year-old and up generations and virtually nonexistent in those who have been raised from kindergarten through college on computers. So the imperative to find an effective model for distributing news on the Net is obviously there.

Moral of the story? The press is the only business that’s guaranteed protections under the Constitution. It was given that status because our Founding Fathers knew that a free press acts as a check-and-balance on government, that a free flow of information is intrinsic to a well-informed electorate.

Concern over the loss of newspapering in whatever form has been debated in Congress. There’s been talk of government subsidies for newspapers, like public television or radio.

Yet, how do you get around the idea that you’re being franchised by the very government that you’re supposed to be watch-dogging? What are the ethics of endorsing a political candidate who hands you a subsidy? Yeah, kind of a conundrum, eh?

The good news is that newspapers, The Trib included, are gaining readership on their websites — and we’re holding our own in advertising and circulation.

Bottom line? As I noted last week, if I could accurately see into the future, I’d be making millions off emerging trends. That said, I give the printed newspaper, in one form or another, about 25 years.

Bill Morem can be reached at bmorem@thetribunenews.com or at 781-7852.

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