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Dec. 18, 2015, 10:12 a.m.
Business Models

Newsonomics: Flipping newspapers in the new game of Monopoly

Sheldon Adelson’s purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal suggests we’re moving into a new, political phase of newspaper acquisition.

How far has the newspaper trade fallen?

It’s been another depressing year for those who value robust local news. Yet Sheldon Adelson’s reluctant outing as the new owner of the Las Vegas Review-Journal caps 2015 in a way that seems both oddly appropriate and further disheartening. Is it the story of one odd newspaper buy, or is it more telling about the state of local news in this country?

A reluctant mogul who overpaid by almost three times to buy the Review-Journal, Adelson didn’t follow the script: The new owner of a newspaper is supposed to physically enter the newsroom and shake hands. Even as the financial engineers back at corporate HQ lay plans to wring out costs by enabling synergies (buyouts, layoffs, expense squeezes large and small, smart and misguided), he’s supposed to tell the troops how much he loves and values their work. “Steady as she goes” is the usual pledge. Few newsroom habitués may be buoyed by the talk, but they hope, well, maybe, this guy is different…

Adelson, however, wrote his own book. He lay low as the Review-Journal’s newsroom, made inquiries into the sale. Then, he violated the second rule in the newspaper owner’s manual: Don’t nakedly lie. He did that when CNN’s Brian Stelter directly asked him whether he was an investor in the new ownership. “He repeatedly said ‘no,’ saying at one point, ‘I have no personal interest.'”

It makes “no comment” look like a generous statement.

Only on Thursday of this week, after being outed on Wednesday by Fortune, The Wall Street Journal, and the Review-Journal, did Adelson confirm his ownership. When he did, as Stelter pointed out, he did so in an awkward way: The statement was printed in Thursday’s edition of the Review-Journal, alongside a thoroughly reported story that used anonymous sources to identify Adelson’s son-in-law Patrick Dumont as the broker of the deal. It was a strange juxtaposition.”

After a week, Adelson got the script right: “The family said its motivation for buying the paper is simple…we believe deeply that a strong and effective daily newspaper plays a critical role in keeping our state appraised of the important news and issues we face on a daily basis.”

In the trade, we often say that one true test of a good newsroom is its ability to cover its own paper and company. The doggedness of Wall Street Journal reporters as Rupert Murdoch courted the Bancroft family is a prime example. Less nobly, much of today’s daily press has gotten the word: Don’t cover the ongoing buyouts and layoffs that have laid waste to local newsrooms, with more than 20,000 jobs gone.

At first, some owners blamed their newsrooms for the awful business state of the business, saying that reporting their own downsizing only exacerbated business woes. That seemed silly at the beginning, just post-recession, but now it’s policy, written or unwritten. It’s one distinctive marker of a press that has been cowed. Understandably, too many of America’s remaining 37,000 or so daily journalists are nervous about their own tenures. Here, let’s give points and recognition to the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s staff that has fought smartly and socially both to tell readers what it knows and ask the right questions about things it doesn’t.

As we move into 2016, this story demands focus on both the of future of the Review-Journal and the possibility of a new class of political buyers entering the chaotic newspaper market. We must keep an eye on Adelson and his continuing publisher Jason Taylor. Will they maintain a line between the state’s largest newsroom, which has maintained a tell-it-straight reputation, and a traditionally conservative editorial page?

A question of even greater national importance is who owns the American press. The fault lines have been widening since the recession, and now newspaper companies are falling in the cracks. There’s plenty to criticize about quite the old brotherhood of newspaper owners, the chains (Gannett, Tribune, Knight Ridder, McClatchy, Lee, and others), but they followed another unwritten rule for a long time: If a paper were to be sold, it should be sold to “a good steward.” That meant someone who had some interest in public service as well as maximizing profit. If the rule wasn’t always followed, it usually was.

Now, since the twin impacts of deep recession and deep digital disruption have laid waste to the business models of local newspapering, all rules are off. Increasingly, financial engineers have come into the business. For them, it’s a math exercise: buy cheap at three to four times annual earnings, and take out enough profit, through continuous cutting, to make the deal work. That’s it, with little lip service even paid to the community mission. Alden Global Capital’s management of Digital First Media is one example of that strategy.

Now, a different kind of roll-up is playing out. New Media Investment, backed by the funding of Fortress Investment Group, has amassed 125 dailies so far, with the Review-Journal just the latest. It’s easy to see its cost-consolidating strategies play out; harder, so far, to see what’s happening with its print and digital products and its public service.

New Media said its gain on the transaction would be “an estimated 69 percent.” My extrapolations would show the Review-Journal’s value at about at $52 million in March, which would mean an $88 million difference between what New Media paid for, and got, out of the transaction.

In the old days, traditional newspaper owners would have been unlikely to sell to such an avowedly political mover as Sheldon Adelson. (In fact, we have to wonder if Stephens Media LLC, which sold its group of eight dailies to New Media for $102.5 million in March, refused to sell the Review-Journal to Adelson at that time, given his political bent.) Now, it’s apparently an easy decision. New Media laughs all the way to the Fortress vault — enabling it to easily buy more papers — as it finds a buyer for whom the market-ridiculous $140 million price is pocket change. The Review seems like just another Las Vegas Boulevard on the new Monopoly board of newspaper properties.

So now, as we approach 2016, we have to wonder whether a new class of overtly political buyers may join the financial buyers (Alden, Fortress+) and the strategic buyers (Bezos, Henry, Taylor, those I’ve called the 50/50 men, and Rogoff, I should add). Who might be among them?

We have clues. At least two other highly prominent backers of conservative causes and candidates have expressed interest.

Two summers ago, the web and a few street corners lit up in protest over the possibility of the Koch brothers buying Tribune’s then eight markets. Colorado Spring Gazette owner Phil Anschutz wanted to buy the Denver Post and Boulder Daily Camera, which would have given him control of three of the four largest papers in one of country’s most purple states. Digital First Media hasn’t wanted to sell its properties piecemeal, though it’s easier now to imagine owner Alden taking Anschutz’s money if he, too, is willing to overpay. Tribune Publishing itself, again, may be bid up.

There’s free media. There’s earned media. And there’s paid media. We’ll have to watch whether we can add a new category here in the daily press: bought and paid-for media, intended to swing both national and local elections, at prices far less than the cost of heavy political advertising.

Las Vegas image by James Marvin Phelps used under a creative commons license.

POSTED     Dec. 18, 2015, 10:12 a.m.
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