Conrad Fink is a man I believe we should listen to about the future of the news business.
My travels this spring took me to the heart of Georgia, the University of Georgia in Athens, where Fink is the William S. Morris professor of newspaper strategy and management.
He gave me and others at the SPJ Region 3 conference an earful to think about. He asked and answered a pair of questions that many of us have been pondering for years.
But first, he set the scene by discussing the profit pressures that have put the industry, in some ways, on its ear — the same pressures that resulted in the sale and breakup of Knight Ridder and likely will affect other media companies in the future. I’m sure you know by now that a group of investors unsatisfied with Knight Ridder’s 19 percent profit margin essentially forced the sale. McClatchy bought it and has resold some of the properties.
Fink pointed out that some of the old newspaper families, such as Knight Ridder, cashed out when they sold stock and went public, and others protected their companies somewhat by creating two classes of stock, one for family and one for investors, thereby retaining voting control within the family.
“Not incidentally,” he said, this second set of companies “continues to produce great journalism.” He cited McClatchy, Dow Jones, New York Times and others.
But trouble lies ahead, Fink warned. Even the companies that are still under family control are likely to feel Wall Street’s pressure. If they have sold stock, they have a responsibility to the stockholders.
“Media company managers have a fiduciary — a very real, legal as well as moral responsibility, to respond to the rights of minority shareholders,” Fink said. “And, in our capitalistic, free-enterprise system, that includes the right to demand ever-increasing profits.”
As a result, private investment companies of the type that put Knight Ridder into play will have a strong voice in the boardrooms of other newspaper companies.
So there you have it, an environment that almost encourages corporate raids. I’m sure other investors noticed that Knight Ridder’s stock went up 20 percent in anticipation of the sale. That alone could fuel further corporate raiding.
But I digress. I mentioned the two questions that Fink asked and answered. Here they are:
1. “What can we who love strong, vigilant journalism of principle and integrity do to protect it during this period of ownership transition?
2. “How can we teach our students the skills to help build the business model of the future that will meet investor demands but also continue journalism’s glorious tradition of watchdog service to the people’s right and need to know?”
“First, the newsroom tradition … of sneering at the ‘suits’ on the business side must end.
“The suits are here; they are in charge. Our job is to engage them — meaningfully, constructively — on the new business battleground and press — very hard and constantly — on a central theme: Content is king.
“Content is where the future will be decided. When we cycle through the technological marvels of our age and through those to come, journalism of principle, meaning and integrity will win out. I believe that.”
I believe it, too, and I strongly suspect that you do as well.
“Second,” Fink said, “we must send forth students multitalented — not only in the craft of journalism, not only in how to get it and write it — but equipped to meet as equals the marketing and business strategists now searching for the new business model of newspaper journalism.
“Let’s create principled, young journalists who can take back the business from the accountants, the lawyers, the MBA types.”
Those two points are very similar and well taken.
It will do none of us a bit of good to lament the good old days when journalists could be journalists, and the business side could be damned.
It’s not smart or funny to put an airline ad next to a story about a plane crash.
It is we who must engage the “suits.” It is we who must change our attitudes.
This is not to say that we must or should “sell out.” This is not to say that we should abandon our ethics, our principles or our integrity. It means only that we must stop sneering. If we hope to protect and preserve journalism, it will take a team effort.
David Carlson spent more than 20 years as a reporter, photographer, designer and top editor at newspapers before joining the University of Florida in 1993. He was an early developer of online newspapers and now is the Cox/Palm Beach Post professor of new media journalism and director of the Interactive Media Lab at the University of Florida in Gainesville.