By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Ownership matters

Another local newspaper owner bit the dust yesterday, as the Eagle-Tribune Company announced it was selling its four Massachusetts dailies – and a few assorted weeklies – to an Alabama-based holding company. Mark Jurkowitz had details on this yesterday; the Herald and the Globe follow today.

It was only a few years ago that the Eagle-Tribune Company, whose flagship is the Eagle-Tribune of Lawrence, bought three North Shore papers from Dow Jones’s Ottaway division: the Salem News, the Daily News of Newburyport and the Gloucester Daily Times. As a reader of the Salem News, I haven’t been particularly impressed by the Eagle-Tribune’s stewardship. News coverage seems thinner, and the editorial page has moved considerably to the right, out of step, I think, with the liberal communities it serves.

But local ownership has its advantages, and there’s no question that the Rogers family put considerable resources into the Eagle-Tribune itself, which has won two Pulitzer Prizes over the years. (Disclosure: My wife, Barbara Kennedy, is a former photographer for the Salem News.)

It struck me as oddly inappropriate for a newspaper company that no Eagle-Tribune officials would speak to the media after the sale was announced. Indeed, NECN’s Mont Fennel (scroll to “Alabama company to buy Eagle-Tribune”), hardly a pit bull, traveled to Eagle-Tribune headquarters in North Andover only to be told that no one was talking. Maybe Chip Rogers was afraid someone would ask some tough questions about the intentions of the new owner, Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. (CNHI).

In a statement, Rogers said the right things about CNHI being dedicated “high-quality local journalism.” But the fact is that the company is largely funded by the Teachers’ Retirement System of Alabama, which, one can safely assume, has a fiduciary responsibility to earn the highest possible rate of return for all those retired schoolteachers. I’m sure that if you asked any of them whether they’d rather have an extra city-hall reporter in Peabody or another $20 in their monthly check, every last one of them is going to vote for Andrew Jackson.

Check out the top of this May 26, 2004, story from the Birmingham News, which reports on the not-so-glowing outlook of the retirement system:

MONTGOMERY – A looming rise in interest rates and concerns over oil, Iraq and China mean investment returns won’t be as rosy in coming months for the Teachers’ Retirement System, system executive David Bronner predicted Tuesday.

Teachers’ Retirement System is Alabama’s pension program for 186,000 active and retired public education employees.

It held stocks, bonds and other assets worth nearly $17.1 billion on March 31, and reported a six-month return on investments of 11.98 percent, according to State Street Corp. in Boston, the system’s custodian.

That was less than the return of 15.98 percent the pension program posted for the 2003 fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.

Even so, Bronner said he was pleased with the “fantastic” results from the first half of the system’s 2004 fiscal year.

But Bronner predicted performance would slow even more in the year’s second half, which ends Sept. 30. “It would be nice if we had that for the whole year, but it’s highly improbable,” Bronner said. “It’s sliding day by day the other way.”

Bronner said he would be happy if investment returns for the six months ending Sept. 30 managed to grow by 5 percent.

“Hopefully, it’ll be positive, but with the exterior volatility out there, it could easily be the opposite and be a losing half year,” Bronner said.

Teachers’ lobbyist Paul Hubbert, who chairs the system’s board, said he would be pleased if the return for 2004 ended up at 8 percent or 9 percent.

“You like to see those 18 to 20 percent years, but they don’t come very often,” Hubbert said.

You like to see those 18 to 20 percent years, but they don’t come very often. There’s the essence of it. Journalists in the Merrimack Valley and on the North Shore can be expected to help Alabama’s retired schoolteachers earn 18 to 20 percent on their pension money, on top of whatever debt CNHI took on in order to buy out the Rogers family.

This is not a happy day for local news consumers.


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2 Comments

  1. foilpan

    i just left the trib in june after 6 years there. morale has been pretty low in many departments for quite awhile. just days after my departure, five (5) reporters gave their notice on the same day at the salem news alone. maybe that happens at other companies — perhaps even other newspapers — but it indicates serious problems to me.the organization’s editorial tone definitely has swung more to the right, if that’s possible. i’m not really sure what prompted that, considering the communities who read the paper consist largely of working folks and immigrants who don’t generally share these hardline conservative views. i think the editorial tone reflects the organization’s efforts to improve circulation in more affluent areas like andover, north andover, and some of the wealthier southern NH towns.unfortunately for the company, circulation numbers have plummeted steadily since their acquisition of the former ECN News properties. that, along with an aging (or dying) base of loyal customers and no clear or viable strategy to attract younger or immigrant readers, or even new members of the community, spells continued drops in circulation.it sounds similar to the plight of the catholic church. the trib was already a slow moving entity, but the added weight of its newest acquisitions further slowed its ability to adapt to a changing readership.the sale saddens a small part of me — the part that appreciates the “family owned” aspect in this day of media conglomerates and huge mergers. at the same time, i’m not sure the company’s looking out for the “little guy” any more, so maybe it’s fitting a chain has bought them.prior to the sale, the trib made a habit of buying up all the regional competition. to me, that can only lead to a lack of diversity and a certain editorial laziness. now they’re in a position where their main competition is the other metro dailies in boston and NH, which is to say — not even in their own market. with an editorial lock on the region, the readers lose.the days of old fashioned newspaper wars may continue in other markets, but not here. this area’s media need a kick in the pants they’re not going to receive. in fact, this buyout may result in even worse coverage, if any of the new parent company’s cost cutting reputation filters down the line.it’s an interesting development. we’ll see what happens, eh?

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