Let My Newspapers Go

“American newspapers are passing through an era… in which a corporate ownership model seems increasingly unworkable.”
Tim Rutten

The Tribune Company is emblematic of the pitfalls of corporate ownership of media. It’s portfolio includes 11 daily newspapers, 25 television stations, and cable superstation WGN, as well as WGN-AM radio, the Chicago Cubs, and news, information and entertainment websites.

One of its newspapers, the Los Angeles Times, is at the cornerstone of a conflict that encompasses disgruntled shareholders, rebellious executives and underserved customers. Through all of this turmoil, some insight and inspiration has come from Tim Rutten, the paper’s Associate Editor of Features. Rutten has taken a hard line position on the question of corporate ownership. How often do you see a reporter give his employer an ultimatum like this:

“American newspapers are passing through an era not only of technological change but also one in which a corporate ownership model seems increasingly unworkable. If the Tribune Co. does not feel able or willing to resist its investors’ unreasonable demands on behalf of the public’s interest, then it should put The Times into the hands of somebody who will.”

And a couple of weeks later:

“No one can argue that Tribune or anyone who owns The Times is obliged to lose money. On the other hand, no one should argue that a newspaper’s proprietor has no obligation except to make as much money as it can. Somewhere between those two extremes is a fulcrum called responsibility on which a balance must be struck. Doing so requires the recognition that, although stockholders certainly are stakeholders in this process, so – and just as surely – are a paper’s readers.

What this moment in the life of the Los Angeles Times requires is recognition that the paper’s social, intellectual and political value to readers needs to be unlocked and not just its monetary value to investors.”

While these comments were directed specifically to the affairs at The Times, they could apply generally to almost any media conglomerate. The notion that a newspaper’s responsibility to its readers is at least equivalent to its fiduciary obligation to shareholders is one that should gain more acceptance in the journalism world. The more local the control, the more likely that outcome can be achieved. The Times deserves some credit for publishing Rutten’s provocative views. And Rutten deserves even more for having and expressing them.