June 14, 2006

Kevin Roderick has the scoop on the demand by the Chandler Family that the Tribune Company, owner of the Los Angeles Times, break up its media holdings and/or sell the newspaper. I happen to believe there should be a law outlawing the public trading of corporations which own newspapers. There is an inevitable conflict of interest. The business side has an obligation to investors to maximize share prices, which can only be done by exponentially increasing profits quarter to quarter. On the other hand, the newspaper's sole interest must be to put out the best possible newspaper.

But the goal of putting out the best newspaper becomes almost impossible when it confronts the bottom line of the market. Right now, in spite of the declining circulation numbers that are endemic in the computer age, the LA Times has never been so profitable. But it has come at the expense of the quality of the newspaper, which has been forced to follow a policy of cut-backs and lay-offs. The first thing I read in the morning, the sport section, is but a shadow of its former greatness, a barebones shell of box scores and hack columnists. It is not enough for the Times merely to match last quarter's profits; it must beat those numbers simply in order to maintain the price of Tribune stock. And of course, other considerations, such as appeasing advertisers and tabloidization, further diminish the quality of the product. Back when newspapers were privately-held, the sole consideration was the idiosyncratic views of whomever the pubisher was, and the newspaper became interesting precisely because of the personality quirks of the person running it.

It may well be that newspapers, like motion pictures, are a dying media, and that people will one day look back at actually getting news from a paper delivered to your doorstep as a quaint relic, akin to having milk or bread delivered to your home forty years ago. As with the neighborhood milkman, it became easier (and cheaper) to buy fresh milk at the supermarket, just as its more convenient to watch movies on your DVD player. But I will miss having the impermeable relic of the newspaper, least of all for the crossword puzzles and sudoku, in a way that I don't miss having to go to the multiplex. It will be a shame if the market, which has brought so much to improving our standard of living, should cause of the extinction of newspapers.

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