November 12, 2008

Let's talk about options for the paper

As I heard from someone who knows a thing or two about the news business, there are a million scenarios that could keep the paper open. But here are a few to get things rolling:
1. Probably the most likely single scenario would be for the Meriden or Waterbury papers to buy the Press and/or the Herald, have a small bureau in Bristol, and rebrand the front page as the Press or just have what they would regard as regional coverage of Bristol within their pages. It would be less than ideal, but a whole lot better than having Bristol vanish down a black hole for news.
2. A local buyer or group of locals could simply purchase the paper and run it as is, probably from a new, cheaper office. I really think the paper could make money for them.
3. A local buyer or group could work out some kind of joint ownership of the paper with its employees, which is an intriguing idea but perhaps too complicated to do in two months. But it might make it possible to reduce operating costs if employees are sharing in profits in return for lower pay. It makes sense intellectually, but as a practical matter, it may not work.
4. Employees could purchase the paper, if it was cheap enough, but, again, there's a lot of complications to that. It might be possible, though.
5. Perhaps the most intriguing scenario is one that I heard years ago when Dean Singleton owned the Press. He very much wanted to buy the New Britain Herald, but its owner at the time, Judy Brown, wouldn't sell. Instead, she sold a bit later to the JRC and, well, the rest his history. I blame her for a lot of what's happened to these papers because Singleton, for all the tar that's been throw his way, has shown some respect for journalism.
Anyway, before I get in trouble, the idea was that with the Press and Herald in hand, Singleton could either buy the Journal Inquirer on other side of Hartford or make some kind of strategic alliance to squeeze the Hartford Courant from the outside in by making a ring around its base and pushing inward.
These days, with the Courant a mere shadow of what it was back in the early 1990s, is probably even more vulnerable to that strategy, especially if a competitor could find a way to encircle it and muscle into West Hartford, where there's so much money that even the JRC is keeping The West Hartford News open after closing everything else in Central Connecticut.
So maybe the JI has the gumption to take it all on itself. Personally, I think the JI is tough enough to pull it off. But it's not my money.
6. The Hearst Company might be interested in buying the JRC's castoffs here in Central Connecticut. A few months ago, it bought The Advocate of Stamford, Greenwich Time and The News-Times of Danbury so it's already made a move into the state. This would be a big step, but at a very low cost and not much risk. It would also put itself in a solid position to buy the Meriden and Waterbury papers if they ever become available (and, for that matter, the New Haven Register, since it could also wind up on the auction block before long).
7. Google could buy it. I know that sounds crazy, but if Google wants its News search to mean anything in the years ahead, there have to be newspapers or at least journalists in places like Bristol all over the world. It claims to be dedicated to a better world and to providing information that people need. So are newspapers. It's just that Google has all the money now.
I think that ultimately, it's going to have reporters, too, because of the need to have facts about what is happening now. Without journalism, Google searches are going to start coming up dry. And that would be a bad thing for a great company.
So Google guys, buy us!
And there are more options, of course. I'll try to get into them as time goes on, particularly if I get wind of anything solid.
PS: Frank Johnson wrote an interesting comment yesterday that's worth reprinting here for those who didn't see it:

The situation is bleak, but not hopeless.
The problem with the BP is that as circulation declines, ad revenue from display and classified advertising declines. I think the paper is still in a downward spiral despite the fact that they no longer print the paper in Bristol, circulation has been farmed out and they seem to have eliminated many operating redundancies - they actually have one publisher for three or four papers and the BP has only a small crew of reporters.
If a local or regional group bought the paper without the real estate (99 Main Street) they could probably regain local advertisers and local readers. But it will take deep pockets to survive the slow periods.
Perhaps buying it and creating a stock company using the Valley Bank model might work, local investors who are also local advertisers could keep it alive.
I don't think any group would buy it if it included the real estate.
It might be worth asking JRC what they are looking for in terms of a buyer. At this point; with their stock valued at less than a penny they might sell it at a fire sale price.
From a financial perspective the display and classified revenue might cover the cost of current operations but future growth and profit would rely on advertising growth which will be a challenge in this economy.
The problem with buying the BP is that the new owners open the doors with the debt incurred to buy the paper which is the underlying problem with JRC in the first place.
There could be hope if a local group emerges and is willing to take the risk. I believe that the ninth largest city in the state can and should have a local newspaper.
Since most functions have been outsourced already it would be a substantial undertaking but not an impossible task.
Keep the faith Steve, as your hero says, "Yes, we can."


Steve Collins said...

PS to anonymous: You're right. I'm not going to let one anonymous person go on a diatribe against the so-called liberal press in post after post after post. This is not about presidential politics or your perception of the media. It's about saving a community newspaper.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Steve, I'm glad you're thinking about how to save the paper. It's too bad you don't have any money because I believe that you could make it work.
One of the reasons the Press has fallen on hard times is that it seemed like the paper as an institution stopped caring about Bristol. It doesn't have local editorials anymore. It usually doesn't have any letters about Bristol. It has all this news about other towns, even on the front page! It just seemed like it wasn't really part of our town any longer, though I give you and Jackie credit for always being there at meetings and events ---- and for doing this blog, which is also a great service to our city.
I feel sad for what's happening and I feel particularly bad for you and for Jackie. I've only talked to you a couple of times, but I've seen you a lot and I've seen Jackie even more. I know you two care about Bristol and I believe you deserve better than to be thrown out on the streets because your company's management was so callous.
My personal hope is that the paper is bought locally and that you are put in charge.

Anonymous said...

Would love to see the Waterbury-Republican American take over The Press. I'd subscribe again just to read Mallard Fillmore.

Jonathan Kantrowitz said...

"It might be worth asking JRC what they are looking for in terms of a buyer."

You're a reporter - why don't you do it?

Do they have any kind of prospectus/package/financial info for interested buyers?

Jeff P said...

This would leave us with the Observer.

To be fair, their coverage of tribute bands playing Mohegan Sun is outstanding...

Doug said...

Best of luck. As someone who grew up in Bristol and bemoaned the weakness of the local paper for years, I still think the city will be much worse off without it. All those essential little tidbits on which a community survives will disappear. I hope the staff and the community can come together to save the paper.

Your faith in Dean Singleton is misplaced. He likes owning newspapers, but nothing he's done has shown a love for journalism.
Singleton's company, Media News Group, ruined the Stamford Advocate and Greenwich Time in a few short months after buying it last year. Laid off the experienced editors, cut every benefit that wasn't tied to the very modest union contract, shut the press, moved the newspaper far from city hall and downtown, and created a black hole into which morale throughout the company vanished.
It was only when Media News realized it could not make its debt payments and needed to raise cash fast that Hearst - the original backer of the purchase - bought out Singleton entirely.
Hearst is a much better company, and they seem to be interested in working with the local staff (the few who are left) to rebuild the papers. If they can pick up the BP and/or Herald for a good price you would definitely be better off with them. But are they in a mood to acquire more and is there credit out there?

The Waterbury Republican has shown a taste for smart acquisitions and very local journalism, but it all depends on whether they have the cash - certainly the state of credit markets would make any purchase more difficult. Also, be careful what you wish for. There's a lot of good journalism there but also not a great company to work for. But certainly better than not having a paper at all.

Employee ownership - specifically some kind of Employee Stock Ownership Plan - could work with the right financial backing, and the backing would be easier to arrange if there is no union - though many backers are happy to work with a union on employee ownership plans. Certainly the process would be much smoother if JRC were willing to facilitate the deal. Basically, the financial backers buy it, make an agreement with the employees, and a new company is created, which is at first owned in the majority by the backers. The agreement calls for gradual transfer of ownership to the employees. The more equity the employees put in - sometimes through 401K, company stock, or pension plans - the bigger their share becomes. Not an easy road, but definitely worth looking into. Check out these guys to get some more background on it - - they are consultants who get paid to put employee groups together with backers. Yes, they would want to be paid, but they also generally fold the fee into the acquisition cost if the deal goes through.

Private ownership. Is there anyone out there who would buy it as a "benevolent dictator" in order to keep community journalism alive? What about ESPN? Certainly they have the deep pockets and the connection to the community.
Why not, as another poster said, Yarde, the Barnes family (or better yet do they have a foundation), and other luminaries with longstanding ties to Bristol, or some combination of all of those. The combination would be great because multiple owners might mitigate the possibility of ownership interfering with journalism ethics, and of course the financial risk would be spread.

A couple of other things to think about -
Will JRC sell the real estate and presses (are there still presses there?) to the buyers along with the paper, or will they try to sell it separately to raise cash? That could make a deal much easier. Tribune's insistence on separately selling Stamford Advocate's (prime) real estate, and the resulting loss of a press facility, killed at least one purchase by a local private buyer.
Another thought - if you can save the paper - what about getting a jump on the new media transformation by going all digital, perhaps with a print edition at a premium price? You save the cost of a major print run and can focus on building the internet - the question is, will that business model support any more than a skeleton staff? Not likely, but if the paper dies, it might be worth getting some backing to buy the masthead, start publishing online, and let the rebuilding begin.
Again, good luck.

Anonymous said...

Maybe if the Press took a more conservative slant it would increase readership. It's worth a try.

Anonymous said...

Actually, we are the 11th largest city in Connecticut.