December 14, 2008

And yet again... Nobody is looking for a bailout.

Hey, Stan Simpson, one of the basics in journalism is to get the facts before you write. Too bad you didn't bother doing so before you wrote your perfectly ridiculous column "No Bailouts, Thank You, for a Free Press."
Let's say this up front: Nobody is calling for a bailout for The Bristol Press or the dozen other Connecticut papers whose owner, the Journal Register Co., plans to close by mid-January unless a buyer emerges.
So Simpson is, like so many others, taking aim at a ghost. Not surprisingly, he doesn't hit anything.
But let's think about what he wrote anyway, for the hell of it.
Simpson argues that "media outlets, because of their unique role as public watchdog, should never be in the position in which the government is bailing them out from going belly-up."
That sounds nice, but it's particularly nuts coming from someone whose corporate master, the Tribune Co., just headed to federal bankruptcy court to seek a bailout from going belly-up thanks to all of its debts.
Yes, the Tribune Co. is actually right there asking the courts to excuse its debts so it can continue to operate, which using Simpson's theory of newspapers would make every Tribune Co. journalist forever beholden to the feds who kept their employer alive and kicking.
Simpson argues that "when media becomes beholden — well-intentioned as it might be — to the government, lines blur. Relationships develop. Expectations can occur. And you're no longer sure you have a newspaper that you can trust to give it to you straight.
"Speaking truth to power also means cherishing your independence," he writes.
I wonder how independent a newspaper chain that has to answer to a bankruptcy judge really is. Not much, I expect.
What's particularly odd is that newspapers, which have managed over the years to get special breaks from the government to make their product exempt from sales tax and even to waive child labor laws so they could employ kids to deliver papers, are now supposed to remain virtuous and independent on little pedestals above the muck of politics.
Let's get real.
In the world we live in -- Simpson included -- the relationship become government and the press that watchdogs its operations is messy and complex. We need each other even when we despise each other. That's just how it is. The Press needs access and information. The government needs to get information out to the people. When good journalists are on the job, it all works out, especially if corporate bureaucrats are kept at bay.
But there's no purity in a business that has to weigh constantly the needs of its readers, advertisers and owners with its role as curator of the First Amendment. All those of us who give a damn can do is to try our best to get the truth and get it out there.
Perhaps that's what makes me so mad about what Simpson has done.
He's written a column telling competing papers to "sink or swim" without government aid when absolutely nobody is trying to get any sort of bailout for the Press, Herald or the 11 weeklies whose fate swings in the wind.
There's no truth in the very premise of his piece. And if he'd bothered to do a shred of research, he would have known that.
The only person Simpson quotes in his column is yet another competitor to the JRC papers, Tom Krazit, editorial director of LIFE Publications in Hartford, a former Courant editor. Krazit, of course, agrees with Simpson and is equally ignorant of what's actually going on.
Personally, I hate the idea of the government bailing out businesses, even ones as precious as newspapers. It's a bad concept, though probably not as awful as having no newspapers around at all.
But worse even than a bailout for a free press is a press that doesn't give a damn what's true and what's a lie. Simpson ought to pick up a phone and make a few calls before plunging into a battle that's purely fictional. Failing to bother makes him look, at best, like a fool.

Correction: As Stan Simpson correctly points out in a comment he made on this post, he did talk to one of the state representatives for his piece, who told him there is no bailout in the works. I should have mentioned that, of course, and he should have listened to what he was told.
Please, though, read what he has to say for himself by clicking on the comments line below.
Copyright 2008. All rights reserved.
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Anonymous said...

I had similar thoughts as I read his column this morning.

Anonymous said...

How would Thomas Jefferson view this one? I suspect he would say "don't take one stinking dime from the government or for eternity be compromised as an industry". Constitutionally, newspapers are supposed to run independent of the government without interferance or any perception of allegiance. Steve, I respect you and hope the paper does not close and finds a local buyer, but philosophically, I have to disagree with you. Chapter 11 is one thing because it is a request for a generic foregiveness of debt or simple restructuring of the company's debt, but if the government floats the press a handout, you will be forever reporting and writing in a shadow, under a dark cloud.

Steve Collins said...

The government isn't going to float a handout. All it might offer is exactly what it offers every single business. Nothing more. That's not a bailout. It's just business.

Odin said...

Steve: Your rant against Simpson is based a conflation of two completely separate branches of government. A business that benefits from the protection afforded by a bankruptcy court is no more beholden to the legislature than if it was the reverse. You know better.

Steve Collins said...

Yes, that's true. But why is it OK in Simpson's mind to be beholden to the courts but not to the legislature? Sink or swim, he said, without asking for government help.
I don't agree with him.

Anonymous said...

All the newspaper industry people keep saying that the Press and Herald are not "looking" for a bailout, but no one has said if a bailout would be "accepted" if "offered" by the government as a lifeline. Are members of the Herald and Press such people of principle that a handout wouldn't be accepted to keep the paper alive and their families fed? I think what the issue is, is that the JRC wants to dump the paper one way or another, by closing it or selling it. The JRC does not want a bailout because they are not committed to local news or Bristol.

Steve Collins said...

I'm not as concerned about the principle involved as others, because newspapers have a long track record of ignoring pressure from government and advertisers, but what does it matter what I would do? I don't own the paper. The owners will accept a bailout or not, if one is ever offered, without checking with me to see it's hunkydory or not.
What I will say, though, is that I would fight any effort to give money to the JRC. It doesn't deserve one penny of the taxpayers' money after what it has done to so many newspapers across Connecticut and across America.
Beyond that, nobody in government is talking about bailing out the papers. It simply isn't going to happen. For goodness sake, Connecticut's state government needs a bailout itself!

Stan Simpson said...

You are entitled to your misguided rant and personal attack against me. ...

But you're being disingenous here, and, in one case, plain dishonest.
For example, you carelessly assert that I did no research for this piece. To bolster your point, you state that I only quoted one person, Tom Krazit, whose opinion apparently is not valid in your book because he's a former Tribune employee.

You failed to note, however, that State Rep. John Geragosian of New Britain -- a key supporter of this media bailout attempt -- was also quoted in my column. He even echoed your line that newspaper businesses should be treated like all other businesses in CT.

So, either you didn't read my column thoroughly, or you intentionally omitted an element of the column -- Geragosian's comments -- that would have countered the very issue you were attacking me about.

Which one was it, Steve?
Either way, you should post a correction.

Also, Tribune is in bankruptcy, with a reorganization plan to pay off its creditors over a period of time. The money goes to the creditors.
The New Britain Herald and Bristol Post are going to the CT Department of Economic Development for assistance. DECD's role is NOT to attract private investors for businesses. What it does - according to the DECD folks I talked to for the column - is provide loan guarantees, gap financing, grants, tax credits, etc., for businesses.

In repaying the DECD loan, the money goes to DECD, a state agency, not to individual banks or creditors.

I think there is a big difference between a refinance plan to pay your creditors directly vs a state loan or other financing that has to be paid to the state.

If the Herald and Press are simply seeking private investment or potential buyers, a state agency is not the ideal place to solicit. Reasonable folks can disagree on this.

I trust you'll post this response in its entirety.


Stan Simpson

Steve Collins said...

So if Electric Boat's owners said they were going close up shop and make essentially no effort to sell the place, the state should do nothing to find a new owner? It should simply step aside and wait to see what happens? That's dumb economics, in my view.

Anonymous said...

Steve, with all due respect, the 4th estate has very little knowledge of economics, unless one writes for the WSJ, NYT Business Section or any other business journal.

Reporters of your ilk, as educated as you appear to be, (and in my opinion you are, after all, Virginia is no slouch), have little if any knowledge of operating a business.

You can talk all you want about the need of a local paper, and you are correct that Bristol needs a daily paper, but the fact remains, if you can't make money, close the joint. It’s a moot point if the JR ran the business into the ground. It’s so far into the ground, that no one with any business acumen will pour money into a hole that is deep and beyond filling.

Simply look at circulation – at one time – and not that long ago, circulation was at 20,000. It is below 9,000 now. Do you really think that any individual or group of investors in this economy that continues to crater, would be willing to dump hundreds of thousands of dollars into a venture that has little or no light at the end of the tunnel? I think not. I hope I am wrong.

Odin said...

As a resident of Bristol, it is NOT a moot point to me that the JR ran the paper into the ground. If the only thing keeping the BP from being viable is the fact that the JR has burdened it with an unreasonable amount of debt, then that tells me that it might be profitable once again, even in the current environment.