Corporate ownership of daily newspapers is reaching the breaking point, especially now at the Los Angeles Times, which is owned by the Chicago-based Tribune Company media conglomerate. The newspaper is facing the same problem that hundreds of other newspapers are facing: Owners and stockholders who want profit growth each year, who want to cut back on editorial staff, and who could care less about the communities and people who actually read and gain insight from the newspaper. And there’s that massive problem of people reading dead-tree edition newspapers less and reading electronic online versions more — leading to smaller profits at the moment.
So if the corporate owners of the Los Angeles Times are growing impatient with stagnating profits, why not let the readers take charge of the destiny of the paper, not just as citizen journalists but as citizen owners? The NFL has its “Personal Seat Licenses” for various stadiums, and the Green Bay Packers have issued stock four times so their fans can buy a piece of the team. Local public broadcasting and even Salon.com have survived for years with the support of membership drives and pledges from the community. So why not newspapers?
Here are some supporting reasons for how the Los Angeles public could take charge of their greatest journalistic asset and make the business thrive in a new media world where readers are taking control in so many ways:
White knights lead in funding.
The first problem for public ownership is that Tribune Co. has said repeatedly that it won’t sell the L.A. Times. However, three local billionaires have written letters to Tribune saying they are willing to buy the newspaper. In a public ownership scenario, perhaps the moneyed trio could help provide financial muscle in a buyout offer, as long as they are also bought into the mission of the newspaper as serving the public above all, and being run more as a non-profit (see item below).
Community leaders take a role.
Already, local leaders including former Secretary of State Warren Christopher and USC Annenberg School of Communications dean Geoffrey Cowan have written an open letter to the Tribune Co. warning about more editorial cuts and how they would jeopardize the quality of the newspaper. These leaders can do more than just write letters to the current owners. They can pledge to help be evangelists for the Times as an important public resource. Their role would be as community outreach, helping to be the face for changing media in Los Angeles.
Reading public contributes money, intelligence, fact-checking.
This is the complicated but doable part. The millions of people who read the L.A. Times each day in print and online will be tapped to help the newspaper become a more independent, inclusive voice of its community. Yes, they can donate money to the cause and become citizen owners, but they can also contribute story ideas, hyper-local intelligence on happenings in their neighborhoods and at their businesses, and the fact-checking that bloggers have become famous for. Let them earn points toward more ownership for each good deed they do, for every dollar they contribute, for every good story lead they have, for every time they dig up something wrong with a story that’s published. (Note: This is an overlapping value and goal of the NewAssignment.net professional/amateur journalism project at NYU.)
Times creates a transparent, inclusive newsroom.
One of the biggest criticisms of big city newspapers such as the L.A. Times, New York Times and others is that they do their most important work of assigning stories and determining editorial priorities in private meetings of top editors. But if they want to remain relevant to readers — and involve those readers — they should make the newsgathering process more transparent and inclusive. One great example of this is already happening at the Spokane (Wash.) Spokesman-Review, where its Transparent Newsroom online includes live streaming video of its news meetings and invitations to the public to sit on meetings in person. That experiment recently won a Knight-Batten Award of Distinction.
Business structure is non-profit.
Already, a handful of newspapers have survived and thrived owned by charitable trusts as non-profits. These include the St. Petersburg Times (owned by the Poynter Institute) and the Union Leader in Manchester, N.H. (owned by the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications). They’re not setting the business world on fire, but that’s not the point. The idea is for the newspaper to make enough money to continue serving the public, without the pressures of more, more, more profits from Wall Street.
Citizen owners help direct publication.
It will take creative minds to make a publicly-owned Los Angeles Time tick. How much influence will the people with the most money invested get? How much control will each citizen-owner really have in decision-making? The solution might require a Constitutional Convention-style meeting, perhaps with online webcasting components, where the public and community leaders can shape a charter that gives top editors a strong role in herding ideas into stories, includes the audience in the process, and strengthens the firewall between editorial and advertising and business interests.
I realize this is only a half-baked solution to the crisis afflicting so many local newspapers across the country and world, but perhaps it can start an important discussion about corporate ownership of local media and how communities can help use technology and participation to help shape the future of journalism.
What do you think? Do you think citizen ownership could work or do you have other ideas to help stave off future staff cuts at the L.A. Times? Or perhaps you think big newspapers don’t deserved to be saved. Share your thoughts in the comments below.
UPDATE: Timothy Noah at Slate has helpfully posted both the letter to Tribune Co. from L.A. community leaders, as well as the response from Tribune. The format is what Slate calls a “Hot Document,” with Noah giving commentary on some of the highlighted passages and providing context. One of my favorite comments from Noah:
I don’t mean to dump too much on the [Chicago] Tribune. It’s far from a terrible paper. Much fine work has been done there over the years, and it has incubated lots of talent, including the L.A. Times’ present editor, Dean Baquet. But a company that hews to the narrative [Tribune chairman] FitzSimons lays out here, which makes the Chicago Tribune the benchmark for greatness, is ill-equipped to appreciate the L.A. Times.