Brian Tierney, Sam Zell: journalism needs the business attitude

WITH THE 300-YEAR HISTORY OF NEWSPAPERS IN A SEEMING STRANGLEHOLD, plenty of wildly successful business men have gotten involved – all certainly interested in claiming a portion of history, which reviving and settling the newspaper ship would merit.

Public relations firm namesake Brian Tierney got all sorts of publicity when he led a group of investors in buying Philadelphia Media Holdings, taking control of the Inquirer and the Daily News, though he promised to stay out of editorial decisions.

The work he is doing is the same as Sam Zell, who gets more attention for working on a grander stage – majority owner of Tribune, which owns a handful of the countries largest newspapers – and being in worse fiscal trouble.

But like Tierney, what he is doing is what the industry needs. Bringing a truly business-mind to a self-proclaimed public service and, simply, trying something, anything. Just making moves – at least they’re getting attention, an important first step.

The billionaire real estate tycoon has gotten plenty of criticism for his profanity laced speeches and hard-nosed cuts of more than 400 jobs at The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, Newsday, The Baltimore Sun, The Orlando Sentinel, The Hartford Courant and other papers.

For weeks he was a Youtube star, as video of his telling one of his own journalists “fuck you” circled the Internet.

Now it’s important to remember that Zell is blessed with the three characteristics that can make anyone do or say whatever the hell he wants. He is exorbitantly wealthy, fairly powerful, and old.

Regardless, while he – like Tierney – is a reporter’s boogey man, I tend to think he is right.

The female journalist from the Orlando Sentinel with whom he had his exchange told him to explain his interest in editorial content. “We are not the penny savers,” she said. Zell responded:

My attitude on journalists is simply put. I want to make enough money so I can afford you. It’s really that simple. You need to, in effect, help me, by being a journalist that focuses on what our readers want and therefore generates more revenue. We understand unequivocally that the heart and soul of this business is the editorial side of the business. … fuck you.

But in an age of the great newspaper bubble, as I posted recently, that attention needs come with reporters, who are employees of a business. In the 1970s, no one outside of the industry was much following the market trends and profit margins of newspapers, I suspect. Newspapers were, as journalists think of themselves, public servants, providing a public good by covering the leaders, legislators and laymen who most affected or reflected our communities.

The reality facing newspapers is that there is a great downsizing and remodeling of a centuries-old paradigm. Rules of business have always applied; people are buying a newspaper for quality coverage. Newspapers just need to reflect how consumers want that product, how readers want that quality coverage.

This also reflects another recent post of mine, that the comments – reader feedback and perspectives – matter more than ever. The new model is a community – any industry analyst with half a brain and sight for the future knows that. A community in which readers are respected as much as reporters, both develop and challenge each other.

As Zell said, journalists and editors “need to focus on what our readers want.” That only means “puppy stories” and weak, pandering coverage for the weakest and most parochial-minded journalists and editors. Consumers want a good product = readers want quality coverage, but it has to reflect what the consumer-reader wants.

Already readership, frankly, isn’t nearly worth the disasrous tones paid by most, as historic newspaper circulation can suggest. But, the industry needs to change, the way newspapers are structured – a way, displayed by Sentinel reporter, that pays no mind to the market and the business (keeping in mind newspapers have been business since the beginning of the 20th century).

Business – perhaps represented by Sam Zell, Brian Tierney or others more forward-thinking than them – can do that in a way the old guard of journalism cannot.

Image courtesy of Media Bistro.