The Commercial Appeal has decided that it should concentrate on local news. But that doesn't go far enough. It should break the chains of its corporate masters and become locally owned.
Excepting the Christmas decorations of Peanuts characters, Memphis gets very little out of having its only daily newspaper owned by the E.W. Scripps Company in Cincinnati. In the big picture, Scripps newspapers are as old-fashioned as founder Edward W. Scripps' custom of smoking 40 cigars a day. After closing the Birmingham Post-Herald in September and selling its assets to its rival for $40.8 million, Scripps has 20 daily papers. The company's most profitable and cutting-edge media operations are its six cable networks, 10 television stations, and online shopping subsidiary Shopzilla.
Consolidation was the trend in the newspaper business in the 20th century. Now competition from the Internet and declining circulations are forcing editors, publishers, and investors to scramble. The CA announced another round of employee buyouts this month. The Knight-Ridder newspaper chain is up for sale, as a whole or in pieces.
Gannett is the newspaper industry giant, with 99 papers, including USA Today, the Nashville Tennessean, the Louisville Courier-Journal, and the Jackson (Mississippi) Clarion-Ledger. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the survivor of a circulation war with Gannett that ended in 1991, is locally owned by WEHCO Media.
Contrary to popular belief, the newspaper business is quite profitable. Scripps' newspaper division earned a profit of $167 million through the first nine months of 2005. The stock price has tripled since 1996. General Motors and Northwest Airlines are laying off employees and making cuts to try to regain profitability. The CA is buying out senior employees and cutting the size of the newpaper to maintain a profit margin that is anyone's guess. The last reliable figure, 36 percent, came out inadvertently in a 1991 lawsuit.
Scripps spokesman Tim Stautberg said the company does not release financials for individual papers or comment on potential acquisitions or sales. The CA wouldn't be cheap, assuming Scripps would sell it.
When I bounced the idea off of Morgan Keegan chairman Allen Morgan Jr. and business consultant John Malmo, both of them were skeptical that anyone would pay the price. But I wonder. Memphis and Memphians overpay for lots of things, from former Grizzlies hoopster Bryant "Big Country" Reeves to the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts. A daily newspaper is endlessly challenging, entertaining, influential, and new. Memphis prides itself on being an entrepreneurial, major-league city. A bigger and better home-owned newspaper would distinguish it as much as an NBA team.
Scripps doesn't seem to have its heart in Memphis. Its annual report and Web site tout the wonders of food, home decorating, HGTV, the Food Network, Internet shopping, and shopping on television. It's unfair to blame CA editor Chris Peck and his shorthanded staff for the shrinking newspaper. The corporate decisions are made in Cincinnati. It would be better if the blame, the credit, the profits, and the decisions about the paper's future stayed here.
The Tennessean, Clarion-Ledger, and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette are in capital cities and aspire to be statewide newspapers. The CA is in the difficult position of serving a sprinkling of readers outside Shelby County, which has more poor people and non-readers than any county in Tennessee.
So local ownership is a long shot. It's expensive. It's a tough business. But where is it written that newspapers must have a 20 to 30 percent margin? The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal (Tupelo) is owned by a nonprofit. The Wall Street Journal puts out a daily primer in great newspapering, independent of the editorial page. Temper that with Elmore Leonard's advice to aspiring writers -- "leave out the parts readers skip" -- and you have a good start. In 1948, journalist H.L. Mencken was asked about the new media: "The way for newspapers to meet the competition of radio and television," he said, "is simply to get out better newspapers."