The Anchorage Daily News was sold last week from The McClatchy Co. to owners based in Alaska. It was the latest news company to switch hands from out-of-town owners to local owners, with similar transactions taking place in Minneapolis, Boston and Philadelphia.
The move was hailed by both the seller and the buyer for its restoration of local ownership.
And while there are obvious advantages to local ownership, there are real benefits to out-of-town ownership, too. Especially from a newsgathering perspective.
I’ve worked for newspapers whose owners were in the same building as me and I’ve worked at others where our corporate office was halfway across the continent. As an editor who seeks to deliver the least biased, purest news report in our region, I’m quite happy our owners are — to use a popular local euphemism — “outsiders.”
The reason is simple: Our owners trust me and my news team to accurately cover the news in Northeastern Pennsylvania. They have no agenda for us to push or bias to advance. They have no interest in approving the content we produce. If I asked my boss — Jim Lawitz, the director of content at Civitas Media, our parent company — to name our top five advertisers, he probably couldn’t tell you. (To be honest, neither could I. The best I could offer is an educated guess.) His demand of our newsroom is to produce a compelling, accurate news report.
That demand is echoed on the business side of our operation.
My first or second week on the job, I tuned to radio station WILK just as talk show host Steve Corbett was asking whether The Times Leader’s coverage of Robert Mericle was tainted by our advertising relationship with his real estate development company. I was frustrated by the insinuation of bias, because it was flatly untrue.
I called Corbett, who interviewed me on the air, and explained that the advertising and news sides don’t work like that at The Times Leader. Frankly, I was so new at the time, I didn’t even know that Mericle’s company is a big advertiser. Our general manager and advertising manager didn’t tell me, nor did either say anything when our Sunday edition contained multiple stories — hardly glowing — about the developer himself.
To their credit, I’ve never been asked to cater to an advertiser, sway a news story or give preferential treatment due to a business arrangement. Our corporate values — and no, that’s not an oxymoron — forbid that. And while we’re on the subject of “corporate,” it’s worth noting that many of The Times Leader’s best and brightest now have jobs at headquarters, where we continue to benefit from their expertise.
In contrast, there have been documented examples of local ownership complicating things recently.
When your owners live, work and play in the community you cover, lines can blur.
Here’s a hypothetical: Say a local owner is intimately connected to an organization that comes under scrutiny they deem unfair. It’s all too easy for that owner to tap his or her editor on the shoulder and try influencing coverage.
While our employees live, work and spend money here, that hypothetical scenario would never play out at The Times Leader precisely because our owners don’t have any dogs in that fight. From a purity-of-news standpoint, there’s an absence of bias that readers should appreciate.
What happened to Philadelphia’s daily newspapers is perhaps the best example of why local ownership isn’t always in the best interest of news organizations and their readers. When The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News were sold by McClatchy to local investors, it set off a chain of sales from local owner to local owner that seriously jeopardized and weakened that organization. The most recent local owners fired the Inquirer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning editor, who — according to court documents — pushed back against what he perceived to be interference from owners.
Even though the local owners had signed a contract saying they would stay out of the newsroom, that apparently didn’t happen. And it takes only a passing understanding of human nature to guess why: The newsroom started poking its nose around organizations to which the local owners had ties, and the owners wanted to put the kibosh on that.
While it might be politically incorrect to say, out-of-town ownership can be better for a news organization than local ownership. As readers, the benefit is this: Our journalists are covering the news without bias and with complete integrity.