Outside Voices: Dante Chinni

Each week we invite someone from outside PE to weigh in with their thoughts about CBS News and the media at large. This week's guest, Dante Chinni, is a senior associate at the Project For Excellence in Journalism. He writes a regular column for the Christian Science Monitor and has contributed to publications such as the Washington Post Magazine and the Columbia Journalism Review. Here, he discusses ownership models for news companies. As always, the opinions expressed in "Outside Voices" are those of the author, not ours, and we seek a wide variety of voices.

It has become accepted by many in 2006 that news is a commodity. Companies that report on and present the events of the day have gone from being news companies to media companies to content companies.

Is the "content" news? Sometimes and sometimes not, but it will fill a sheet of newsprint or 30 minutes of airtime or your computer screen. And for some organizations that is the point.

At many of today's media conglomerates news coverage is not the central goal, finding content to multi-platform feed the beast is. Consider the providers of this web page, CBS/Viacom, which split last week to become a two-headed content giant. That's not to say that good journalism isn't produced everyday by people at organizations like CBS, it is. It is to say, however, that the journalistic mission isn't necessarily front and center.

But what if 2006 saw the rise of a different trend in ownership? What if content operations became news companies again? That, in essence, is the case the Newspaper Guild-Communications Workers of America is trying to make in the sale of Knight-Ridder.

Knight, one of the largest newspaper chains in the country with 32 papers, announced in November it was looking for buyer. The Guild is interested in buying some of the dailies, especially those where Guild already has a presence, with the help of a big investor.

The effort still may be something of a long shot – Knight wants to sell all the properties together – but if the Guild won control of some papers and got the employee-ownership tax breaks that came with such a deal, it could lead to reexamination of media ownership in the United States.

Newspapers with their ink and newsprint are not what Wall Street considers a good long-term bet in the digital age. But, the Guild points out, they still turn an industry-average profit of about 20%. That may not satisfy investors looking for huge returns, but it's not peanuts either. In fact, it may be enough for some people.

That's the big issue here and it extends beyond newspapers.

What if the owners of a news company didn't care about maximizing profits as much as they did about their news mission? Not that they would aim for running in the red or even breaking even, but what if they just were happy with smaller profits? That's never going to be a big selling point on Wall Street, of course, but it used to be how the industry ran.

The people who once started news outlets did so for more than profit. They were dedicated more to its coverage than they were to profit targets. The owners were by no means selfless. They got rich and they got a powerful voice in the community that they could use to their benefit, but they were not intensely bottom-line focused.

Does an intense bottom-line focus hurt? It can when staff cuts have to be made to hit dollar targets. If and when those cuts go deep enough they will inevitably lead to weaker coverage. That weaker coverage pushes readers and viewers away. That lowers profits. That means more cuts.

The media industry today is particularly susceptible to that kind of thinking because of the massive firms involved.

Companies buying companies has led to a world where the owner of NBC News, GE, produces everything from jet engines to Spanish-language soap operas. There's nothing wrong with that per se, but consider the tiny sliver that NBC News is of GE. Now ask yourself, who do the executives of GE probably feel the most loyal to, their investors or to the mission of journalism?

That's not bad or evil, it's the way system works.

The question asked by the Guild's move with Knight-Ridder is simple. Does it make sense that journalism, something critical to the sound functioning of a democracy, should be just another part of that system? Or should journalism be treated differently by a different kind of owner?

And beyond that question there is this very real observation. For years now the current owners of the mainstream media haven't exactly perform like champs. They have given us gems like the AOL/TimeWarner merger. And their focus on the bottom line has yielded falling circulations in print and falling viewership on TV.

At the very least, it might be interesting to see how a different ownership model fared.