Could the Times-Dispatch really be sold?

Posted at 11:55 PM, Feb 23, 2012
and last updated 2012-02-28 17:33:29-05

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) - Many Richmond-area residents have seen the Times-Dispatch newspaper shrinking in size, along with its readership and its profitability.

Could this flagship Richmond newspaper, the roots of it locally owned for 160 years, actually be sold to someone else?

“I think the Times-Dispatch’s connection to the community is deep and long-lasting,” said University of Richmond journalism professor Tom Mullen. “Not having it connected to the community is tragic. It’s a loss not just for the newspaper business, but for Richmond the metro Richmond area. And I’m concerned about what would happen if non-local people were tied into that.”

Media General announced Wednesday it was looking at selling its print news operations, saying there have already been some nibbles, without saying which papers were getting the interest. The corporation needs ready cash to better position itself to restructure its $600 million debt load.

Media General, headquartered on E. Franklin Street downtown, owns 23 daily newspapers, more than 50 weeklies and 18 television stations in nine states. It employs more than 4,000 people.

CBS-6 visited with J. Stewart Bryan III, the remaining patriarch of the chain, at his home in Windsor Farms Thursday, but he declined to comment, other than to say they don’t know yet what papers may be sold.

Mullen knows what it’s like to see a newspaper tradition end. He worked at the Times-Dispatch’s sister paper, the Richmond News Leader, when it folded 20 years ago.

“It felt like the death of a family member,” Mullen said.

That was the first sharply audible warning shot here indicating a once-richly profitable business – with as much as a 25 percent profit margin – wouldn’t be printing money as easily as newspapers. The crunch has hit papers across the country, with some closing altogether or going strictly online. Others are exploring co-ops with colleges to provide quality content with less overhead. Even storied papers such as the Washington Post have seem dramatic shrinkage in its coverage and reach.

“It’s a changing time, and it feels bad,” said former longtime metro columnist Ray McAllister, now the editor for Boomer magazine, which has many former T-D writers in its stable of free-lancers.

Young people and other online news viewers just don’t want to put down any money for a news product, McAllister said.

“They’ll pay for I-tunes. They’ll pay their 99 cents to download a tune, but they won’t pay for a newspaper. And it’s tragic.”

Media General spokesman Ray Kozakewicz said any of its papers could conceivably be sold.  MG turned a profit last year, but a smaller one. The decline has been a steady one. MG stock once dipped to a dollar after a high of more than $60 a share. It’s been in the $5 range recently.

Kozakewicz said the print news arm of Media General continues to earn a profit, but, it too is a smaller one. One of its bigger losers has been the The Tampa Tribune in hard-hit Florida. That paper recently trimmed 160 staff positions.

But the possible sale of Richmond’s flagship paper? Kozakewicz isn’t saying.

“It feels so odd,” McAllister said, “especially for people who have grown up here. People have been reading the Times-Dispatch for 50 years, 80 years . . . and they won’t give it up . . . Could I have seen it? Ten years ago, I couldn’t have seen it. Five years ago, I could’ve.”

The T-D has cut staff again and again, along with the size and depth of its paper. Critics say it was slow to embrace the internet and mistakenly thought it could win younger readers to its printed version with a quicker-to-read product.

Once the touchstone for investigations and in-depth breaking news, other news organizations, neighborhood online groups and blogs have beaten the T-D to important stories in recent months. CBS-6’s Catie Beck recently broke the story about a city councilman apparently not living in his district, a fact the paper had to acknowledge when it caught up to the story.

Insiders said employee morale has suffered with the continual drumbeat of bad news, and the announcement that the T-D was on the block came like a kick in the gut to some of those who soldiered on. “Bastards,” was the one-word response from one employee.

And yet, even critics acknowledge the T-D is still an excellent product compared with other papers in mid-sized towns - papers that have cut even deeper or kept even less of its institutional memory.

“I think what kills you,” McAllister said, “is your believe in the work that a newspaper does. You believe in the stories the newspaper unearths. But that’s a bygone era, almost. It takes a lot of money. People don’t realize that.”

McAllister and other old-school journalists believe blogs and internet news groups deliver a lot of information, but usually with a sizeable spin.

“The internet is doing a job,” McAllister said. “But I’m not sure it’s a good job. Newspapers were the watchdog, and still are to an extent. But they don’t cover ever little school board meeting in the middle of nowhere, where things happen. They don’t cover corporate misdeeds in the way they used to. The people are just as good, just as sharp, just as talented, probably more hard-working” but they don’t have enough of them.

Many, including the founding fathers, believe a free press is a cornerstone of a strong democracy.

“Any time you lose that kind of reporting, we all suffer,” McAllister said.

“I think citizen journalism is an important part of our media conversation,” Mullen said. “I don’t think it has the same credibility, the same expertise that you have in established print products and established broadcast products. I think it contributes. I don’t think it can take the place.

“The news industry is in a challenging phase,” Mullen said, “and I think the new model to make money is not established. People are rushing, people are panicking.”

He believes the news industry should come to grips with much-lower profits as it embraces the new media and gets really creative, something the old green-eyeshade crew has balked at.

“I think the future will be a multimedia mix-up or broadcast and online and there’s still a role for print,” Mullen said. “Most of the news in this country is still broken by print-based internet.

“I think the future of news is not clear,” Mullen said, “but I think it will be a much different product.”

The same can likely be said of the T-D and Media General, a corporation that was selling newspapers before Joseph  Pulitzer and William Randolph Hurst.