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Dec 2004 / media shoegaze :: email this story to a friend

Is Pulitzer Prized?
By Amanda E. Doyle and Ed Bishop

TCS: We were talking earlier about some media news that's happening right now in St. Louis, which is the possible sale of Pulitzer, including the Post-Dispatch, and you said you've spent the day giving interviews on the topic; are mainstream media outlets paying attention to this right now?

EB: Definitely. And one of the reasons they're paying attention is that there is the possibility that the Pulitzer Company, including the Post-Dispatch, will be bought by a company that owns one of the televisions stations in town.

TCS: That'd be Gannett, is that right?

Ed Bishop EB: Well, the three companies that are mentioned most are Gannett, which owns Channel 5; Belo, which owns Channel 4; and Tribune Company, which owns Channel 11. Now, as we talk right now, it is still against the law — or, against federal regulations — for a company to own both a newspaper and a television station in the same city. But the FCC tried to change that — in the summer of 2003 they wrote new regulations that would allow for this cross-ownership, but those new regulations were struck down by a federal district court, the Third District Court, saying that the old regulations stood, that you could not own both a television station and a newspaper. But there's a lot of people who believe that will quickly go by the wayside. So you could see the Post-Dispatch being owned by the same company that owns, say, Channel 5. Channel 5 is already the dominant television station in town, and if they had the power of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's newsroom behind them, they'd be even more dominant. On the other hand, if Channel 11 had the power of the Post-Dispatch newsroom behind them, Channel 11 would quickly rise as a player in broadcast media in St. Louis.

TCS: Right now, Pulitzer is a family-owned business, is that right?

EB: Well, it's publicly owned — they went public in the mid-'80s, so you can buy shares on the stock exchange.

TCS: So is there, then, any difference between what Pulitzer is now and what a Gannett or a Belo would represent?

EB: Yes, yes.

TCS: What are those differences?

EB: There are two kinds of shares: there's public shares, and there's what's called "controlling shares," those shares that have votes...

TCS: We're all equal, but some of us are more equal than others?

EB: That's right; and a majority of those shares — in fact, the majority of all the shares — are owned by people in the Pulitzer family. So, Emmy Pulitzer, Joe Pulitzer's widow, is the major stockholder, Michael Pulitzer's the second largest, a cousin's the third largest and so forth. So that it is, virtually — although technically it's not — it's virtually a family-owned newspaper, which is very rare in the United States. About 80 percent of all the daily newspapers in the country are owned by 12 companies, and 50 percent of them are owned by seven companies, so there's these huge newspaper chains that are going to get the Post-Dispatch now.

TCS: Let's just kind of play that out a little bit, assume that would happen, that one of these large chains would buy the Post-Dispatch. How soon would your average paper-reader notice the difference, and what would it mean for the staff and reporters and people like that?

EB: It wouldn't take long to start seeing a difference. What you've got now, you've got a Pulitzer family that is not as deeply involved in running the newspaper as they were in the generations coming up to this generation. The three Joseph Pulitzers that were the editor of the Post-Dispatch were involved on a daily basis in running the paper. The family now isn't that involved. But they still are locally grounded; they still have a sensitivity to some issues. Emmy Pulitzer's very big in the arts in St. Louis and so forth. So you'll see a paper that is less connected to the St. Louis area once the headquarters of that newspaper is hundreds of miles away instead of down on Tucker.

TCS: Let's talk about what would happen inside the newsroom.

EB: Well, I think that there's a lot of nervous reporters in St. Louis tonight. Of the three companies that have been mentioned most that could possibly be buyers, two of them are very anti-union: Gannett is anti-union, and Tribune is anti-union. The Post-Dispatch is a union newspaper, it's a Guild newspaper. They worked for a couple of years without a contract; it was an extension of the old contract, and there was bitter fighting over the new contract that went on for two years, and after the contract was signed, there was even more bitter infighting when some of the employees sued the president of their own union, Tim O'Neil (who, by the way, the union found in his favor, but he stepped down last week) and the vice-president, Jeff Gordon, is now the president of the union. So, two of the three companies are known to be anti-union, and would probably try to bust the Guild at the Post-Dispatch.

TCS: You've said that you think the Tribune company is, in your mind, perhaps the most likely...

EB: I just have a gut feeling it's Tribune; I don't have any...there's no logic to it. Except that the Tribune just bought Channel 11. Now, why would a big company like Tribune want a little, dinky station like Channel 11? Unless they could buy the newspaper and do this thing, which people are going to hear a lot more about in the next couple of years, called convergence, where you actually combine the newsrooms of the newspaper and the television station, and you'll have newspaper reporters doing live, standup television reporting and also probably most of the Internet reporting for the television station. If the Tribune Company has done what I think they have done — that is, seen ahead and bought Channel 11 just so that they could have convergence here in St. Louis, like they already do in Chicago (they own a television station and a newspaper in Chicago, because that was grandfathered in before the FCC rule came about that said that you couldn't do that, and they have a similar situation in Florida that was grandfathered in)...anyway, my gut is that it's the Tribune Company that wants to buy it. Ellen Soeteber, who is now the editor of the Post-Dispatch, is a long-time employee of Tribune: she was an editor up at the Chicago Tribune, she was an editor down in Florida before she came to the Post-Dispatch.

TCS: There've been noises since this talk first started that they're just exploring maximizing value — do you think it's possible that no one will buy this, that there will not be a sale?

EB: Yes, I think that is possible. I think that what might be going on — well, we don't know, because these people are so tight-lipped about it. They truly don't want to talk to anybody about anything; they don't even want to talk to their own employees. I think there may be parts of the Pulitzer family that just want out and there's other parts of the Pulitzer family that want to be more involved in the newspaper, and this would be a way of shedding some of those folks that just want their money and don't want to have anything to do with it. So that's a possibility. There's a possibility that you may see certain members of the Pulitzer family become more deeply involved in running the newspaper after certain other members have taken their money and left the scene. But I don't think that's what's going to happen — I think the Post-Dispatch will be sold, and sold fairly quickly, to a large conglomerate.

TCS: In general, this trend of massive concentration of ownership of all kinds of media outlets: beyond the obvious pressure of commercial and shareholder value, what other kinds of pressures are making this sort of inexorable as we go on? Are there other considerations?

EB: Yeah, monopoly capitalism! In America we tend to sneer at Marx; whereas in the rest of the world, people say that, you know, Marx has some insights. And one of Marx's insights was that capitalism eventually leads to monopoly, and I think that's what is happening. You have these economies of scale that company eats up another company eats up another company and pretty soon you have Infiniti Radio that has 1200 radio stations! Now why in the world would anybody want 1200 radio stations except for this economy of scale? And remember, here's something else these folks have done: they've taken television stations, radio stations that used to turn a very nice 15 and 20 percent profit and now forced them into making a 40 percent, in some cases, 45 percent profit. Well, that cannot be good for the listener of radio stations or the watchers of television stations and the same thing's playing out in newspapers. When these things were owned by families or individuals, the person who took two or three percent out of his newspaper was still one of the richest guys in town. Now these corporations are taking 35 and 40 percent profits out of their newspapers — that's gotta come from operating expenses because their revenues haven't gone up that much.

TCS: Do you think anyone is going to care when this starts happening? Are people discriminating enough consumers?

EB: Oh, absolutely. In fact, if there's anything that brings conservatives and liberals together, it is the concentration of ownership by conglomerates. In the spring of 2003, this steamroller FCC was going to make market penetration 65 percent for some companies across the country, and people started finding out about it. People started reading editorials about it, hearing radio programs about it, and there was an outpouring of e-mails and snail mail to Congress saying, "Stop this!" and it stopped. Now, the FCC has tried to do end-runs around Congress, but the courts are trying to stop...the FCC, by the way, is out of control. Imagine that you wanted to buy a new car. So you looked on the Internet, you looked at the consumer stuff on the Internet, you picked up a couple of consumer guides, you looked at the automotive section of your daily newspaper, and you decided you were going to buy X car. And then you found out that all those media that you checked on were all owned by X company. Well, how much would you trust your decision to buy X car? You gotta remember, these conglomerates not only own media, they own other things; in fact, most of their profits come from other things. Viacom, Disney, General Electric and so forth kind of see journalism as just a PR arm.

Ed Bishop has been the editor of the St. Louis Journalism Review for nine years.

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