Forum Communications and the Herald
Here's my prediction: I think it'll be great.
I can't say that with 100 percent certainty. But I can say it with confidence, because the indicators right now are so upbeat and strong.
Here's why. Over the past 20 years, every American newspaper journalist has learned a crucial lesson: Ownership is everything. That is, the single biggest factor in whether yours is a good or a bad newspaper is not who the employees are. It's who the owner is.
We who work at publicly-traded companies have learned this the hard way, as Wall Street's astounding demand for profits squeezed us like a whalebone corset. In the late 80s/early 90s, the Herald had something like 50 to 60 people in its newsroom, I hear. Today the number is about 40, and the shrinkage is directly attributable to shareholder pressure on Knight Ridder -- because the company then had to transfer this pressure to its properties (that's us) in the form of demands for higher profits.
I don't blame Knight Ridder for this. Tony Ridder and the other executives did their level best. But from the perspective of good journalism, they were fatally handicapped by the fact that Knight Ridder is publicly traded, because that structure rewards moneymaking rather than quality newspapering. The two, we've learned, are not the same.
We've also learned, however, that there are three other ownership structures that tend to generate better newspapers. They are:
a) Ownership by a nonprofit or foundation, as at the St. Petersburg Times;
b) Corporate ownership with two classes of stock, which is the ownership structure of the New York Times and Washington Post; and,
c) Ownership by a benevolent family or individual.
By "benevolent," I don't mean an owner who lavishes money on employees. (Although I'm not knocking that practice, believe me! Hey, I hear it can work wonders, especially with newly acquired properties ... and editorial page editors are said to respond really well to the strategy!)
Seriously, I mean an owner who's proud to produce a fat, newsy, first-rate paper that generates, say, a 15 percent or 20 percent profit, as opposed to an owner who wants 30 percent or 40 percent and tolerates the thin, usually third-rate papers that deliver it.
To the best of my knowledge, Forum Communications falls into that Category C: benevolent family owner. I have absolutely no insider information about the company's profit expectations of its newspapers. But I do have a strong sense of and respect for the company's newspapers, especially The Forum itself. And, I've now heard Forum Communications co-owner Bill Marcil himself refer to those newspapers as "a public trust."
Those things suggest to me that Forum Communications takes its mission very seriously, and runs its properties with a eye to quality journalism as well as business success.
So: I expect the Herald to be a noticeably better newspaper next year than it is today, as some share of the money that has been going to San Jose instead goes to hire more reporters and get reinvested esewhere in the business. (San Jose is the location of Knight Ridder's corporate HQ, by the way.)
That's the bottom line, and I think it's a change readers will appreciate and enjoy.
Will another change follow -- that is, the Herald evolving into a North Valley Forum? No, I don't think so. Forum Communications tends to leave its operations alone, other than communicating business expectations to the publishers, as far as I can tell.
All in all, I'm very excited about the transistion. The Herald today could have been under even more extreme cost-cutting pressure than it already has endured, if another bidder had bought the property. Instead, Forum Communications won the bid, and so the talk here is of rebuilding and growth. Ownership makes all the difference.