Buddy, can you spare half a billion?
And be quick about it?
By BRAD WARTHEN
Editorial Page Editor
HEY, PAL, can you spare half a billion? You don’t have it on you? Then please check with your rich friends.
Oh, and one more thing: Hurry. I don’t have much time. You see, this newspaper’s for sale, and I want to buy it. And if you fully understand the alternatives, you’ll want me to buy it, too.
Actually, it’s the corporation that currently owns the paper that’s for sale. The deadline for bids was Thursday, and we could learn today, or early next week, who (if anyone) will be buying Knight Ridder, which owns this newspaper and 30 others. How this will turn out I don’t know. There are all sorts of scenarios. Only one or two are attractive.
It could be bought by an equity company of the sort whose dissatisfaction with our stock price has led to years of pound-foolish expense slashing that has reduced the value of our product, and led ultimately to this sale. Such a company, knowing (and caring) nothing about newspapers, would either have to keep current corporate leadership (which is highly unlikely to produce different results), or hire God-knows-whom to replace it. But this is unlikely.
It could be bought by another newspaper company or partnership of such companies, or partnership of such a company and one or more equity outfits.
Or — and for us, this might be the worst of all — there might be no buyer. This would reflect the fact that so many analysts are (wrongly) down on newspapers as investments.
It could be bought by an outfit that believes in newspapers, and in leaving them alone to do their thing as long as they are producing a reasonable profit. That would be great.
But rather than take my chances, I’d rather just buy the paper myself. That’s why I need the cash. You sure you don’t have it? Have you checked behind the cushions in the upholstery?
You say I’m already too late, since the deadline was Thursday? You don’t understand. I don’t want to buy Knight Ridder. I don’t give two figs about Knight Ridder.
All I care about is The State, and the people it serves.
Here’s what I’m counting on: that whoever buys KR will turn around and sell some of the papers. The problem is that this new owner will want to sell the white elephants — Philadelphia, Akron, San Jose, St. Paul — and hang on to such wildly profitable properties as The State.
That’s why I need at least half a billion, even though I figure the fair price for The State is about $400 million or less. I might have to make an offer the seller can’t refuse. If I can get it for less, I’ve got a few capital improvements I can use the rest on.
Don’t think I’m rushing into this because of what’s happening. For years, I’ve had this recurring fantasy. Not that kind of fantasy. In this one, I save Bill Gates’ life or something (I’ve never worked out the details), and he offers to halve his kingdom, and I say, “Naw, that’s OK; just gimme half a billion. After taxes. Or a billion if you don’t have change.” Then I’d buy the paper, and operate it on a nonprofit basis.
I would still expect my friends in advertising to sell just as hard and come up with just as much money each year. And this paper makes a lot of money. As I’ve written before, if we could stand alone, we’d have no trouble from Wall Street, even if the paper were publicly traded (which, under my ownership, it wouldn’t be; I’d keep it in the family via primogeniture or entail or some such).
But I wouldn’t want to pocket a penny of profit. I’d plow every bit back into the business. Sure, I’d pay myself a nice salary — maybe twice what I’m making now. I haven’t taken a vow of poverty. But making any more than that doesn’t interest me. The only thing I would ever want great wealth for would be to buy this paper. Once I’d bought it, making it better — not making money — would be how I got my kicks.
I’d increase the space available for news. I would restore key positions lost to cost-cutting in recent years. Our reporters and editors would have what they needed to put out the kind of newspaper of record they already know how to produce. No more important news being hacked to TV-sized bites for lack of newsprint. We’d be all our promotional slogan used to say: “In Depth. In Detail. Indispensable.”
I’d pay those reporters and editors enough that the very best of them would stop looking around for better opportunities — and enough so that when any slackers can’t keep pace, up-and-comers from across the country would line up to replace them.
I’d reopen the bureaus around the state that we closed over a decade ago, putting the whole state back into The State. I would again deliver the paper to far-flung areas that we’ve cut off over the years. (Few realize how much of our loss of circulation was due to readers we deliberately cut off because routes weren’t cost-effective.)
And don’t worry. We’d cover the capital of this state as it’s never been covered before.
I’d be a good steward, and listen carefully to my CFO and publisher, because they know a lot more about money than I do. I wouldn’t waste a dime, but I wouldn’t hesitate to spend a million if I knew it could make the paper that much better.
Because the paper, and its readers, and my native state of South Carolina are what matter. They, aside from feeding my family, are the only reasons I drag my lazy behind into work every morning, and stay until late at night. This poor state of ours, which lags behind the rest of the nation in so many ways, needs a good, tireless, fearless, growing, improving newspaper more than any other state in the union. And that’s just what I want it to have. That’s my dream.
Most alternatives involve the paper being owned by some faceless entity that just wants to squeeze it like a lemon. That would be bad for me, and bad for you. That’s why I prefer dreaming to facing facts. Why not? I can’t do anything to affect the outcome.
Not unless you and your rich friends — or a grateful Bill Gates, or whoever — come across with a few hundred million.
And please be quick about it.
Read more on this subject at http://blogs.thestate.com/bradwarthensblog/.
Buddy, can you spare half a billion?