I need half a billion. Now.

Buddy, can you spare half a billion?
And be quick about it?

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/.

11 thoughts on “I need half a billion. Now.

  1. Mark Whittington

    Brad my friend,
    You still don’t have a clue do you. The State is one of the most hostile papers in the US towards workers and democracy in general. The people of our state are in their predicament precisely because of the pro corporate, anti-union, anti tariff, pro free trade, anti democratic mentality of the club that controls everything in the US and SC. The bitter irony here is that the very interests that you promulgate every Sunday on the editorial page are going to be the interests that end up getting rid of you because they have figured out that they don’t really need you. They’ve got hundreds of syndicated columnists to perpetrate the rising tide myth, so why do they need you?
    People here have no rights and you do nothing about it. People here are being destroyed by free trade policies. You want more free trade. You’re willing to start a war across the globe at the drop of a hat, yet you won’t take a five-minute drive from your office to talk to workers who are being exploited. You constantly float the trial balloons of investment firms and the Chamber of Commerce, yet you never give unions, worker organizations, or left leaning civic organizations a voice. You drum up the right wing angst on social issues, yet you treat modern liberals and social democrats like second-class citizens on economic issues. Ordinary people no longer read papers such as The State because they know that the debate is one sided and that the advocated policies are doomed to failure. I don’t care that much if they do replace the editorial staff-the replacements couldn’t be that much worse. They might as well replace you with Tom Friedman. Who cares? It’s all corporate propaganda anyway.

  2. Brad Warthen

    Well, I anticipated all sorts of different reactions to that column, many of them strongly negative. But I have to say, Mark’s somewhat unusual objections come as a bit of a surprise. I guess that’s because I just "don’t have a clue," which in Markese, means not thinking exactly the way he does.

    Any mainstream thoughts out there? For that matter, any thoughts from billionaires who have seen the light of the Gospel of Mark W., feel guilty about sitting on so much of the world’s wealth, and would like to donate their ill-gotten gains to a good cause?

  3. Spencer Gantt

    It seems to me that the comments on this blog have of late become very personal and hostile. Attacks as it were on BW. And it also seems the comments have little to do with the actual article which BW was “insane” enough to publish.
    Look at “column on taking sides”. It’s still perking along at 48 comments, many of them very vitriolic, and very few that concern the original BW article.
    For “column …..” I think it was about people reading something and having two completely opposite opinions as viewed through political philosophy. Where’s that in the “discussion”?
    It ain’t much fun to read anymore, that’s for sure.

  4. Don Williams

    I am one of those people Brad finds hard to understand. I am a Democrat, and I can’t imagine a scenario where I would vote for a Republican candidate. I guess that makes me a partisan. His personal repugnance for that kind of voter bothers me, but I do not condemn him for his position. In fact, I totally understand it. The party leadership (both parties) promote warfare between the parties and are counterproductive to good governance. I have asked before, why do news writers insist on quoting party chairpersons when they know in advance the replies will be partisan and vitriolic and will add nothing to the story?
    Having said all of the above as a preamble, the point of this post is to say to the readers the following- You have no idea how good you have it. The Columbia newspaper is the shining light of the city. Pick up the other dailies in SC next week and compare what you find there with what you see in The State. As Brad says, admittedly some things have been lost in the last decade due to corporate cuts, but The State has excellent reporting whether the issue is the State House, city and county government, entertainment, sports or business. Unlike most TV stations, The State has writers who understand the state they live in and how it works.
    The editorial page is balanced nationally, and usually on target with its thoughts in a reasoned manner- meaning you may disagree with what they say, but you understand why they say it.
    Brad is right- if The State is purchased by the wrong entity, Columbia (and the Midlands) will be much poorer as a result.
    Just compare the 1990 Greenville News with what you see today.
    Now, back to pressing matters- Brad, do you still feel good about that Bush endorsement in 2004?

  5. Phillip

    Don, I couldn’t agree more. Though I have my issues with the State, there is a lot I appreciate about it and look forward to reading it each day. I hope that doesn’t change…
    Mark, when this sale is all said and done, I fear we may end up with something worse than before. Think about how much hassle the State gets from right-wingers about its stance on public education for example. Sure, in my dream world Brad and the State would be out there each and every day writing red-hot verbiage about the eroding of American democracy, the contempt this administration has for the working men and women of this country, the corporate plutocracy this nation is fast becoming…but let’s be real…in this community their subscriptions might just drop to you and me and handful of others. Look, a mainstream newspaper (especially in a state as conservative as this one is) is going to have to toe a middle ground pretty much. (How this “middle ground” or non-partisanship as Brad would term it, has moved far to the right in the past 25 years is undeniable, but that’s another story—nevertheless, Spencer, all the more reason why viewpoints like Mark’s need to be expressed, and often). At least they run Paul Krugman columns now and then.
    Spencer—it’s true how these discussions often go far off Brad’s original post, but that’s sort of the beauty (or horror, if you prefer) of the blog format. For awhile there, it seemed like almost every post would end up on Iraq. But Brad’s right, you have just as much power as anyone else on here—help us keep it civil.

  6. bill

    Sounds like what’s happening with newspapers is the same thing that’s happened with the music industry.Unlike the sixties’ heyday,the business is run by people who know nothing about music,just the bottom line.Although I’ve given you my fair share of hell on this blog,I read you daily and feel awful for you and myself.”If I were a rich man……..”

  7. emd

    Your editorial today indicated that you would do some very interesting things with The State if you could buy it. I especially liked the bits about “increasing space available for news” and “reopening bureaus that were closed” a while back. In my household the itsy-bitsy space accorded national and international news drives us crazy–and to buying The New York Times or even USA Today when we can find them. Since I know nothing about how a newspaper runs I could only wonder–and perhaps blame–those who run the paper for deficiencies therein.
    We also get The Augusta Chronicle and often the comparison to The State finds the latter severely lacking. Why are sports or feel-good articles given prominent space on the FRONT PAGE? We grew up in households where a newspaper was an important source of what was going on in the world. I really don’t think I can rely on the present structure of The State for that kind of information today.
    Perhaps it’s the eventual loss of “readers” of print that will signal a loss of good newspapers. We hope whoever buys Knight-Ridder will put some money into running a real newspaper again.

  8. Ervin

    Brad: Paul Bremer gives a speech about his year in Iraq to hundreds on Monday the 6th on the outskirts of Columbia and nary a word in The State…not even one line to document (make a news record) that he was here. Surely the cost-cutters have not shaved that deep. I can’t imagine a reasonable excuse for the omission.

  9. Brad Warthen

    I can’t imagine any excuses, either, Ervin. I can imagine lots of reasons, but not excuses.
    Let’s start with the killer reason: This is the first I’ve heard of it. Of course, if you’re looking for coverage, it doesn’t matter whether I heard about it or not, since I have nothing to do with the newsroom.
    But if I didn’t hear about it, it’s quite likely the news people didn’t either. Where did he speak (“on the outskirts of Columbia” doesn’t help me much). And I don’t mean necessarily “where” geographically. I mean “where” in terms of “before what group or organization?” That would give me a hint as to who might have had the responsibility of notifying the paper. The next question would be, whom did that person contact, and did he or she follow up?
    Anyway, once you determine who handled publicity for the sponsoring organization, you might ask them to contact whomever they talked to at The State do see whether the message got through, and, if it did, what sort of decision was made and why.
    If the message did get through, I can think of lots of reasons why a decision would have been made not to send someone. News people — particularly in such a shorthanded newsroom — have their hands full covering immediate, breaking news or issues right here in the middle of South Carolina. For a reporter to be pulled off of doing those things for half a shift (which is about what it would take to cover a speech and write about it) takes a decision to give up something local and/or immediate in favor of covering somebody TALKING ABOUT (as opposed to something happening) something that happened in Iraq two or three years ago.
    That’s fascinating to you and me, maybe, but then we actually write about national and international events in editorial. The only news reporter our newspaper has who covers national and international issues normally (without being pulled off the routine to do it) would be the person in our Washington Bureau. And in Washington, of course, such speeches are a dime a dozen.
    Then there’s the question of time. If it was night, the threshold rises exponentially. At night, you essentially have to give up your one, or one of your two (if you’re lucky), night general assignment people for the entire heart of the evening, or work somebody overtime.
    Set aside allocation of man-hours. Do you realize how little space there is with our current newsprint allocation to cover events happening RIGHT NOW in Iraq, Afghanistan and the rest of the world? Take a look on a typical weekday, and think about it.
    It’s always been interesting to me how the public seems to think newspapers are omniscient and have unlimited resources. (It’s particularly ironic when you hear from people who obviously hold the paper in low esteem, yet seem to think we have godlike powers — we get a lot of letters like that.) They read something sinister into everything that interests them and doesn’t get covered, or doesn’t get covered the way they want it covered. It’s kind of related to the phenomenon of people criticizing us for “censoring” the news, or the comics, or whatever. This shows an utter lack of understanding of what we do and what the potentialities are.
    The State has the greatest newsgathering capacity of any organization in South Carolina, and several times that of any other entity in the Midlands.
    Still, even if we had 10 times what we have, and make perfect decisions in using those resources efficiently, for every one thing we decided to cover and had room for in the paper, there would be several interesting and worthwhile things that would not get covered. It’s the job of editors to pick, based on the resources available and the competing possibilities AT A GIVEN MOMENT, what is covered and how. All of those variables shift constantly, so that you will see something that we had no room or time for one day get prominent play on another.
    That’s reality.
    Anyway, that was MY experience in 20 years in newsrooms (mostly as an assigning editor) before I switched to editorial in 1994. I assume it’s pretty much like that now.

  10. Ervin

    The event was March 6th @ the “Radisson Hotel Columbia” on Bush River Rd. 2 I-20 by The Lexington Medical Center Foundation. Chuck Wendt tells me that press releases were sent out as usual. He and Mike Biediger both dismissed the lack of even a one-line mention of the event in The State by saying, in effect, “Oh…The State doesn’t like us.” I’ll never KNOW the truth; and, in this instance, it really doesn’t matter. Thanks for responding.

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