Brief history of news business profits

The Post, the sale and the news business – The Washington Post

People ask me about what will become of journalism. (It will endure or the democracy crumbles, I reply.) In reflecting on the sale of The Washington Post, long-time newsman Walter Pincus gives a condensed history of news profits. (See the link above.)

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has bought the paper, much like the wealthy Eugene Meyer bought it in 1933. Meyer didn’t see a profit for 20 years. Pincus explains:

Like most owners of local U.S. newspapers, Meyer was already successful and never saw newspaper ownership as a money-maker. Instead, as [Philip] Graham put it, the family thought of the newspaper as a public utility and if it ever made as much as 7 percent on its gross income, it would be deemed a success.

Then the acquisition of television and radio stations and the conglomeration of media companies into chains sent profits to the 25 percent range and family companies went public and were beholden to stockholders rather than only rich families.

Now the publicly held Post has sold once again to a rich man, and maybe he’ll see the news organization as a public good. Journalism’s duty is to tell the truth and serve the public. We often fail. But as we go, so goes the democracy.

Pincus’ column is worth reading for the history in the first take, but the second half bears a debatable supermarket metaphor and is weak on the past decade.┬áPincus has been at the Post more than 50 years. He’s seen plenty.

Holding the Bag of Bread

I just completed an amazing two weeks in Zambia. One afternoon our group stopped at a market in Ndola to buy snacks and drinks. I kept my seat in the back of the van while several others entered the store. Five boys approached seeking food or money. One man from our group came out of the store with a big bag of bread rolls to give to the boys. He handed the bag to the tallest boy, expecting him to pass the rolls around. The boy held the bag by the neck, tight in his fist.

“He won’t share those,” our driver told us. The driver got out of the van and divided the rolls among the boys.

“I’m that boy,” I thought. “I’m holding tight to my bag of rolls. My spot at the table. My money. My American passport.”

Now what will I do with that awareness?