On Landmark Media (the Capital’s Owner) Cashing Out

| May 5, 2014
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Since January 2008, Landmark Media has been trying to cash out its investment in the Capital-Gazette, but could not get the price it wanted.  Finally, on May 1, 2014, more than 2,000 days since it was placed on the market, Landmark Media announced the sale of the Capital-Gazette to the company that owns the Baltimore Sun.

My favorite line in the Capital’s account of the sale is the second paragraph, where after announcing the sale, the Capital reports that “Speaking in the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Frank Batten Jr., CEO of Landmark Media Enterprises, said…. ‘I don’t know of any papers that have done a better job at covering local news.’”

What is one to make of such a statement coming from multi-billionaire Frank Batten, Jr., son of Frank Batten, Sr., the private media mogul who before he died a few years ago was listed by Forbes 400 as one of the 400 richest men in America?  Yes, the statement constitutes context appropriate flattery of the Capital.  But perhaps what was actually going on in Mr. Batten’s head was more along the following lines:

I’ve never shown up in Anne Arundel County—at least not in a Capital news story—because everybody who runs a media conglomerate knows that local readers are less likely to trust a local paper if they know it’s part of a conglomerate, especially one run by a multi-billionaire who makes his money off such newspapers.

I want to thank the Capital staff for helping maintain this illusion for more than four decades.  Indeed, it was quite a hat trick that when Philip Merrill locally “owned” the Capital nobody bothered to mention that we were a significant minority owner, let alone how “significant” we were.  By the way, I always wondered why he committed suicide; I never did find out—oops, I guess we never reported that, too.  :-)

But the greatest debt I owe you is for sending so much cash back to Landmark Media—that is, to my family and me—over the years.  Most businesses could only dream of your margins.  Yeah, like most local newspapers, you were a local monopoly.  But even by that standard you excelled in your ability to suck cash from the local community and send it back to my family in Virginia.

Your ability to keep costs low by skimping on investigative news—and without your readers being able to tell the difference—was world class.  There was nothing I enjoyed more than reading my newspaper and observing your various cost saving techniques: reporting on government investigations as though they were your own (my favorite type of investigative reporting!); reprinting government press releases as news (done cleverly!); repaying powerful political sources with favorable news coverage (so much for reporting “without fear or favor”!), and ripping off others’ enterprise journalism (well, it’s perfectly legal and everyone does it!).

Yes, as I said: ‘I don’t know of any papers that have done a better job at covering local news.’

A critical ingredient was treating my top management well.  Play by my rules, as I’ve always said, and you’ll be rewarded.

Especial thanks go to former publisher Tom Marquardt.  Marquardt may actually have cut too much, but his heart was in the right place.  Ka-ching!

What I love about this business is that, on the one hand, politicians are too smart to publicly criticize any local monopoly newspaper that buys ink by the barrel (and who cares what they say in private!); and, on the other hand, the readers, suckers that they are, don’t know the difference (thank god!).

Speaking of God, when he created the universe, he created the physical law that readers don’t know what they don’t know.  Thank you, God!

As for charges of partisan bias, you’ve always been able to dismiss them with a contemptuous smirk for good reason.  The fact is, I could care less about my newspapers’ partisan positions.  You all have shown that you knew that: you understood that I am first and foremost a businessman, and a reputation for partisan bias hurts profits when you’ve got a monopoly local newspaper.  But thanks for playing along with the clever sleight-of-hand: convincing readers that that was the only type of bias they should care about in a local monopoly newspaper.  (Kudos, too, for carefully calibrating the publicly acknowledged charges of partisan bias so that complaints on the left balanced out those on the right!)

The Crapital, Ka-ching!  The Crapital, Ka-ching! The Crapital, Ka-ching!  As I said: I don’t know of any papers that have done a better job at covering local news!

(Disclaimer: this author cannot actually read Mr. Batten’s mind.)

The Capital article, written by Capital Editor Steve Gunn, describes the sale of the company to “The Baltimore Sun Media Group.”  It refers to the “Baltimore Sun Media Group” or “BSMG” six times in the body of the article before it mentions, near its end, that BSMG is owned by Tribune Company.  Since BSMG is little more than an operating division, this is an unusual way to describe a business purchase.  It would be like Proctor & Gamble buying a detergent related company and having it reported in the press as a purchase by Tide, one of Proctor & Gamble’s detergent brands.   This suggests that the Capital’s editor believes that the Tribune Company, like Landmark, believes that it’s important for a local newspaper to emphasize its local roots.

Tribune is the second largest daily newspaper chain in the U.S. by daily circulation.  Its fourth quarter operating profit for its publishing division, the most recent for which data is available, was 16.5%.  Landmark is a privately held company and does not release its financial information.

For the record, I think that the Capital’s reporting has substantially improved under its new editor, Steve Gunn.

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P.S. This author has been especially concerned about the Capital’s poor coverage of the Anne Arundel County Public School System, including its inexperienced, poorly paid education reporters with their high turnover, lack of commitment to investigative journalism, and propensity to eventually end up in PR.  Coverage of the County Council and City of Annapolis tends to be better, in part because their institutional structures provide competing candidates/political parties and independent government auditors who are relatively happy to provide the press, free of charge, with diverse and insider information not otherwise easily accessible.   The Capital’s de facto policy of not reporting on its business interests—exemplified by its lack of reporting on Landmark Media’s business practices —is also troublesome insofar as a local monopoly newspaper is a vital public trust.  For my general guide to understanding the Capital‘s political biases, see Understanding The Capital Gazette’s Political Biases.

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Category: Editorial, Education, OPINION

About the Author ()

J.H. Snider, a political scientist and democratic reformer, is a student of local politics. For updates on his local and state articles, like this page. (This Facebook page is an experiment and may be discontinued.)

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