The bankruptcy filings of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and Tribune Co. are cast by many as a sign of the continuing decline of the newspaper market. However, it is noteworthy that neither firm is owned by a company with a newspaper heritage, but by firms in the newspaper business primarily for financial gain. The Tribune’s owner is from the real estate business and the Star Trib’s is from private equity.
There is no doubt that the newspaper business is facing a difficult time now, but the business origins of the owners are important because their perceptions of bankruptcy, how the community will react, and how the company will be seen afterwards are colored by the norms and mores of those business fields.
Newspaper companies have long played special roles in communities, exercising social and political influence, and promoting corporate responsibility, accountability, and community standards. Publishers and editors have typically sat with the other civic leaders on boards and committees of chambers of commerce, community development organizations, foundations, and local offices of the United Way and the Better Business Bureau.
The roles and influence of newspaper executives were founded on their standing in the community and of perceptions of their respectability, community interest, and fiscal dependability. Newspaper publishers and editors would loathe any hint of financial instability or impropriety that would mar those views. The reputation of the newspaper and its brand were inextricably linked.
Newspaper companies have survived depressions, recessions, war, and all kinds of economic uncertainty in the past. They did so because they were financially solid companies with equity structures and balance sheets that allowed them survive very uncomfortable financial circumstances. Companies like the Tribune Co. and Star-Tribune are based on weaker foundations and come from cultures in which bankruptcy to reduce debts or abrogate contracts—hurting local businesses and their own employees--is just another business tool.
As I have previously discussed in this blog, there are a number of companies with long newspaper histories that are carrying significant debt or struggling with investors. It will be interesting to see how they handle their economic crises and the efforts they make avoid the stigma of bankruptcy. I suspect most will find other ways of dealing with their financial predicaments--unless they feel that the Star-Tribune and Tribune Co. choices have changed the norms for the entire industry.