The bid was kick-started by The Newspaper Guild, which represents employees at eight of the 12 papers up for grabs and is the parent union of the Canadian Media Guild.
“We don’t have to sit back and watch them do it,” says TNG president Linda Foley of the dismantling of a newspaper chain that has a reputation for quality journalism in an industry now obsessed with little more than the bottom line.
“Whether this (bid) succeeds or not, it has certainly put the employees’ concerns front and centre,” Foley says. “They need to be a part of this conversation. How these people work is going to make or break these papers.”
TNG is working with California private equity firm Yucaipa Companies, which is submitting the actual bid on the 12 papers; employees would then have the opportunity to buy into the new company, to be named ValuePlus Media. If employees, mostly through their retirement savings, end up owning more than 51% of the stock of the company, it will qualify for tax breaks under U.S. law. Yucaipa has also told TNG it would put employees and union representatives on the ValuePlus Media board.
Even if the Yucaipa bid for the papers fails, the initiative has sparked an important public debate in the newspapers’ home communities, Foley says. TNG members have formed committees at each of the unionized papers on the auction block to build community support for the employee bid, prompting rallies and letter-writing campaigns to put pressure on McClatchy to accept it.
Despite the industry focus on cost-cutting, public debate about the future of the Knight Ridder chain has centred more on the importance of quality journalism, according to Foley. She says employees are ready to look creatively at their industry to come up with ways of ensuring that strong journalism and good reporting continue to be viable.
“There is tremendous potential being squandered because of old thinking” in the industry, Foley says.
The U.S. media has been under fire from watchdogs for its coverage of the events leading up to the invasion of Iraq, accused of reporting uncritically the propaganda emanating from the Oval Office. In fact, media watchers have praised the Knight Ridder chain for being among the only mainstream outlet to challenge the wisdom of the U.S. strategy on Iraq early on, reporting the lack of evidence of weapons of mass destruction.
And in early April, Free Press and the Center for Media Democracy issued a damning report of local TV newscasts in the U.S., revealing that 77 local stations put company-supplied videos into their news shows.
“These advertisements, flogging everything from vitamin supplements to porn-free search engines, were passed off to you, their viewers, as legitimate news reports,” the groups charged. “This deception is illegal, and it’s a serious breach of the trust between stations and their communities.”
CMG vice president Scott Edmonds applauds TNG for adding fuel to the debate over the future of quality journalism in the U.S. and giving reason to hope for employees who have suffered years of uncertainty at the hands of mercenary newspaper chain owners. Edmonds, who also serves as vice president for Canada West of TNG, hopes some of that hope and enthusiasm spills over the border into Canada, where the voices on the issue are “few and muted.”
TNG members at the former Knight Ridder newspapers will likely know by July whether their bid is successful.