Monday, August 12, 2013

There's a Scene...

We had planned to have son Jake, his wife Ember and their three kids for a visit, and we did. The length of the visit, however was cut short for reasons they couldn't control, so there were here and gone in under 48 hours. Still, we had some fun: the zoo, two beaches, the park and a huge bluff near the ocean that we walked down (and then up). I even got to play a version of Concentration against Ireland, who's only four. She was tough, but I held on for the win.

I had no reason to be anywhere, even at home one evening last week. I did what lots of old folks do - wandered around the mall. The only distinguishing feature of the place is that it has a small Wal-Mart attached. I didn't go in there. I did notice a little sign just a few steps past the entrance at Sears. I can't recall the wording exactly, but it was something like "We'd sure appreciate it if you didn't walk off with these valuable little packages full a' what we like to call 'jewelry'". Of course, the unstated message required a little more thought "We're too cheap to even have anyone around this stuff to watch it. But we'd still prefer you don't steal it. After all, we did sink some money into this sign." Message received.

In the movie "Citizen Kane", the title guy is instructed in one scene about all the wealth that has fallen his way. The trouble was, he just had no interest in anything he was supposed to be boss of until a down and out New York City newspaper company popped up on the list. At that moment, everything changed for Kane, played by the larger-than-life Orson Wells. He realized at once that he was so rich that even a losing paper couldn't threaten his huge empire, and so churning out the news as HE saw it could be only one thing - FUN!
This scene is being repeated in real life before our eyes. Last week, the Boston Globe was sold to Mr. John Henry, who already owns the Boston Red Sox, while Mr. Jeff Bezos, Amazon's boss, made out a check to buy the Los Angeles Times.
What makes this possible is a decline in the value of the newspapers. The Internet allows technology to march right on past the old news stands that were so common in the cities. You can buy a fair-sized paper today for an amount that the average American billionaire has between the cushions in his couches. The Globe went for $70 million. That may sound like quite a bit, but it's about 6% of what the last owner (the New York Times) paid for it. Even hard core shoppers start to notice when the signs say "94% markdowns!"
The only remaining question is still a pretty big one: Is all this GOOD or BAD for the newsreading public? The readers of the "Wall Street Journal" had the same question when it was sold to Rupert Murdoch, the guy most famous as the king of Fox News. So far, people are reading it carefully, but WSJ seems to be largely unchanged. I saw Dan Rather describe his relationship with the guy who owns the company he works for, Mark Cuban, who seems to be on the news quite a bit, but mainly in connection with his basketball team, the Dallas Mavericks. Rather, perhaps with his fingers crossed behind his back, seemed OK with having a young Robber Baron as boss.
I guess we'll have to wait to see how this trend pays off (or doesn't). For Kane, there were plenty of good times, and he died richer than ever, but he didn't seem very happy. I guess if things in this industry keep going South, the day might come when we all get to own a paper.   


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