Media Watch: Local News
Vultures Circling, Birds Flying
Potential buyers have been circling the Austin American-Statesman this month, kicking the tires and checking under the hood. Five groups heard presentations and took tours of the facilities after making nonbinding bids and proving their financial worthiness, Publisher Michael Vivio said.
Parent company Cox Enterprises, its finger in the wind, put the Statesman up for sale in August, along with 28 of its other newspapers. A family-owned operation saddled with heavy debt, Atlanta-based Cox opted to focus on its other businesses, including cable and TV, rather than battle the prevailing winds battering the newspaper business.
The company's timing, needless to say, was not the best. The Statesman is one of dozens of newspaper properties languishing on the market. Lenders going into seizures at the idea of financing the purchase of a $200,000 imitation Mediterranean suburban dream home are running like wounded hyenas from newspapers, as more and more papers teeter on the edge of bankruptcy.
However, the Statesman has several attributes that buyers will find appealing, beyond the newspaper, including its Web operations – Statesman.com and Austin360.com – a thriving commercial printing operation, and a cluster of steady community newspapers. The deal also includes 19 acres of prime lakefront property, site of the company headquarters. Cox is selling everything as one package, all included, Vivio said.
None of the current suitors should inspire much excitement in the paper's staff or readers, at least based on details provided in the Statesman. (And if the Statesman's Business section covered other news the way it has reported on the Statesman sale, the section might be worth reading in the morning.)
Three of the interested groups are fronted by private-equity firms – ZelnickMedia Corp., Hicks Equity Partners, and Platinum Equity – the type of buyers infamous for slashing overhead on their new purchases. Another group is headed by Granite Publications, the community newspaper publisher based in Taylor, which produces such thrilling fare as the Hill Country News. The fifth faction eyeing the paper includes former Editor Rich Oppel, former Mayor Roy Butler, and newspaper veteran Chris Harte, who recently led the Minneapolis StarTribune into bankruptcy – two years after the paper was sold to a private-equity group.
Meanwhile, the Statesman continues to slowly downsize as it wrestles with the forces battering the newspaper industry. Several regularly featured bylines have disappeared, as Cox cuts back on its international and Washington, D.C., operations. And the remains of the paper's classified advertising business are now tucked into the back of the Life section a few times a week, saving the need to print a separate section for the ads on Mondays and Tuesdays.
A few weeks ago, Statesman management offered staffers 55 and older a voluntary retirement package, as it continues to shave away staff. About 130 employees who have been with the company for at least 10 years are eligible for two weeks of pay for every year of employment, up to one year's worth of pay.
Vivio emphasized that the voluntary retirement offer was not a precursor of draconian measures to follow. The Statesman continues to avoid the layoffs employed at other papers, he notes. "It was a sign of strength," he said, "not a sign of weakness." About a third of the 30 eligible employees in the newsroom have applied, Vivio said, although he declined to offer names.
Two have confirmed taking the plunge: veteran Capitol reporter Laylan Copelin and award-winning editorial cartoonist Ben Sargent. "We will make adjustments, promotions, and perhaps hire to fill voids left by departing staff," Vivio said in an e-mail. "However, in the end our staff will be smaller."
Wilson Jumps Sideways
CBS affiliate KEYE-TV, which bills itself as "the most experienced" news operation in town, continues to lose experienced reporters. The latest departure is investigative reporter Nanci Wilson, a seven-year veteran of the station, who rejected a station offer and instead decided to move to NBC affiliate KXAN. Reporter Julie Simon has also left the station, opting not to return after having a baby.
Their exits follow the layoffs of 14 people last fall and a newsroom shake-up that included dumping longtime political reporter Keith Elkins and weatherman Byron Webre.
KEYE took the unusual step of issuing a press release announcing Wilson's departure, attributing the move to Wilson's decision "to make a change in her personal life and pursue other interests." That was news to Wilson, unless "other interests" was a move to a rival station. Wilson declined to elaborate on her reasons for leaving KEYE. But station sources say she had been forced to videotape her own stories recently and investigative pieces were rarely featured in station promotions. "[KXAN's] long-term goals on investigative reporting are in synch with mine," said Wilson, who worked for ABC affiliate KVUE before joining KEYE.
Wilson will spend six months honoring a no-compete clause before joining KXAN in August. Meanwhile, KEYE's "commitment to investigative journalism and holding lawmakers responsible to citizens remains firm," station General Manager Amy Villarreal said in the release.