The Bee buy

Always remember: The business of media is business—and big business, at that.

Sacramento got a high-profile reminder of this simple fact recently when McClatchy Co., which owns the Bee and 11 other dailies, spent $4.5 billion to buy Knight Ridder Inc., adding 32 papers to its media stable and becoming the second-largest newspaper publisher in the country. It’s a deal that highlighted the business part of the newspaper business, with both positive and potentially negative implications locally.

First, the positive part: In an era when many analysts—including some writing within these pages—have predicted the death of the daily newspaper, McClatchy is investing in print media. Newspaper readership has been declining steadily for decades, as younger people fail to take up the print-news habit, and advertising revenues are being siphoned off to the Internet, cable TV and other media, putting the industry in peril. Many investors are pulling funds out of the newspaper biz—which is why Knight Ridder was for sale—yet McClatchy is pouring money into print journalism.

That’s a good thing. We’ve done a fair amount of Bee-bashing over the years, and we’ll continue to criticize the paper when warranted. (And sometimes just for fun.) But we also know that Sacramento—like all major cities—needs a strong daily. Print news remains, in our not-so-unbiased opinion, the best source of information on complex issues, and we’re happy to see McClatchy showing a commitment to the medium.

But here’s the catch: By the company’s own admissions, McClatchy’s strategy is to continue publishing newspapers only in “high growth markets.” The idea, apparently, is that even if smaller and smaller percentages of people are reading newspapers, the company can still increase its total number of readers if the overall population is growing fast enough in the markets where it publishes. Conversely, cities with stable or slow-growing populations are not part of the plan. That’s why McClatchy is selling two of the best newspapers it acquired in the Knight Ridder deal, the San Jose Mercury News and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Though universally respected as being among the nation’s best dailies, the cities where they exist aren’t growing fast enough to fit the McClatchy business plan.

How does this play out locally? Well, readers should be aware of how the company’s “high growth” business plan could impact coverage of local development issues. Knowing that the paper’s very existence depends upon a high growth rate in the Sacramento area, can the Bee be unbiased when addressing development issues? Have they ever been?

We’d be willing to bet the reporters and editors at the Bee would answer these questions with a “yes.” And we know that, like most papers, the Bee has safeguards in place to shield reporters from business influences. But we also know that money talks and that virtually every major issue facing our region—from flood control and suburban sprawl to air quality and the Kings arena—is growth-related. It’ll be interesting to see, in coming years, how well the Bee will be able to separate the newspaper from the business.