What business model works in media?

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On a warm spring day outside the University of Chicago’s Gleacher Center, a group of MBA students munched on sandwiches — and compared their companies’ profit margins.

“Six percent,” said one.

“Four percent,” offered another.

After making our way around the circle in single or low double digits, all eyes turned to me.

“Rob, how much does the Chicago Tribune make?”

“Twenty-six percent,” I said, sheepishly.

The group, all business people and MBA candidates in the university’s Booth School of Business, was shocked that the crown jewel in Tribune Co.’s media empire earned so much.

Fast-forward 20 years. That empire is pretty much gone. The Tribune and parent Tribune Co. endured a painful bankruptcy and slow climb out. The company’s once-proud flagship, for decades considered one of the nation’s best newspapers, is controlled by a private equity firm seemingly committed to wringing last profits from the place while Chicago begs for the public citizenry and watchdog journalism that old Tribune consistently delivered.

What went wrong? New media competition and changing consumer tastes undoubtedly played a role. But callous public ownership of media and an insatiable thirst for profits did most of the damage.

It’s especially concerning in light of the recent changes at CNN under new corporate owner Warner Bros. Discovery Inc. Though company leaders’ stated goal is to make CNN more centrist and nonpartisan, I fear the new owners could be steering CNN away from 40 years of respectable, essential journalism just when our country needs it, in quest of Fox News Channel’s audience with their version of “fair and balanced” and, they believe, higher profits.

As an alum of two public companies that crashed on the rocks chasing the siren song of ever-higher profits, I will predict this: It won’t work. And the public — this time a nation that has depended on CNN to report objectively and explain the biggest national and global stories in our lifetimes — will be worse because of it.

I spent nearly three decades in corporate media as a reporter, editor and business executive. I earned an MBA at the University of Chicago to become a better media manager. I led colleagues at Tribune and Knight Ridder through media change, preaching that we had to embrace new business models in service to our audience or risk peril.

“You have to understand the business you’re in,” was my frequent admonition to colleagues in Chicago and Duluth, Minn., where I was executive editor of Knight Ridder’s Duluth News Tribune.

A business must work as a business to stay in business. But media businesses are special. Profits at all costs aren’t a winning long-term strategy in any industry. And it really doesn’t work in media, where the work itself is special. Community service is part of the bond with the audience. The long game matters in the media business, which depends heavily on trust and relationships with consumers, news sources and advertisers.

So what business model works in media? Private ownership, public funding and nonprofit status all have proven, enduring value. There’s a limit to even partial public funding. So let me focus on private ownership and nonprofit models, which offer flexible, scalable solutions.

A family, the Sulzbergers, still controls the most successful media business to emerge from the legacy newspaper industry, the New York Times Co. A similar model under the Graham family and now Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has kept the Washington Post Co. vibrant, strong, relevant and serving. Both of these national media companies are growing and, according to reports, even dipping into the red at the Washington Post lately to provide more and better coverage. Admirable.

Locally, the Seattle Times is owned by the Blethen family, and the Star Tribune in Minnesota is owned by Glen Taylor. Both serve their communities and regions with journalism that matters. On the broadcast side, Minnesota’s family-owned Hubbard Broadcasting and Missouri’s family-owned News-Press & Gazette Co. operate television stations and other media properties where journalists, ad sales reps and others excel at their work and enhance their communities.

New, impactful nonprofit media models have developed over the past two decades as the industry has evolved. The Texas Tribune, ProPublica and the Kansas City Beacon are a few examples.

So where does that leave CNN? I’m a longtime viewer, but I’m not hopeful, given the path its new owners have chosen. Sure, they can still go back. But, like Tribune and Knight Ridder, they probably won’t.

Here’s what I hope to see as the nation drowns in a sea of online information, much of it bad and some of it downright destructive: A new commitment by media owners, consumers and investors that long-term success requires resources, support, patience and, yes, profits that will be lower than what managers focused only on the bottom line could temporarily achieve. The news media doesn’t make widgets. It bears a special responsibility and service role in our communities and our nation.

That responsibility requires doing what’s right long-term, not just what might make a fast buck.

I might have been the “winner” 20 years ago when I sat outside at lunch with my MBA colleagues and compared profit margins. But two decades later, my old company is pretty much gone, and the Chicago region — along with the media industry — are poorer because of it.

Rob Karwath is vice president at Aimclear, a Minnesota marketing and communications company. He taught journalism and media management at the University of Kansas and worked 27 years as a reporter, editor and business executive at the Chicago Tribune and the Duluth News Tribune, part of the former Knight Ridder Inc. chain.

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