Monday, March 30, 2009

R-J's Parent May Buy Austin Newspaper

Stephens Media, the parent company of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, is in serious talks to buy the Austin American-Statesman according to staffers who have written to VegasHappensHere.Com asking me to tell them what sort of management the R-J has and what they might expect. The staffers said their owner, Cox Enterprises, has been open about it and, in fact, there was a Feb. 13 piece in the American-Statesman itself describing four groups looking at buying the newspaper.

To answer the question, I needed to assess what the AAS is. The paper has about the same circulation as the Review-Journal, about 175,000, and serves a metro area of similar size, about 1.7 million people. The AAS, however, has long been a far more ambitious newspaper, with bureaus overseas and reporters embedded with troops in Iraq. Those bureaus have been closed as their circulation has plummeted. The AAS looks like it has about double the staff of the R-J.

So what, my AAS colleagues, might you expect from the insightful leadership of Publisher Sherman Frederick? Well, it is hard to tell because I can't remember Stephens ever buying a paper this large or with this good a reputation before, one that could actually outshine the R-J as the company's flagship.

Still, if this is any indication, Frederick led a newspaper whose circulation was stagnant at best for a full decade despite an influx of more than 1 million new residents into the readership area. The R-J is a newspaper with several excellent but criminally overworked journalists who are far too busy getting the next day's news out to think in broader strokes. Investigative reporting over there, probably because of how much everyone has to do, is usually reduced to grabbing some public documents and writing about them. The R-J has never aspired to be more than what it already is. It's evidently a sound business plan, if not one likely to produce Pulitzer Prizes.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I don't see any way the Stephens crew won't immediately lay off bunches of journalists and perhaps cut benefits, regardless of what reassuring pfaff Frederick may say when/if he picks up the keys. I have to assume that Sherm is looking at the AAS and thinking, "Why would they possibly need a team of education writers? Why, back in Vegas we only have one hardy soul covering the nation's fifth largest school system and we do just fine!" If Frederick wants to buy it, it's because he thinks that it could be making more money with a few sacrifices here and there.

On the other hand, the AAS has been in an apparent circulation freefall for quite a while and just had a round of buyouts. The Review-Journal appears to be largely financially healthy, with some cost-saving measures -- benefits cuts -- that are modest given the state of the national and local economy. No layoffs or buyouts have come along yet here. That's nothing to sneeze at; Las Vegas' economy has been harmed far worse than the Austin metro area's in the past year or two. Maybe mediocrity is the path to fiscal stability for the news business!

The biggest weakness for the R-J is their web operation, with its baffling and counterintuitive website and a "web guru" who seems mostly to discover new applications a year or so after everyone else but with breathless excitement when he does. The purchase of the AAS might even change that; maybe Frederick sees that the AAS site is more user-friendly and modern (although nothing all the special from what I can see) and could task their web people with improving the Review-Journal.

Hoo-boy. That was a good one, huh? Sherm learning from others? Hah!


aunt stephy said...

I thought the RJ did have buyouts and layoffs in late 2008. Pretty sure that did, indeed, happen.

Anonymous said...

As a transplant from Vegas to Austin, I can guarantee you that there is no way that the Stephens group can manage a paper in this town. They'll never be able to match the town's sensibilities. (e.g they need a team of writers down here because this is one of the front lines of evolution/ID debates) And not to state the obvious, its the state capital for well Texas, a slightly larger and even more diverse place than the Northern/Southern Nevada thing.

Plus, quite a few more people in this town will notice the misuse of the word podcast.

It may be a wise business decision in the end for Stephens given the fact they'll slash and burn the place, and who knows, they may find people who know new media and listen to them, but it is a dark day for austin if they buy it.

It would be fun(ny) if they syndicate Vin Suprynowicz down here though.

Anonymous said...

Man, can you imagine the slashing that's going to take place if Stephens gets control? When Stephens' execs look at Austin's payroll, they're going to only see what they interpret as giant slabs of fat ready to be sliced, diced and discarded from the newsroom.

Mike_ch said...

Man, imagine when Sherm gets his claws into that place: scorched earth won't begin to describe it!

What's funny is that Austin is the technology centre and also the sole lefty college town in the state of Texas. Sherm really doesn't represent their interests. He thinks "progressivism" is what happened when men loaded their households into covered wagons and traveled west.

Anonymous said...

The R-J did offer buyouts last year. Not many in the newsroom took them up on the offer, but some did leave the iconic Bonzana Road chalet.

Anonymous said...

Same old tired characterization of things.