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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Out of Elba, Conrad Black Knows What Ails the Media

Posted By on 10.21.10 at 08:30 AM

He's tanned, he's rested, and he's out of prison. Conrad Black is available to make the hard decisions about the future of your crumbling media enterprise.

Black wrote a piece in September for The New Criterion that recently was brought to my attention. "Newspaper's last gasp" is a grim survey of the field, delivered with sober splendor. Newspapers cling to life, he reports, "grinding out a little longer under the Sisyphean burden of immense presses and hideously expensive distribution networks. This heroic incumbency is gasping in its last days, at least in larger centers."

Wherever Black looks he sees a "very distressed industry." The Chicago Tribune? "In Chapter 11 because of a loony and devil-take-the-hindmost leveraged buy-out." The New York Times? "For a time effectively on life support ($250 million in 14 percent yield notes) from the Mexican media supremo, and one of the wealthiest and least sentimental businessmen in the world, Carlos Slim."

But Black finds reasons to hope. They exist "in the continuing strength of trademarks as beacons of established quality in a tenebrously thickening forest of proliferating media choice; and in the editorial function, which is becoming more important as choice and information flow overwhelm the average reader. The latest Apple applications are relatively friendly to direct newspaper transmission, and newspapers that have taken the trouble to try to maintain some active reader enthusiasm can now see fore-glimmerings of an unpromised land of refuge."

He offers recommendations, which from Black sound like directives to which there are no workable alternatives.

Newspapers will have to do two things: gather some exclusive attachments to writers with large followings of dedicated readers and build a loyal fortress of readers around their stable of writers and the good will in the brand. They will have to hire dozens of rewrite people to build an electronic newspaper, constantly updated, and connected to many other media files and features, and run it like a sophisticated version of cable news. At the same time, designer versions of the newspaper should be emailed to subscribers, to be printed out at pre-agreed times or as particular bulletins come in, in a format that more closely resembles a recognizable newspaper than a contemporary home printer can manage, so that it awaits the pleasure of the subscriber with that individual’s known news, comment, and entertainment preferences favored in the composition of the personalized edition.

Black writes a far better memo than Lee Abrams. He is far courtlier to waitresses than Randy Michaels. And he inspires hope. For years and years he found a way to stand before the shareholders of Hollinger International and persuade them that if they just sat tight, in the year to come they would surely reap the riches to which they were entitled. In the end, of course, the shareholders had heard enough and rebelled, setting into motion a series of events that led to Hollinger's collapse and to Black's imprisonment for fraud. But what a figure he cut for a time.

So to any media conglomerate looking for a CEO —

For now Black is free, thanks to a historic Supreme Court decision he and his admirers insist vindicated his position, though the truth is he benefited by sheer happenstance. As I read the New Criterion piece, written with all the old hauteur, I found myself thinking of Napoleon, after his escape from Elba, gathering to his side by sheer force of will an army of such size and prowess that within four months he was in a position to fight, and lose, the Battle of Waterloo.

Perhaps Napoleon at Waterloo was no longer at the very top of his game. Perhaps Black is not there either. I commend "Newspaper's last gasp" to you for its discussion of the business in its 11th hour, but it soon take some strange turns, as Black explains why the media have only themselves to blame for their troubles. "My considered and carefully researched opinion is that the national media—in particular the major newspapers led by The Washington Post and The New York Times—that turned against official Vietnam policy, led the lynch mob against Richard Nixon, published the Pentagon Papers, and, then, after the destruction of the Nixon presidency and the defeat of the United States in Vietnam, showered themselves with awards and claimed the salvation of constitutional democracy and the shining hour of a free and fearless investigative press, suffered a mortal wound in the nation’s trust of them."

The war in Vietnam was progressing well under Richard Nixon, Black explains, but the "tawdry Watergate affair" hounded him from office, and that led to defeat in Indochina and to a profound historical lie that the media sold first to themselves and then to the nation — which was that these constitutional and military tragedies were glorious chapters in the history of American journalism. "These disservices must cease to be a badge of jubilation, and will require some atonement, for America to [again] be comfortable with its press," Black declares.

Can we do atonement? It might be easier than mastering multimedia.

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Black, by the way, is the author of Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, aka in Black's native Canada as The Invincible Quest: Richard Milhous Nixon, more than 1,000 pages long and published in 2007 just about the time Black was being convicted in federal court in Chicago. He'd served 28 months of his six-and-a-half-year sentence in a Florida prison when he was released on bond in July, after the Supreme Court dramatically cut back the scope of the federal honest services fraud statute that conceivably played some role in convicting him. He remains convicted of one count of obstruction of justice, and his appeal is pending.

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