Friday, June 1, 2012

Ferro gets a seat at Bloomberg's table

Posted By on 06.01.12 at 04:56 PM

Our titans on the far right
  • Our titan's on the far right
We threw a birthday party for an old friend Thursday evening, and our house filled with people who'd been reading the Reader for decades and wanted to know what's going to happen now that it's owned by Sun-Times Media.

Beats me, I said, and shifted the conversation to the bigger picture. Newspapers have become so cheap that any one-percenter with a few extra million dollars to play with can buy one—or two, or a string of them. We see rich folk picking them up for the same reason they pick up sports franchises and Derby horses—because it's neat to own them.

For instance, I went on, Friday night (at 9 PM), Bloomberg Television is carrying an installment of a show it's cheerily calling Titans at the Table. Who are this night's titans? Seated around a table at Gino's East, chewing the fat and the deep-dish with host Betty Liu, are Mayor Rahm Emanuel; billionaire Obama backer Penny Pritzker; Jim Reynolds, chief executive of Loop Capital, identified by Bloomberg as the largest minority-owned investment bank in the U.S.; and Michael Ferro, CEO of Sun-Times Media and now my boss.

(The show will also be available at Bloomberg TV online.)

Ferro didn't make his money in journalism. But the screen identifies him as chairman of the Sun-Times, and if he and his pals didn't own it then I'm pretty sure Bloomberg would have asked someone else to eat pizza with the mayor.

A Bloomberg publicist sent me a sampling of Ferro's dinner-table pronouncements:

The Sun-Times is one of the great institutions of Chicago. It's one of the last pure independent newspapers in the country. I believe . . . that news and the ability for people to communicate and share information is getting larger and larger by the day exponentially . . .

What's missing in some of this exchange of information is governance and process. Right now my biggest fear, what I decided to do, was that I want to make sure my children and their children don't just listen to bloggers, which is where a lot of people are getting their news from today. Not only is it partisan, you don't know if it's truthful . . .

Blogging is great, but you need to have some type of aggregation of news that you can trust, be it about business, society, or you still need people watching out to make sure everybody's doing the right things around the mayor. The mayor's a great fellow, but there may be . . . some people who are around the mayor sometimes—the mayor's office, you know, don't do everything the right way all the time. And you do need people out there looking out for that.

When Ferro calls the Sun-Times one of America's "last pure independent newspapers" I'm not sure what he's talking about. Tradition, maybe. Back when Conrad Black controlled the Sun-Times, it boasted on its editorial page that it was "an independent newspaper." Yet Black lived in London and owned half the newspapers in Canada plus major dailies in Britain and Israel. The point was, I suppose, that the Sun-Times was independent of the kind of greedy, parasitic shareholders who plagued the Tribune Company by expecting a handsome return on their investment. Black had shareholders too; but he'd tell them once a year that riches lay just ahead and otherwise he ignored them. Finally they revolted and Black wound up in prison.

Today's Sun-Times (and now the Reader) is of course not independent of Ferro and the other owners, most of whom know little about journalism. But they have a free hand. So long as they maintain comity in the ranks they—like the press lords of a century ago—can run the operation any way they want to.

For a beleaguered newspaper, the point is that they want to.

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