Washington Post Sale Prompts Question About Another Family-Owned Newspaper

August 9th, 2013 · 1 Comment · journalism, Uncategorized

By Denise Tessier

“In one fell swoop, the era of family owned newspapers seemed to end while the new era — in which billionaire tech moguls jump on print properties for a relative pittance — seemed more certain than ever. ” – Dylan Byers, Politico

That’s just one of the comments chronicled in this reaction summary from “journalism thought leaders and analysts” on the surprise sale of the Washington Post to Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos.

And only a day after the Washington Post reported the story of its own sale, it ran a follow-up story asking whether another venerable, family-owned institution – The New York Times – might be next.

The Times remains one of the few major media organizations still under the control of the family that has been its longtime steward — in this case, the heirs of Adolph Ochs, who coined the paper’s slogan, “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”

But there’s another, closer-to-home media organization “still under the control of the family that has been its longtime steward” – in this case the holdings of Thompson H. Lang, owner of the Albuquerque Journal. It might be safe to call Lang’s holdings a “media organization” because they include not only the Albuquerque Publishing Company, but Number Nine Media, which publishes the Mountain View Telegraph, Socorro Daily Chieftain, and the Valencia County News Bulletin.

As the New York Times’ Christine Haughney and David Carr wrote in reporting on last week’s sale of another newspaper icon, the Boston Globe:

For most of American history, newspapers were owned and operated locally, often by families, business or political interests that used barrels of ink to advance broader agendas. It was only when the industry began to generate reliable profits in the middle of the last century that newspapers were scooped up and folded into larger enterprises. Many regionally dominant metro papers landed in the hands of Knight-Ridder, McClatchy, Tribune Company and Media News.

Newspapers were typically passed around a fraternity of known buyers already in the business. But the local monopolies that made the newspapers attractive to acquirers have now disappeared, and the chains have gone through bankruptcy or are a shadow of their former selves.

The sale of the Globe was heralded as a positive thing because the buyer was local; John W. Henry, the owner of the Boston Red Sox, and a resident of the Boston area, bought the Globe from The New York Times at a steep discount: The Times sold the paper for $70 million after buying it for $1.1 billion 20 years before. From the NYT story:

The sale continues a recent trend in the struggling newspaper industry: newspapers being returned to local owners, often at bargain-basement prices. When the possibility that the Tribune Company would sell its newspapers emerged this year, both The Los Angeles Times and The Baltimore Sun quickly attracted interested local buyers. Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst for the Poynter Institute, said the trend was driven by locals wanting to give back to their hometowns and also by the economic value of the buildings that house the newspapers.

“There’s a sort of pride of community,” Mr. Edmonds said. “If it doesn’t work out, the value of the paper is equivalent to the value of the real estate.”

But turning around a newspaper in the current environment takes more than financial skill and renewed focus.

“People who have had success with turnaround in other businesses confront a different challenge in metro newspapers,” said Ken Doctor, an analyst at Outsell. “It is not just a newspaper that is distressed, it is the entire industry, and no one has had much success in making it work.”

The Albuquerque Journal has long had the local, hometown advantage sewn up.

Lang has been publisher of the Albuquerque Journal since 1971, when he took over at age 23 upon the death of his father, C. Thompson Lang, who had been publisher since 1956. I first went to work at the Albuquerque Journal in 1974, and over the ensuing decades there was always talk that the family had been approached by buyers, but consistently (obviously) Lang refused to sell.

You won’t find stories even speculating about those sales, however, in the media or business trades. Nor will you find stories about Lang himself. As this Bloomberg Businessweek web entry shows, there’s little information in the general realm about Lang and his companies.

There is a story about Lang on the Journal website in its history section, but it doesn’t appear to have been updated since 2004, as it describes his “33 years” at the helm and talks in the present tense about the joint operating agreement between the Journal and Albuquerque Tribune, as if the latter were still in existence.

But it’s an interesting history, talking about Lang’s F-Jet being used to ferry reporters to disaster scenes and the paper’s financing of international stories, such as those of El Salvador’s Death Squads by former Journal investigative reporter Craig Pyes, without mentioning any reporters by name:

The newspaper has sent reporters to cover the Death Squads in El Salvador, politics in Mexico, the economic crunch in Russia and the floods in Honduras. And, piloting the company jet, Lang has taken reporters and photographers to cover major events around the nation earthquakes in California, hurricanes in Florida, an airliner crash in Iowa and the federal-building bombing in Oklahoma City, and most recently 9/11.

For the benefit of those who are not Journal subscribers, here’s more from the history:

When Lang became publisher, the Journal was still being produced with “hot type” that dated largely from the Industrial Revolution. Lang developed the expertise within the Journal organization to phase the newspaper into the rapidly evolving digital revolution in publishing.

Today, the Journal is in fourth-generation publishing in which most news and advertising content is computer generated and merged digitally to create full-sized newspaper pages. Lang has also pursued other business interests. He started Masthead International, a press-erecting and machinery-moving company with an electrical contracting arm under the Masthead name; ADSAC bulk-mailing service; Leeco Grounds Management; Research and Polling Inc.; Corporate Security Investigations; Snaproll Aerobatic Company Inc.; and Magnum Systems; and he acquired Starline Printing.

He also founded a real estate company, Journal Center Corp. and developed Journal Center, the trend-setting business and industrial park in which Albuquerque Publishing Co. is the anchor tenant. With Lang’s insistence on top-quality architecture and construction, Journal Center has become one of the prestige business and industrial addresses in Albuquerque.

Journal Center Corp. also developed Las Brisas estate acreage in Corrales.

For relaxation, Lang practices aerobatic discipline in his Russian-built Sukhoi aerobatic aircraft, does tournament-style water-skiing with his children and reluctantly volunteers on the San Joaquin River in California, and drives a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

There’s no mention of the web site, or Journal reporters going to Iraq (Miguel Navrot) or North Korea (Leslie Linthicum).

The Albuquerque Publishing Company is privately held, and Lang is entitled to his privacy. One of his daughters has interned at the paper in various capacities, a good indication of carry-over for the family. The Journal’s recent improvements to its web site and increased applications for electronic devices indicate the newspaper continues to advance in the digital age. Conceivably, that improves its financial viability while simultaneously makes it more attractive to a buyer.

The Washington Post story Wednesday (Aug. 7), in talking about the New York Times, reported:

It is adamantly not for sale; chief executive Arthur Sulzberger Jr., Ochs’s great-grandson, has said so repeatedly and recently. But that hasn’t stopped periodic rumors to the contrary. Among the Times’ alleged paramours: New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I), a new-media billionaire like Bezos.

A sale of The Post was considered unthinkable, too, until Monday. (My link added, and here’s another.)

Is a sale of the Journal unthinkable?

As they say, anything’s possible.

Less likely, however – unthinkable even – is that we’ll see any kind of story about it in the Journal.

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One Comment so far ↓

  • Bill Tiwald

    It’s great to have this blog. The history presented in this story was previously unaccessible to me.

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