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Media News Making Bad News

Is Dean Singleton's Media News Group in financial distress? The media chain that owns 56 daily newspapers is privately held, but some of the latest news strongly suggests that the company is short on cash.

The Rocky Mountain News reported that its crosstown rival Denver Post, the flagship of Singleton papers, had to borrow $13 million from the agency that operates the Joint Operating Agreement (JOA) to meet payroll. Both Denver papers are losing money rapidly, at about $4 million per paper per quarter.

Media News refuted the Rocky's reports in a memo circulated in the Post's newsroom. But the gist of the memo really was to say that the Rocky may not be around for much longer since it was put on the market by its parent E.W. Scripps Co. back in December. If no buyer is found by mid-March, the paper will be shuttered. In that event, the Post will take over the agency, therefore any issue between the agency and Media News will be rendered irrelevant.

Whatever the case may be in Denver, Media News is not doing well. The company is heavily leveraged, having borrowed at least $350 million to purchase the San Jose Mercury News and Contra Costa Times in 2006. Its creditors include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Hearst Corporation, the parent of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Media News' Bay Area entities, which also include the Oakland Tribune, just announced that all employees are required to take an unpaid one-week furlough in the first quarter of 2009 - a practice first introduced by Gannett in early January. Its Los Angeles area papers, which include the Daily News, Long Beach Press-Telegram and Pasadena Star-News, are also adopting the same measures.

And the furloughs may be only the beginning. According to David Rounds of the Bay Area News Group, there may be more to come:

I realize that we are all working hard to overcome this difficult time. I know this action will create a strain on our personal budgets, and unfortunately, I cannot guarantee that a furlough will prevent any further layoffs. However, from what I am hearing across our company ... "a brief period without pay is better than many more layoffs."

Anything But Kristol-Clear

The New York Times parted ways with conservative columnist William Kristol after just a one-year stint. The paper claimed the decision was mutual. Kristol, who is the founder and editor of The Weekly Standard, is not telling.

Bill Kristol

Speculations are running rampant. Most suspected that the Times pushed before Kristol jumped. The primary reason given for the severing of the relationship - undoubtedly leaked by the Times - was that Kristol was sloppy and the Times got tired of running corrections.

Scott Horton of the Daily Beast said his source indicated that the "firing" had nothing to do with Kristol's politics:

The source makes clear that the decision not to renew Kristol's contract is not related to his neoconservative ideology. ... The problems that emerged were more fundamental. Kristol's writing wasn't compelling or even very careful. He either lacked a talent for solid opinion journalism or wasn't putting his heart into it. A give-away came in the form of four corrections the newspaper was forced to run over factual mistakes in the columns, creating an impression that they were rushed out without due diligence or attention to factual claims.

Another, if a lesser, reason was that Kristol was too personally involved in the politics that he was writing about, particularly his tireless campaigning for Sarah Palin, which ultimately had at least some influence in John McCain's selecting the Alaska governor as the VP candidate for the GOP ticket.

If these indeed were the reasons for the Times to oust Kristol, then it clearly has more stringent guidelines for him. If Maureen Dowd were held to the same standards, she'd lost her job quite some time ago. Consider:

Dowd famously strung together three George W. Bush sentences in a May 2003 column, using ellipses to mask the fact that she was fabricating something Bush never said. But more recently, Dowd essentially made up a quote - Jayson Blair-style - from Gen. David Petraeus in a July 2008 column, which the Times had to admit as much in a correction:

In her column last Wednesday, Maureen Dowd wrote that a Democratic lawmaker privately asked Gen. David Petraeus why there weren't more Democrats in the military, and he replied, "There are more than you think." Col. Steven Boylan of the general's public affairs office in Baghdad, which was not contacted for comment, says the quotation "is in error as he never made nor would make such a statement."

And if Kristol was taking up Palin's cause, who was Caroline Kennedy's mouthpiece in her unsuccessful attempt to claim Hillary Clinton's New York senate seat? Here's a hint: When Kennedy "dropped out," a certain NYT columnist went on a wild rant, calling New York Gov. David Paterson, among other things: "namby-pamby," "goofball," "dithering" and "chuckle-headed," all because he "strangled his best choice for the Senate."

Kristol will be taking his work to the Washington Post, which snapped him up in an instant. Meanwhile, the Times is playing coy about whether another conservative columnist will be chosen to replace Kristol. Said Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal: "... stay tuned. We have some interesting plans."

Free Press, the French Way

Well, President Obama, maybe it's time to dig into that TARP money to bail out the newspaper industry.

Short of that, how about some government-subsidized delivery service?

French president Nicolas Sarkozy, always a man with an idea and on the move, has unveiled a grand plan to help the also ailing French newspaper industry:

One of Sarkozy's solutions to help the industry is a pilot program that will give teenagers celebrating their 18th birthday a free, yearlong subscription to any general news daily of their choice. The publisher is to give the newspapers away, while the state pays for the deliveries.

That initiative appeared designed to assuage industry fears that young readers don't share the same appetite for print media that their parents and grandparents have, denting current and future revenues.

Not a bad idea, on the surface. But it'll never fly here in the States for various reasons. The French government is already heavily subsidizing the newspaper business, with an annual boost expecting to reach $90 million this year. It's probably not something that will be matched in the less statist economy of the U.S. (though some think that's about to change). Besides, the way the U.S. papers are losing money, $90 million annually aren't enough to bail out even one paper - such as the San Francisco Chronicle.

But more to the point: The force-feeding kids of ink-stained papers just won't work. Back in the late '90s, in the adolescence of the Internet, I taught a few communications classes at UCLA. I made a habit of polling my students on newspaper readership, and even back then the news was not encouraging. With the student paper The Daily Bruin freely distributed and the Los Angeles Times available at a massive student discount, most of the kids still weren't into the papers. Overall, less than 5 percent of the students read newspapers on a regular basis.

With that in mind, Le Monde and Le Figaro had better not stake their futures on Sarkozy's birthday presents.

Newspapers - Not a Poor Man's Game

For the time being, it looks like the only thing (or people) that can save the newspaper business from its impending doom would be well-heeled billionaires. It matters not what passports they carry. It only matters that they show up with suitcases full of cash.

And they arrive in many different ways - A Mexican bailed out America's leading newspaper by paying down $250 million. He doesn't want to have a say in how the paper's run, as long as he collects the sweet 14% interest. A Russian spent one pound (that's about a buck 40) to buy the last of the London evening papers and immediately he wants to make the paper more liberal. Oh, by the way, he used to work for the KGB.


But hey, finding a sugar daddy to pay the bills beats getting thrown out on the street.

To be sure, appealing to the vanity of the wealthy isn't necessarily a bad business practice. For some, there's still prestige in owning a newspaper, especially one steeped in tradition and/or one with a sterling reputation. There is some parallel to owning a sporting franchise.

For a good while, a sports team - just about anywhere - was a lousy investment but the rich guys willingly paid for the privilege to be part of a distinguished club. They wrote off the losses year after year, taking hard-earned money from their core businesses to subsidize their plaything. Eventually, however, sports franchises became good investments because their values increased exponentially - whether it's an NFL or baseball team or a Premier League or Serie A soccer club.

Is there such a turnaround in the newspapers' future? That's doubtful. The economic model remains senseless. In the Economist, there was this shocking revelation:

The editor of the Los Angeles Times, Russ Stanton, says that its website's revenues now pay for the publication's entire print and online editorial staff. Publishing news electronically is also cheaper than printing and distributing it on paper. There is still huge demand for newspapers' product, the question is how to get readers and advertisers to pay for it.

If what Stanton said is actually true, then it makes little sense for the LA Times to continue publishing its print editions. It's ironic that the paper's parent, the Tribune Co., is trying to emerge out of bankruptcy by selling its most valuable asset: Not the LA Times, not the Chicago Tribune, but the Chicago Cubs baseball team and Wrigley Field, which fetched a cool $900 million.

About two years ago, that's about how much a good U.S. paper was worth. Even in 2007, the Boston Globe was valued at about $550-$600 million. Today, it's barely worth $20 million. Most other papers are worth far less than that, if anything at all.

Maybe the newspaper business really does need these rich guys. Not just for their money. But for some infusion of ideas as well. They must've done something right to make their billions.

Chicago's Paper Trails

Chicago's days as a two-newspaper town are numbered, a condition that became apparent probably as early as the second half of 2008. The Tribune Co. ran out of time selling the Chicago Cubs and finally had to file for bankruptcy protection in December. But the Sun-Times may be the paper in bigger trouble financially, as it's stuck in the netherworld of penny stocks.

Finally, some good news for the Trib. On Thursday, Chicago financier Tom Ricketts was selected the winner of the Cubs bidding war. Ricketts will pay $900 million for the Cubs and historic Wrigley Field - though the transfer must still be approved by Major League Baseball owners. He will have 60-90 days to close the deal.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Ricketts is a pretty solid buyer even in today's economic climate:

However, people involved in the auction say Mr. Ricketts emerged as the frontrunner in part because he appeared to be the bidder most likely to finalize a deal -- an important factor for Tribune, which is in dire need of cash as it grapples with a huge debt load and a downturn in its core newspaper assets, including the Los Angeles Times. Mr. Ricketts' offer included 50 percent of the purchase price in cash, with the rest financed. The other offers included more debt.

If the deal is approved, it should help the Tribune Co. to start working with the bankruptcy court to pay back its creditors. In the original filing, the Cubs sale was left out of the bankruptcy process to smooth the way for the sale. The Cubs package was originally priced at around $1 billion.

While the Tribune may be on the road to recovery, the Sun-Times' future remains as in doubt as ever. The paper's stocks are worth about 8 cents a share. Just last week, a boardroom coup resulted in the change of almost the entire management structure. Currently, the Sun-Times is reported to be burning through $20 million in cash each quarter.

Writing in his blog "Reflections of a Newsosaur," former Sun-Times city editor Alan Mutter has a two-part series detailing the demise of the paper in all its excruciating details over the past quarter century. According to Mutter, this is how it all began:

I can tell you exactly when the spell of bad luck began, because I was there.

The year was 1984 and I stepped into the elevator near the newsroom for the short, four-story ride to the first floor. The only other person in the elevator was the then-publisher of the paper, Marshall Field V, who I, the mere city editor, barely knew.

"Don't worry," volunteered Marshall, who never had spoken to me in his life. "I would never sell the paper to Rupert Murdoch."

That's when I realized the paper was about to be sold to Rupert Murdoch. Within days, I proved to be right.

And former Sun-Times sports columnist Jay Mariotti, in an exclusive interview with RealClearSports, couldn't wait to perform the last rites:

It's my life, not theirs. I wrote 5,000 columns for them in 17 years. I wrote on holidays, spent massive amounts of time away from home. Roger Ebert, whom I've met once, can kiss my ass. No one gave more blood to that place than I did, and if I decide it's going to die an imminent death, it's my call. And based on events of the last four months, I couldn't have been more accurate. The place is dead.

New York Times Gets Slim - Fast

It didn't take long for the New York Times to strike a deal with Carlos Slim. While the nation was riveted by Barack Obama's inauguration, the New York Times Co. quietly got a $250 million cash infusion from the Mexican telecommunications billionaire.

The deal allows Slim to own about 17% of the company, up from the 6.4% after he paid $127 million in September. But Slim isn't simply a sugar daddy - he's a loan shark, too. While he did not acquire any voting rights on the Times Co. board, he is getting a hefty 14% interest on his investment, with 11% in cash and 3% in additional bonds.

What this deal does is alleviate the Times Co.'s most pressing financial concerns. More than $1 billion in debt, the Times also faces a May deadline on a $400 million credit line. The cash infusion from Slim should allow the company to let the credit line expire without having to replace it. This also gives the Times more time to raise more cash by divesting its interest in the New England Sports Ventures, as well as getting a loan using its Eighth Avenue building as collateral.

The Times was desperate, though. Even spokeswoman Catherine Mathis admits that the interest rate the company agreed to pay is, well, not something she's familiar with:

"I honestly don't know the answer. If you recall, in the early '80s, interest rates soared. This is an appropriate rate given the challenging market conditions."

The market wondered about the deal, too, as investors sent the Times stocks sharply down, dropping 50 cents, or nearly 8%, to $5.91 on the New York Stock Exchange.

Perhaps anticipating the deal and the pending "Slim" times ahead, the Times already started squeezing its staff on expenses. No more $100 bottle wine to go with the lobster dinner, while eating out with a fellow Times staffer. (Yeah, that is now officially frowned upon.)

The New York Observer got its hands on the lengthy memo - no doubt leaked by a disgruntled Times staffer.

Next To Go ... News Magazines

While the news isn't good from the newspaper business, there is no time for schadenfreude from the news magazines.

Readership for the print editions of news weeklies have been in decline for some time. And last year, US News & World Report, the perpetual No. 3 news weekly, first cut back to publish only bi-weekly, then finally became mostly a web-only presence, publishing only monthly with consumer-guide type of issues.

It looks like Newsweek is headed in that direction, leaving Time as the sole U.S.-based weekly news magazine.

These (former) news weeklies will have to transform themselves, fast, as ad revenues continue to decline. According to the Wall Street Journal, US News lost a whopping 32% percent of ad pages in 2008. Time and Newsweek didn't fare much better, each dropping by about 19%.

Source: Wall Street Journal

The problem is: How.

For a while, Time and Newsweek were busy transforming themselves into People Lite, featuring lots of fluff and celebrity "news." That didn't work, because people who actually want to read that kind of stuff will always choose the real deal - People, or Entertainment Weekly.

So they turned serious, allowing themselves to be engulfed by the election and then the financial crisis. That doesn't appear to be working, either. People who are really interested and engaged in domestic politics and foreign affairs typically already have their go-to sources for that kind of analyses. Time and Newsweek ain't it.

And there's the issue of neutrality. Both magazines still pretend to be straddling the middle, but in truth they're both left-leaning. If they were staking a ground in the middle, they might've been able to mine a new audience. In reality, they've been abandoned en masse by the right-center or right-leaning intellectuals. (These people do actually exist.)

Both magazines no doubt cast a glance at The Economist with envy. In fact, Newsweek is sort of trying to reinvent itself in the image of The Economist. Jon Meacham of Newsweek denies this - bristling at the credibility of The Economist with this brilliant line: I've got people out there risking their lives right now. The Economist is not, by the way ..."

But his confusion should come as no surprise. Meacham is the same guy who declared to Washington Post's Howard Kurtz: "I'm not ideologically driven by any means" - yet at the same time, dared anyone who disagreed with Newsweek's provocative gay marriage piece to challenge it:

Religious conservatives will say that the liberal media are once again seeking to impose their values (or their "agenda," a favorite term to describe the views of those who disagree with you) on a God-fearing nation. Let the letters and e-mails come. History and demographics are on the side of those who favor inclusion over exclusion. ... One era's accepted reality often becomes the next era's clear wrong. So it was with segregation, and so it will be, I suspect, with the sacrament of marriage.

So much for "not ideologically driven" ... as the readers are leaving in droves.

New York Times' 'Slim' Prospects

With mounting debt and negative cash flow, the New York Times Co. has been seeking a number of options to alleviate its $1 billion-plus debt. The Times has sought to mortgage its Eighth Avenue building, sell its interest in the New England Sports Ventures, and now, get Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim to buy up more of the company.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the company will be holding a special board meeting this week to discuss the potential of having Slim - and/or other investors - inject some needed cash into the financially struggling company. Slim already owns 6.4% stake in the company after paying $127 million in September 2008.

Carlos Slim

A potential hangup for Slim, or any investor, in buying up more of the Times is the dual-class structure the company is set up for its shareholders. Despite owning only about 10% of the total outstanding shares, the Ochs-Sulzberger families control more than 90% of the privately-held Class B stocks and with it, nine of the 13 seats on the board. In 2007, Morgan Stanley fund manager Hassan Elmasry staged an unsuccessful coup to change the structure, to no avail.

That the board is controlled by the Ochs-Sulzberger families should concern potential investors. The company's fortunes and the paper's prestige have been in perpetual decline since Arthur Ochs "Pinch" Sulzberger took over as publisher of the Times in 1992 and chairman of the board in 1997. His management ineptitude has been well-chronicled. But his stewardship of the paper might have done even more to damage the brand.

Sulzberger's appointment of Howell Raines as executive editor in 2001 proved to be an unmitigated disaster. Raines aggressively attacked Augusta National Golf Club for its membership policies, to the point of silencing his own writers who expressed contrary opinions. Sulzberger initially backed Raines even in the midst of the Jayson Blair scandal before finally sacking him in May 2003 when the New York Times newsroom was on the verge of a staff mutiny.

Raines' departure did little to halt the Times' drift and erosion of its reputation. Just in the most recent election cycle, the Times' two most noteworthy contributions were the thinly-sourced hit piece on Republican candidate John McCain and later its refusal to print his op-ed piece after publishing one from his opponent Barack Obama.

The Times' editorial direction under Sulzberger, not to mention management of the company, will be a source of contention for any potential suitor interested in reviving the once-great national paper of record. Without Sulzberger's relinquishing at least some control, the Times' prospects of a turnaround may be slim indeed.

The Dominos Are Falling Fast

In "End Times" The Atlantic's Michael Hirschorn fancifully speculated the demise of the New York Times. While he made a few salient arguments, the fact remains that it's preposterous to think the Times would fold in 2009.

Not so, however, for a number of U.S. newspapers. At least a dozen major metro dailies are certain to close down this coming year, the question is only who'll be first.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer is on life-support. With no buyer in sight, the paper could close as soon as March. Ditto for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver. You can add the Tucson Citizen to the list now as its parent company Gannett just announced that if no buyer is found, the paper will close on March 21.

Also Friday, the Minneapolis Star Tribune filed for bankruptcy, becoming the second newspaper publisher in as many months to do so, following the filing by the Tribune Co., owner of the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times. But even with the Chapter 11 filing, the Star-Tribune might outlast its Twin Cities rival, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, who is apparently in worse financial straits.

Writing in his blog 24/7 Wall St., Douglas McIntyre listed five newspapers most likely to fold: The Miami Herald, Star-Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, New York Daily News and New York Observer. Yes, the newspaper landscape is changing so fast that the P-I and Rocky Mountain News didn't even make the list.

Next to go?

The Herald is at the top of McIntyre's list because of the combination of the failing health of its parent company McClatchy and the gloomy real estate market in South Florida:

The Miami Herald is already for sale. It is owned by McClatchy, a company which simply may not make it. McClatchy had operating income of $40 million last quarter, but its debt service was $34 million. In addition, McClatchy revenue dropped 16% for the quarter. Based on the figures the company has posted over the last several months, the top line is dropping more rapidly, especially at its Florida and California properties. Classified sales are down over 30% in these regions. For the six months ending last September, daily circulation at the Miami paper was down 11.8% to 240.000. A large daily newspaper operation that covers a huge metro area is simply too expensive to run with this enormous audience loss. The Herald won't be sold. There is too much risk here for a buyer. The most likely fate of the paper is that it will be merged with the Ft. Lauderdale paper or some other media in south Florida.

McClatchy, the nation's third-largest newspaper chain, made a questionable decision to purchase Knight Ridder in June 2006, one that could prove fatal. Its stock, valued at around $40 a share at the time of the acquisition, was at 81 cents when the markets closed on Friday. With 32 dailies, including the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Kansas City Star and Sacramento Bee in its fold, a McClatchy collapse may bring a catastrophic meltdown to an industry already on thin ice.

Outsourcing the News

The wheels continue to turn in the great makeover of newspapers. Outsourcing may be the newest fad.

Coming on the heels of content- and beat-sharing deals in Maryland and the Metroplex, the Tribune Co. is contemplating a proposal that would allow it to shut down expensive foreign bureaus. Already under bankruptcy protection, the Tribune Co. seeks to cut expenses by buying the Washington Post's international coverage so it wouldn't have to maintain its own overseas staffs for the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune.

But the New York Daily News has an even more revolutionary idea. The nation's fifth-largest daily paper has signed a deal with GlobalPost, a Boston-based start-up, for its international news content. This is essentially outsourcing - GlobalPost is a warehouse where it hires an army of stringers worldwide on a part-time basis. More syndication deals like this will be needed to ensure its survival.

Is this a good idea? A quick glance at some of the GlobalPost articles suggests that its reporting is adequate. For most newspapers that rely on wire services for its foreign news coverage, this would even be an upgrade. But I think it's doubtful that most papers would be willing to pay the very reasonable fee of $50,000 or less to pick up GlobalPost if it never had overseas correspondents to start with.

Newspapers, though, will continue to explore ways to save money out of necessity - and outsourcing is an option. Last June, the Orange County Register and Miami Herald began outsourcing some of its copy editing to MindWorks Global Media Services, an India-based company. Since MindWorks claims that it saves the newspapers 35% to 40%, there surely will be more outsourcing to come.

MindWorks plans to expand its staff from its current total of 100 to 1,500 by 2013. If you're fresh out of J-school, you might want to consider relocating to New Delhi or Bangalore.

A Pay-Per-View Future?

The raging debate in the media industry these days is centered on whether media entities - specifically newspapers - should charge for their content. And if their readers are willing to pay for it.

Pay-for-content certainly isn't a new idea. The New York Times launched "Times Select" in 2005, putting some of its premium content behind a pay wall and charged $49.95 annually for it. It lasted just two years before the Times abandoned it in September 2007. The Wall Street Journal and Financial Times maintain pay walls, but no other major U.S. or U.K. publications do so at this time.

Of course, with the current economic climate and plunging ad revenues, the pay-for-content concept is enjoying a rebirth - at least it's back in the conversation. Writing in the Times, David Carr pondered the possibility of an iTunes-like setup for newspapers to deliver the news, only to paying subscribers. It needs to go that way because the current model of online advertising just isn't going to pay the bills:

As a report by Craig Moffett of Bernstein Research stated last year, "The notion that the enormous cost of real news-gathering might be supported by the ad load of display advertising down the side of the page, or by the revenue share from having a Google search box in the corner of the page, or even by a 15-second teaser from Geico prior to a news clip, is idiotic on its face."

Slate's Jack Shafer responded to Carr's challenge by suggesting a Kindle-like device for the purpose of receiving the news - with subscribers paying a fee for the privilege. But Shafer admits that this model potentially would only work for the big dogs - the Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, maybe USA Today and Los Angeles Times.

This is where the future of newspapers - at least in the U.S. - may be reaching a fork in the road. There will be national papers that provide national and international news coverage, do investigative reporting and publish commentaries from the top thinkers and movers. Other papers would have to become aggressively local, covering cities, towns and rural areas - and they could charge for this content, too, since they will be found nowhere else.

The success of any pay-per-view model, however, will hinge on the public's willingness to fork over the dough for stuff it's taken for granted for some time now. At the moment, less than 10% of the public is willing to pay $30 a year for currently ad-driven free sites. Mike Vorhaus of Advertising Age writes that "Consumers might 'hate ads,' but not enough to pay even as little as a few cents a day to avoid them."

Source: Advertising Age

So the question remains: Will newspapers last long enough to finally get their readers to pay up for reading the news online?

Gannett Employees Forced with Furloughs

In the troubled U.S. newspaper landscape, Gannett became the latest to announce a drastic plan in an effort to cut cost. The nation's largest newspaper chain and parent of USA Today, Detroit Free Press and Arizona Republic announced that employees will be forced to take unpaid one-week furloughs in the first quarter of 2009.

Gannett CEO Craig Dubow said in his memo, distributed to all Gannett newspaper employees by email, that he and all executives will be taking the unpaid leaves as well:

We are doing this to preserve our operations and continue to deliver for our customers while confronting the issues raised by some of the most difficult economic conditions we have ever experienced.

After much consideration, we decided a furlough program would be the fairest and least intrusive way to meet these fiscal challenges in the first quarter, which is traditionally the lightest time of the year. We sincerely hope this minimizes the need for any layoffs going forward.

Gannett isn't immune to the economic woes that are besieging all newspapers in the U.S. It has seen its stocks sank from $37.50 in January 2008 to about $7.50.

One Gannett paper that is exempt from the furlough plan is the Detroit Free Press, which announced in December that it's ceasing deliveries four days a week in a new program designed to cut printing and delivery costs. The Watchdog has obtained the memo that was just sent to Free Press employees:

Most of you have probably seen or are aware of the announcement today from Craig Dubow that Gannett is implementing a furlough program whereby employees will be required to take unpaid leave for one week during the first quarter.

Because of the intense attention and focus required to implement our strategic plan and meet our March 30 deadline, Detroit will not be included in the furlough program at this time. We very much appreciate Gannett's support as we move forward with our transformation model.

David L. Hunke
Publisher, Detroit Free Press
CEO, Detroit Media Partnership

The Lone Paper State

Well, it looks like Mark Cuban was just slightly ahead of his time.

Writing in his "Blog Maverick," the owner of the Dallas Mavericks NBA franchise mused that in order for money-losing newspapers to save cost and stay relevant, they ought to band together - with help from the leagues - in covering sports teams:

My suggestion ... is to create a "beatwriter co-operative." ... The writers would cover multiple teams and multiple sports. They will report to the newspapers where the articles will be placed, who will have complete editorial control. In exchange, the newspapers will provide a minimum of a full page on a daily basis in season, and some lesser amount out of season. ... And most importantly, these articles will be exclusive to print subscribers. They can do all the ad supported short summaries online and minute by minute blog posts and tweets they would like. To make this work, print editions and subscriber only online sites have to become the de facto destinations for in depth and unique coverage. They have to become the local version of ESPN.com's for pay "ESPN Insider."


Well, not even three weeks since this blog post appeared, the "beat writer co-operative" is being formed in Cuban's very own Metroplex market. The Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram announced that they will be combining sports coverage for all local pro and college teams, except the Dallas Cowboys.

Beginning Feb. 1, the Morning News will cover Cuban's Mavericks and the NHL Dallas Stars. The Star-Telegram will cover the Arlington-based Texas Rangers baseball team. This means the elimination of three pro beat writers, not to mention a number of others who cover auto racing, golf and college sports.

Star-Telegram Executive Editor Jim Witt and Morning News Editor Bob Mong said the move was being made in order to allow both papers to reduce expenses and eliminate duplicate stories while maintaining high-quality coverage of topics readers have come to expect.

So what once was considered journalistic competition is now merely viewed as "duplicate stories"? Welcome to 2009, the brave new world of newspaper journalism.

To be sure, the Metroplex Merger is not even the first of its kind. The Washington Post and Baltimore Sun already started doing that on Jan. 1, on a far bigger scale involving many beats outside of sports. And there will be more to come.

Quickly spinning my head from coast-to-coast, I've come up with a not-so-short list of cooperatives soon to hit a market near you:

* Boston: Globe and Herald - The New York Times Co., owner of the Globe, really needs to save money and may need to dump the Globe altogether.
* Philadelphia: Inquirer and Daily News - They already share the same web site.
* Chicago: Tribune and Sun-Times - Trib filed for bankruptcy and Sun-Times is a penny stock.
* Detroit: Free Press and News - The papers will be drastically cutting back their print editions.
* Twin Cities: Minneapolis Star Tribune and St. Paul Pioneer Press - Star Trib just ended contract talks with the unions; bankruptcy may be next.
*San Francisco Bay Area: MediaNews already merged beats from Oakland, San Jose and Contra Costa. The Chronicle may soon join in.
* Los Angeles: Trib-owned LA Times may soon either abandon Orange County altogether, or enter into a forced marriage with the Register to cover the O.C.
* Seattle: Actually, with the Post-Intelligencer on the verge of being shut down, the Times might be the only game in town soon.

Things sure look bleak for the newspaper business in 2009 ... and we're not even two weeks into it yet.

New York Times vs. The Atlantic

It's not every day that the New York Times is fighting someone, it just seems that way. A couple of weeks ago, it's the White House. Now, it's The Atlantic.

Writing in the January issue of The Atlantic, Michael Hirschorn pondered in "End Times" the possibility of the New York Times disappearing as a print entity - maybe as soon as May. With the Times $1 billion in debt and a $400 million credit line due to expire, it seemed fair speculation:

Regardless of what happens over the next few months, The Times is destined for significant and traumatic change. At some point soon--sooner than most of us think--the print edition, and with it The Times as we know it, will no longer exist. And it will likely have plenty of company. In December, the Fitch Ratings service, which monitors the health of media companies, predicted a widespread newspaper die-off: "Fitch believes more newspapers and news­paper groups will default, be shut down and be liquidated in 2009 and several cities could go without a daily print newspaper by 2010."

Clearly touching a nerve, the Times hit back with a letter to The Atlantic, which was distributed to a few industry insiders, including Poynter and Editor & Publisher. Signed by Catherine Mathis, Senior Vice President of Corporate Communications, the letter did not dispute the mounting amount of debt the Times is under, but claimed everything is under control:

While credit markets remain tight, we have been talking with lenders and, based on our conversations with them, we expect to get the financing to meet our obligations when they come due. And please remember, we continue to generate good cash flow from our operations.

The letter went on to blast what it characterized as "uninformed speculation" in The Atlantic piece - though its own assertions seemed just as much speculation. Saying that "we talked to someone and they said they're going to loan us the money in time for us to pay you back" resembles what a desperate gambler would claim while in the presence of a creditor with a crowbar in his hands.

For the time being, the Times continues to insist that it isn't worried about the expiring credit line in May. New York Times Co. CFO James Follo said in December that the Times has two $400 million revolving credit lines and has drawn about $400 million between them. In theory, since the second credit line doesn't expire until June 2011, it should be able to buy some time to maneuver, refinance some of the debt without having to replace the expiring credit line.

Whether Hirschorn was being an alarmist remains to be seen. While he never suggested that the New York Times itself would go out of business anytime soon, there is this nagging sense that the folks at Eighth Avenue are feeling a bit under siege.

Top International News Sites

Launched in August 2008, coinciding with the Beijing Olympics, RealClearWorld is quickly becoming one of the must-stops for international news junkies as well as foreign policy analysts looking for commentaries from around the world.

OK, so this is a bit of a self-promotion, but we do take our jobs very seriously at RealClearWorld, and this week, we felt it's time to let our readers in on some of our little secrets.

Featured In this week's RealClearWorld is the top five list of our favorite international news sites. While we rely a good deal of our daily aggregation on American publications such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor and Washington Post, we scour sites from more than two dozen countries for opinion and analysis piece with varying political biases.

Our top five include: Der Spiegel, World Politics Review, China Post, Japan Times and Al Jazeera. There are a few others that also deserve mention, such as The Australian, Asia Times, Lebanon's Daily Star, Pakistan's Daily Times and Canada's Globe and Mail.

Here's a detailed look at our top five and why we like them.

Seattle P-I on the Chopping Block

The next major metro U.S. daily newspaper to disappear may be the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.


The Hearst Corporation has put the Seattle P-I on the market, giving itself 60 days to find a buyer. Short of that, the company plans to, at the minimum, shut down the print edition. Given today's economic climate, there's a possibility that the Seattle P-I may no longer exist in any form by the end of March.

The P-I's staff is stunned by the news as it was delivered by Hearst president Steve Swartz:

Our journalists continue to do a spectacular job of serving the people of Seattle, which has been our great privilege for the past 88 years. But our losses have reached an unacceptable level, so with great regret we are seeking a new owner for the P-I.

These are historically difficult times for our country and our industry, and our problems will likely worsen over the months ahead. Many companies in our industry find themselves saddled with far too much debt, and a painful restructuring process has just begun, with all the negative publicity that comes with that.

Hearst, which is also mulling options to mitigate its losses at its flagship San Francisco Chronicle, has lost money at the P-I every year since 2000, including $14 million in 2008. According to Swartz, the company also has no interest in buying the rival Seattle Times.

Founded as the Seattle Gazette in 1863, the Post-Intelligencer has been owned by Hearst since 1921. It entered into a joint operating agreement (JOA) with the Blethens-family owned Times in 1983. But since the Times abandoned the AM/PM arrangement and went head-to-head with the P-I in the morning in 2000, the more liberal P-I has seen a precipitous drop in readership. Currently, the Times' circulation is 198,000 while the P-I's is at 117,000.

Click here for Hearst's memo to the P-I employees.

Playing Monopoly in San Francisco

There was a time when the San Francisco Bay Area was the second-best newspaper market in America, behind only New York City. Major metro and suburban dailies, owned by different entities, were all competing in the same high-energy newsmaking environment.

A decade later, the Bay Area is on the verge of becoming a one-newspaper region.

The Hearst Corporation (full disclosure: my former employer) owns the biggest paper - the San Francisco Chronicle - but its ever-dwindling circulation is dwarfed by the Dean Singleton-owned MediaNews Group papers surrounding it: San Jose Mercury News to the south, Contra Costa Times and Oakland Tribune to the east and Marin Independent Journal to the north (the only thing west is the Honolulu Advertiser). The only other paper in the region not owned by MediaNews is New York Times Co.'s Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

And it looks like Hearst is ready to throw in the towel - or at the very least, get into bed with Singleton.

Alan Mutter, a well-connected insider writing on his blog "Reflections of a Newsosaur," revealed that Hearst actually already has a significant stake in the MediaNews operations in Northern California, inasmuch that it helped secure the latter's purchases of Contra Costa Times and Mercury News. As a privately held company, Hearst's books aren't open to the public. But it's believed that it has pumped more than $1 billion into the money-losing Chronicle in this decade.

Against this backdrop, Mutter speculates on what might happen:

With the outlook for the newspaper business now worse than ever, a more radical solution than nipping and tucking the Chronicle to profitability would seem to be in order. And it probably is this:

Folding the Chronicle into the network of MediaNews Group papers that completely surround it - a network, significantly, that Hearst itself played a major role in building.

In that event, the Chronicle's now-independent news, ad sales, production, distribution and administrative staffs would be merged into a single entity managed by MediaNews. Deep staff cuts likely would result in every department, not the least of which would be the already decimated newsroom.

In other words, one newspaper operation in the entire Bay Area, with different banners depending on where they're distributed.

When Hearst bought the Chronicle and folded the Examiner into it in 1999, there were nearly 600 newsroom employees. With annual and now semi-annual buyouts since then, that number has dwindled down to 260. Reliable sources inside that newsroom indicate that the staff size might be close to just 200 by the end of the year.

That is if the aforementioned "merger" doesn't take place.

Back in the '90s, the Department of Justice, with assistance from then-mayors Frank Jordan and Willie Brown, did its part to keep San Francisco from becoming a one-newspaper town. But in today's economic climate, particularly one facing the woebegone newspaper industry, it's doubtful that the DoJ can - or even wishes to - do much of anything.

Bristol Press Staves Off Elimination

Barely 10 days before its final editions were supposed to be printed, the Bristol (Conn.) Press will survive for now as Michael Schroeder, owner of Central Connecticut Communications, has agreed to buy the daily along with The Herald of New Britain and three weeklies.

These publications, owned by the Journal Register Company, had been targeted for shut down on Jan. 16. Hard hit by the economic crisis and the general decline in the newspaper industry, Journal Register stocks lost 99.5 percent of their value in 2008 and are now worth about half a penny per share.

Since the beginning of December, 10 papers have either shut down or reduced their editions, with four more announcing similar measures for the first quarter of 2009. A total of two papers went down in 2007 and 10 downsized or went away in the first 11 months of 2008.

Steve Yelvington's "The Shutdown List" keeps track of the carnage.

Is Demise of Newspapers Preordained?

In an amazingly short amount of time, the discussion on the fall of the newspapers has moved away from possibility to inevitability. The consensus now seems to be that the actual print editions might vanish within the next decade, if not sooner.

Obituaries of the newspaper business are being widely written. While some contended that the slow reaction to the Internet challenge is leading to the papers' demise, the more fascinating analyses are suggesting that the doom was inevitable - no matter what the papers did.

Ezra Klein, writing in The American Prospect, simply says that "There's Nothing Anyone Can Do About It":

Most of the commentary on dying newspapers has been about making their news product better. But the salable product of newspapers was not news. It was local advertising and classifieds. Classifieds are now free and online advertising is a weak revenue stream. Meanwhile, the internet gives individuals have access to more news, not less.

Writing for Slate, Jack Shafer makes the argument that newspapers were actually innovators who jumped on the Internet before anyone realized its power and reach. Yet despite being early adopters, newspapers still failed:

Newspapers deserve bragging rights for having homesteaded the Web long before most government agencies and major corporations knew what a URL was. Given the industry's early tenancy, deep pockets, and history of paranoid experimentation with new communication forms, one would expect to find plenty in the way of innovations and spinoffs.

But that's not the case, and I think I know why: From the beginning, newspapers sought to invent the Web in their own image by repurposing the copy, values, and temperament found in their ink-and-paper editions. Despite being early arrivals, despite having spent millions on manpower and hardware, despite all the animations, links, videos, databases, and other software tricks found on their sites, every newspaper Web site is instantly identifiable as a newspaper Web site. By succeeding, they failed to invent the Web.

Shafer's conclusion is rather illuminating. Newspaper operators saw the opportunity to use the web as a potent weapon but failed to appreciate the extent of its agility. While they stubbornly held onto a soon-to-be obsolete business model, their customers already moved on.

Even now, most of the papers - including people who work in the newsroom and in corporate headquarters - are still clinging to the hopes that somehow the traditional paper will survive beyond the immediate future. But luckily for them, and with rich irony, the financial crisis is spurring the papers to action much earlier than if they were left to their own devices.

At the end, this abrupt kick in the derriere just might end up "saving" the newspaper business, as they belatedly dump the paper part of it.

ESPN Fumbles Redesign

When you have the most-trafficked sports site in the world and one of most popular sites, period, what would you do with it?

You fix something that ain't broke, of course.

ESPN.com unveiled its newly redesigned web site on Monday and surprise! ... everyone immediately hates it:

"The only thing worse than the Jets collapse is this new website."

"Activities I can complete while waiting for a page to load:

1. take a nap
2. have a three course meal
3. watch two and a half men"

"Absolutely terrible. First off, it doesn't work on my work computer. Second, there is so much stuff going on at the same time, it's dizzying. There should be a classic mode for those of us who want a simple ESPN w/o all the unnecessary extras. And I need it to function at work. This is the New Coke of internet sites. SO very bad."

Let me say I LOVE the new site. But there are a few things that could make it better...
1. More video-Why don't you merge with Youtube?
2. Not enough F-150 ads-LOVE the F-150
3. Not complicated enough-I like my websites to make me think I'm trying to figure out the space time continuum."

"OK.. who let the high school multimedia intern start making decisions in Bristol? "

These are but some of the hundreds complaints trickling in since the new site was launched. And these folks are the intrepid ones, for it's not really all that easy to even find the link to register complaints. As a public service, click here to write your own comments.

The three main problems with the redesign are 1) It's way too busy and it makes it difficult to find anything - plus some of the best features of the old site, such as drop-down menus for different sports, were eliminated. 2) As many readers pointed out, it takes a long time to load and sometimes it crashes the browser. Many users obviously look at the site at work and they don't have all day to wait for a simple page to come up. 3) The new design overwhelms with videos (which contributes to No. 2). A lot of people, surprisingly, still like to read.

The Watchdog fired off a couple of quick questions to ESPN and has yet to hear back. In the meantime, for you nostalgic sorts, here's what this fabulous site used to look like:

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Deadlines - An Anachronism?

It took Jay Mariotti nearly five months to land on his feet. After abruptly quitting the Chicago Sun-Times and declaring that newspapers are "dead," Mariotti finally resurfaced on Monday, beginning his new gig for AOL Fanhouse.

Mariotti's departure from the Sun-Times was rather acrimonious, with his former colleagues taking various parting shots - including Roger Ebert, who advised him: " ... On your way out, don't let the door bang you on the ass."

In his first column for AOL, Mariotti attempted to have the last word. But what particularly struck me in his semi-rant was his utter disdain for the concept of newspaper deadlines:

A week into the Olympics, I was inside The Water Cube That Phelps Built when a voice-mail popped in. It was from the sports editor of the ailing Chicago Sun-Times, asking me to accommodate the newspaper's Paleozoic-era deadlines by doing something the readers wouldn't appreciate. He wanted me to write one column that had Michael Phelps winning that day's race and another column that had him losing. Both would be filed long before the event, which, in some quarters, would be considered an editorial directive to cook up fiction.

I would insert blanks for the finishing times, which a copy editor would fill in, and the bulk would be a lot of jibber-jabber that worked regardless of the result. The editors would decide which column ran based on the outcome. In other words, processed lunch meat for your 50 cents -- and it wasn't the first time. I usually just dealt with these hideous requests. This time, I balked.

Any newspaper writer - particularly those who worked in sports at large metro dailies - can appreciate this. And this indeed has always been a problem: Sacrificing quality for expediency.

When I worked in San Francisco, we had insane deadlines, particularly on Saturdays, with the Sunday paper being distributed throughout Northern California. The first deadline usually came at 7 p.m. for the "Weed Edition" - aptly named for Weed, Calif., one of the places this edition would be printed for.

It wouldn't be unusual for a reporter or a columnist to re-write the same story two or three times, in order to satisfy different deadlines. And sometimes that was done at the expense of the quality of your work, taking away valuable time that could've been spent on the field or in the locker room.

In the Internet age, the deadline concept must be reconsidered if not obliterated. The readers in places like Weed will no longer be satisfied by these plugger stories - they'll just go online instead to find the most complete account of the events. People who live in city centers won't want to spend money to get a paper that has incomplete information just because an event the night before took place on the West Coast, or in another part of the world.

Mariotti is right about this - it's rather liberating:

For the first time I won't have to worry about a third-quarter plugger column or something as inane. I can watch the whole game, a four-hour game, go downstairs [from the press box] and come back up, spend two hours writing and have it appear on a post at 3 in the morning, which is four hours before the newspaper comes. It's the future.

And it's already here.

All the Ads That Are Fit to Print

Look at today's New York Times - the paper itself - and see if you find something unusual.


Yes, on the bottom of the front page, six columns across, is an ad, by CBS.

For the first time, the Times is selling front page space for display ads. The paper had occasionally run a few classified ads on the front page and display ads on the front pages of different sections - but never on A-1.

Chalk it up as yet another sign of the times.

This is not meant to pick on the NYT - far from it. Other leading papers - the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Los Angeles Times - have been doing this for some time. The combination of dwindling circulation and a bad economy that's depressing ad revenues is forcing all media entities to think of new ways to scrape for cash.

The magazine industry is also hurting, with considerably fewer advertising placements for its January issues. And the decline is universal, as magazines as diverse as Wired, Vogue, Boating and Boys' Life are all among the 10 worst-hit monthlies.

Requiem or Clarion Call?

In the 300-year history of American newspapers, 2008 proved to be the most trying and difficult for the once vaunted institution. It's all but a certainty that 2009 won't be a cakewalk, either.

Gloom and doom is spreading in all quarters as newspaper journalists lament the state of affairs. Kathleen Parker, writing in the Washington Post, sees the handwriting on the wall. Yet, she's not thrilled with what seems to be schadenfreude:

But most painful -- perhaps odd is a better word -- has been the celebration in some quarters.

Yes, we know: Journalists are held in low esteem, below lawyers and politicians. Some deserve it; most do not. In other oddities, we seem to reserve special hatred for the best papers -- the ones that do the expensive, labor-intensive reporting that keeps government in check and exposes corruption, sometimes even among their own kind.

Are papers sometimes wrong? Do some reporters embarrass the rest? Is bias a problem? Yes, yes and yes, of course. Journalists are not saints, but they do perform a valuable service for which the rewards are few. If you want friends or money, my first editor told me, get another line of work.

What, meanwhile, would twitterers and bloggers tweet and blog about if news organizations no longer provided them the meat on which most chew?

To be sure, this is not one of the places that delights in the unraveling of the newspaper business. Seeing dozens of friends lose their jobs over the last 12 months does not make my heart sing. There is no joy in watching an ol' buddy die a slow death.

But over the last couple of weeks, I've become more optimistic. Journalists should be by nature inquisitive and resilient. And many of them have stopped the wailing and started thinking ... ahead.

Writing on his blog (yes, many former newspapermen have now flooded the ranks of the pajamahadeen), Jason Kintzler offered up some ideas to help newspapers reinvent themselves. He's but one of the many, but his sentiments are right on:

So, to all of you doom-and-gloomers satisfied with watching the downward spiral continue, I suggest you start looking for a new profession. For those journalists embracing this change, my hat's off to you. The future of news may not be entirely made of paper, but good content and reliable, ethical journalism will still have its place in the world.

The newspapers of tomorrow won't be published by the newspapers of today unless they embrace and engage a new model of survival. Are you contributing to the change, or settling in for slow demise?

This is what newspapers need - a new attitude, not the tired ol' diatribes bemoaning everything from the Internet to bloggers and twitterers. Yes, change is hard and adapting to a new way of life is difficult for any professional. But the only way to save the industry from the apocalypse, as James Poinewozik of Time put it eloquently, is to embrace change:

The media business needs to see that the shovel it got whacked with--the change in the way people communicate and the spreading of that power--is not necessarily a weapon or a means to make our graves. It's just a tool. Time to start digging.

Newspaper Stocks Taking a Beating

Without question, 2008 was a terrible year for stocks. The Dow was down by 35% and the S&P 500 was off by about 40%. Yet, when it comes to getting hammered in the stock market, there's no business like the newspaper business.

A number of newspaper publishers have seen their stock value decline by 90% or more in 2008, having been or are on the verge of being delisted by the NYSE. Gatehouse Media, Journal Register and Sun-Times Media Group all have become penny stocks and been kicked off the big board.

The stocks for Gatehouse, which publishes nearly 100 mostly small-town dailies, are down 99.5%. Journal Register, parent company of 22 mostly suburban dailies, had a similar meltdown. Sun-Times, owner of the eponymous Chicago paper, is trading at about 5 cents a share.

Bigger chains are not faring much better. Lee Enterprises, with St. Louis Post-Dispatch its flagship, is trading at 40 cents a share. Media General, publisher of the Tampa Tribune, is at around $2.50. Gannett, the nation's largest newspaper publisher and parent of USA Today and Detroit Free Press, is at $8.50, down from around $37 in January 2008.

The New York Times Co., despite all the bad news and bad press, actually has held up better than most. The NYT is trading at about $7.60, down from the 2008 high of $21. The NYT plans to mortgage its Manhattan building and is actively trying to sell its 17.5% stake in the New England Sports Ventures.

According to a source, the NYT is asking around $350 million for its share in the Boston Red Sox, Fenway Park and NESN television network - though the actual worth of the stake is probably closer to $150-200 million. The company turned down an opportunity to unload the Boston Globe two years ago when it was valued at around $550-600 million. Today, the Globe is worth about $20 million.

The NYT has to sell something - anything - quickly. It is reportedly $1 billion in debt, with a $400 million credit line due to expire in May 2009. It might also want to think about selling about.com, which has been valued at around $600 million.

Fox News No. 1 - Seven Years Running

On Oct. 7, Fox News celebrated its 12th anniversary. At the end of the year, it claimed its seven consecutive cable news crown.

Aided by the historic presidential election, Fox News had a record year in terms of viewership - as did its rivals CNN and MSNBC. Fox News finished the year with an average of 2.1 million prime-time viewers, up 40% from 2007. CNN was second at 1.3 million and MSNBC third at 920,000.

The three networks continue to diverge, politically. Fox News further solidified its standing on the right after the departure of Alan Colmes and the addition of Glenn Beck. MSNBC kept drifting left, adding Rachel Maddow to its lineup. CNN/US President Jon Klein, meanwhile, said his network is going nowhere:

Our competition clearly entrenched themselves on the partisan flank, left and right, and that left the vast middle open to us.

The explosive growth of cable news should worry the networks, whose news divisions have continued to be money losers with an ever-shrinking audience. The ratings in general weren't good for broadcast networks, but evening news programs continued to tank in the face of the cable onslaught.

NBC News remains No. 1, up by 3% over 2007. ABC is second, down 3%; and CBS's Katie Couric, despite a slight uptick in recent weeks, will finish last again, down 5%.

Why Do People Still Watch Cable?

Millions of kids would've woken up to 2009 missing Dora, Diego and SpongeBob. And their parents? No Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, Chocolate News or South Park.

Whew, crisis averted.

While the rest of the world celebrated the new year, negotiators at Time Warner Cable and Viacom cut a deal in the opening hours of 2009 to avert a blackout that would have affected nearly 16 million households. A total of 19 channels, including MTV, Comedy Central and Nickelodeon would've been blacked out because of a dispute over increased subscriber fees.

This wasn't the first time that Time Warner, or cable companies, have had such a nasty public dispute with their programming partners. Between Comcast and Time Warner, the nation's two largest cable carriers, there have been no fewer than a dozen fights with various local affiliates and cable networks over just the last two years.

The most public of the cable fights involved the NFL Network, which currently is not being seen on most of the cable carriers. The powerful National Football League ultimately could not leverage its popularity against the cable behemoths. Most of the other disputes also ended in the cable company's favor, until Viacom came along and stared down Time Warner.

Sometimes I just wonder why people continue to live under the tyranny of cable. Besides the frequent games of brinksmanship, cable companies, particularly Comcast, are legendary in their atrocious customer service - just ask the elderly lady Mona Shaw, who last year literally hammered Comcast after being given one last run-around.

In 1996, fed up with cable, I signed up with a fledgling outfit for my television needs. It was a novel concept at the time but over the next decade-plus, it's proved to be one shrewd move. I've relocated more than a dozen times since then, but everywhere I went, I always had my DirecTV.

Don't take my word for it, ask Beyonce.