OLD Media Moves

Does ownership affect coverage?

August 7, 2013

Posted by Liz Hester

After Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, bought the Washington Post, and John Henry, billionaire owner of the Boston Red Sox, purchased the Boston Globe, questions began to circulate about coverage. Whenever newspapers change hands, it raises issues of corporate agendas, personal biases and other conflicts.

The New Yorker raised questions, writing about a Globe story in 2011 about the poor state of the Red Sox team. Here are excerpts from the column:

Would a Henry-owned Globe have run that story about the Red Sox? Or else, how might that story have been different? These questions are, of course, proxies for other ones—not just about the paper’s sports coverage but about the working model in which a newspaper must manage its editorial objectives while under the ownership of a wealthy, powerful figure with many business interests. In Henry’s case, those interests include, in addition to the Red Sox, a large share in the New England Sports Network television station, a NASCARracing team, and the storied Liverpool football club. (A spokesman for Henry didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

Brian McGrory, the editor of the Globe, was quick to dismiss speculation about the potential conflict of interest in sports coverage: “We have no plans whatsoever to change our Red Sox coverage specifically, or our sports coverage in general, nor will we be asked.” (In an e-mail, McGrory declined further comment.) This situation is not entirely novel: the former owner of the Globe, the New York Times Company, also had a stake in the Red Sox for ten years, before selling in 2012. During that decade, articles about the team carried a disclaimer explaining the relationship, a practice likely to be resurrected under Henry’s direct ownership. Eileen Murphy, a spokesperson for the Times, said that the sale to Henry “is the result of a very full and active sales process,” and that the company felt that the decision was “in the best interest” of shareholders, the newspapers being sold, and the Boston community.

The New York Times also ran a story after the purchase questioning how the Globe would deal with conflicts, especially given the history of tough coverage of the Sox:

“We don’t know what the new situation is going to be in terms of hierarchy, but I would hope to be able to continue to cover the Red Sox the way we always have, “ the sports editor, Joe Sullivan, said.

Acknowledging the potential conflict of interest, Sullivan said, “It will be there, hanging in the air.” He said the newspaper might need to include disclaimers when writing about Henry, as it did when The Times had an ownership stake in the team for 10 years. The Times sold its final stake in the group in 2012.

Dan Shaughnessy, The Globe’s lead sports columnist, has written critically about Henry since he became the principal owner of the Red Sox in 2002.

“There’s an inherent conflict of interest which no one can do anything about,” Shaughnessy said. “All we can hope for is that everyone is allowed to do his job professionally and that we are able to keep our independence.”

Ed Sherman wrote about the perception of biased coverage by talking about when he was covering baseball for the Chicago Tribune, which owned the Cubs at the time:

When I would hear about a Cubs bias, I used to tell people that the Tribune sports desk had many more Sox fans than Cubs fans. I was among a South Sider legion that included Bob Vanderberg, who continues to write books about the Sox. We all have fond memories of Dan Moulton, a cranky but beloved character nearly popping a vein after a Sox reliever blew a save.

Yet despite my protestations, people always thought the Tribune was in the bag for the Cubs. The paper owned the team. Hence, whenever the Cubs won (rarely, I might add during the Tribune‘s main ownership tenure), the newsroom surely exploded in a chorus of  “Go, Cubs, Go…”

No matter what you say, people are going to believe what they want to believe. Perception easily was the biggest issue the Tribune sports staff encountered when it was the main owner of the Cubs.

As for his $250 million purchase, Bezos will take the Post private, freeing himself from the glare of shareholders and the need to report quarterly earnings. Amazon will have no role in the paper, the Washington Post reported on its own sale:

Bezos, in an interview, called The Post “an important institution” and expressed optimism about its future. “I don’t want to imply that I have a worked-out plan,” he said. “This will be uncharted terrain, and it will require experimentation.”

“There would be change with or without new ownership,” he said. “But the key thing I hope people will take away from this is that the values of The Post do not need changing. The duty of the paper is to the readers, not the owners.”

Despite the end of the Graham family’s control of the newspaper after 80 years, Graham and Bezos said management and operations of the newspaper will continue without disruption after the sale.

Weymouth — who represents the fourth generation of her family involved in the newspaper — will remain as publisher and chief executive of the Bezos-owned Post; Martin Baron will remain executive editor. No layoffs among the paper’s 2,000 employees are contemplated as a result of the transaction, Bezos and Graham said.

Bezos said he will maintain his home in Seattle and will delegate the paper’s daily operations to its existing management. “I have a fantastic day job that I love,” he said.

Despite his statements, Post readers will likely watch the paper for coverage of Amazon. How the business section titles earnings stories and if it writes features about the giant retailer will likely be clues about how Bezos will handle covering his company.

When I worked at Bloomberg, we didn’t cover the mayor. We wrote about New York and important policy but left the details of reporting on our passive owner to the other news organizations. So, ownership does have some affect on coverage. While some argue that it’s just perception, that can be damaging in its own right.

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