Independent Media Acquiring Legacy Outlets

Friday afternoon, May 15

Host: Martin Reynolds, The VOICES Project, Bay Area News Group

Attending: Michael Stoll, SF Public Press

What needs to happen

The idea:

A rich person buys it, takes it from private sector and then turns it over to the public sector. Need to make it appetizing for owners of these assets to give them up.

Why it could work:

  • You’re not cutting to make quarterly profits.
  • Make it easier for the organization to stay afloat.

Need answers to these questions:

What is the value in the legacy media that might be prospects?

Why would a rich individual give someone the money to do this?

  • Need to rally the richest of America, preferably those who have social conscience and perhaps have a stake in the local community.
  • Have to come up with a very appetizing reason for financiers to put up the money.
  • Must make the case that there is value in taking something out of the private sector and putting it into the public sector.

More likely to convince individuals than many foundations that are growing endowments but giving away less and less.

Could we get Congress to pitch into something like this?

Example: CalMatters raised $2.5 million, hired a bunch of reporters who have names and then going to build an audience. It’s starting from scratch and will likely blow through $2.5 million. What if she would have raised $20 million and bought the SacBee?

What are the assets?

  • Archive
  • Circulation list, current and old
  • Advertising base, a terrible website, traffic and brand recognition

Other options besides newspapers:

  • Radio has an even lower price point, and radio often comes with multiple signals and those are very valuable assets. The model could be scaled at the low bandwidth signals and scale that up.
  • Free Speech Television – Started off as a channel satellite companies had to give.
  • What if that were able to be turned into a 24/7 platform.
  • Link TV is a good example of one channel that is doing good work.
  • The C-Span and other are of those, university-based radio and publications.


  • Buying a newspaper would be a much more expensive proposition.
  • So in order to buy distressed newspaper products, someone is going to have to eat the debt.
  • Hybridizing the model, the media company is for-profit but the news gathering is non-profit.

Funding options for exploration:

  • Media Development Investment Fund, NYC
  • Trying to keep media free by giving loans, costs are higher, harder to secure.
  • There are a lot of people who say they want to do social-mission lending.
  • Low cost, low margin assets, have a digital and analog strategy for content and monetization.
  • Start this effort in smaller, underserved markets and prove out the model and scale to larger markets with bigger outlets.

Substantial network of social investors who might be open to supporting such an effort.

Always admonished the players in town, but the some argue that “these are the people we’re writing about.”

Ethical Conclusion:

The funder/buyer would have to pay for a complete transaction and not sit at the board table.

Yeah, but that’s like raising a kid and then allowing him to loud talk you in front of important guests. Is a billionaire really going to be willing to do that?

Important in the approach:

Part of this being successful is to look for journalists or people involved in media business who know particular communities. No swooping in. People need to be from the community, at least on the editorial side. The business side could be different.

In independent media space too many people are expecting people to do jobs they are not equipped to do.

Key Questions/Concluding thoughts:

Would need to know what the cost of acquisition would be and the time it would take. And whether could you put funding together to let it operate independently.

For profit sales, web, marketing team, but a content team working for the non-profit side.

Examine the cost basis of legacy media so we can assess whether this makes sense.

Unlike with new media, there is no way to determine what has history financially.

Philanthropist, we get painted by the source of the money, but that might be a subset of funders that has less potential.

Mary Babcock Reynolds Foundation that is very dedicated to a region, have funded a lot of activists, but be able to address systemic problems of media deserts, might put up some funding, and direct you to other funders.

One thing would need to do is assemble some small team of people, media company valuations to help determine what the opportunities be in these spaces? Are there arbitrage opportunities out there?

Should be convening people who have done significant Media Acquisition work.

Railroads got eminent domain, but what is potential with lobbying to get laws passed to get current owners and holders of troubled assets and in exchange get really sweet tax breaks.

That could open up a whole wave of publicly owned media outlets.

Owned by a b-corp, not profit driven but mission driven.

Indy media is all small ball. Play big ball and still keep our morals. Tends to get really caught up in minutia and need to think big and bold.

After this discovery period, determining the quality of asset, could you think through structure enough to really see if it could work? Some very conscious effort to set up the governance in a way that allows them to be entrepreneurial and serve the community?

Current owners of these assets want out and we want them to do it in a way, what do they need to do to give up that asset? It’s almost like we have to start using techniques that developers use to get what they want.