WOULD you invest in a product that has a shelf life of twelve hours and changes everyday? Many would believe that such a habit is the height of folly. Tycoons apparently think otherwise, for they fight fiercely against each other to buy companies making such products.
The reason is that these products, if managed well, would generate huge profits and exert tremendous influence the world over.
This unique product is the newspaper, a bundle of paper sheets containing a different content and being reproduced in millions of copies everyday, which tracks the nobilities and foibles of man (but mostly the latter.)
Journalists would vehemently protest this categorization of newspaper as a “product.” Most newspapers (except perhaps those who write for tabloids that have sex and violence as the daily fare), are a sacred trust to be used for the upliftment of humanity. On the other hand, many of those who buy newspaper companies may not share the same view, at the expense of the journalists.
“Paper Tigers” tells the stories of the greatest newspapers in the world chronicling events that happen in the boardroom of newspaper firms and shows how newspapers are managed as thriving businesses apart from being peddlers of influence in society. Nicholas Coleridge, the author, narrates riveting behind-the-scenes (or rather behind-the-news desk) tales and inside perspectives of newspaper proprietors that take him and his ambitious novel across five continents over a span of several years.
The book provides name drops galore as it gives intricate accounts of Coleridge’s interviews with the Sulzbergers of The New York Times, the Grahams of the Washington Post, Otis Chandler of The Los Angeles Times, Rupert Murdoch of The Times in London, Robert Hersant of Le Figaro in France, Lord Rothermere of The Daily Mail in London, Conrad Black of The Sydney Morning Herald, Tony O’Reilly if The Irish Independent in Dublin, Sally Aw Sian of The Hong Kong standard, Kamphol Vacharaphol of the Thai Rath in Bangkok, The Goenkas of the Indian Express, and other newspaper tycoons.
Written with a lot of imprudence rather than a reverence for these proprietors, Coleridge explores the motivations of these businessmen in wanting to own a newspaper. He shows how they compete in the tough circulations arena, take care of their prized editors and journalists, cut costs to improve profit margins, handle controversies arising from their papers’ coverage and acquire technology to print faster and better.
Coleridge fills his book with sometimes flattering but mostly harsh three-dimensional portraits of the newspaper tycoons that betray the frailties of men and women who dominate the newspaper world.
One interesting chapter is about Conrad Black, whose newspaper empire covers a staggering 240 newspapers across a globe with a total daily circulation of 4.5 million. Coleridge says that Black pursues a strategy of acquisitions and writes that “More than any other major league owner, he (Black) has the finance, the gusto and freedom of movement to bid for big city papers.” The author reveals that Black managers his numerous companies by the balance sheets that stream into his headquarters.
Black got bitten by the newspaper bug when he purchased a small newspaper in Canada. He and his partners managed the newspaper until it turned a profit. They turned this knack for managing newspapers into more profit by buying more small newspapers.
In an interview with Coleridge, Black says that the satisfaction he gets from owning a newspaper is his belief that he’s “mining the economy of Canada rather than the suboil.” He derives satisfaction from the physical product, being able to publish distinguished writers and lastly, getting profits out of the company.
Turning away Advertising
Another interesting account in Coleridge’s book in his report on the Thai Rath, the 32-page broadsheet that sells almost a million copies a day in Thailand. This is owned by the elusive Kamphol Vacharaphol who is named by the author as probably the most powerful newspaper proprietor in the whole of Southeast Asia. According to Coleridge’s sources, Kamphol’s paper dominates the newspaper market so completely that it turns away $400,000 worth of advertising accounts every day.
Furthermore, the author reports the advertising space in the paper is paid for in advance and in case, a practice for all the norm in the advertising world. Coleridge puts forth an explanation as to how this paper achieved its impressive circulation.
He writes that the paper’s coverage of sensational stories “brilliantly engages some part of the Thai psyche.”
Cut and Slash Management
Included in Coleridge’s collection of proprietors is the young Dean Singleton, who was not yet 40 at the time of the interviews. He is the owner of the Houston Post and 70 other newspapers in 11 states. According to Coleridge, Singleton owed his success as a proprietor to the “cut and slash” method of newspaper management which consists five of steps: buy newspaper, cut staff, cut quality, cut objectivity and hike advertising rates.
Coleridge notes however that other people simply consider Singleton’s strategy as the only way to revive ailing newspapers.
The author also draws colorful images of the Sulzbergers of The New York Times. This great behemoth of a newspaper is read by 1.2 million readers daily and is, in Coleridge’s words, “one of the most obese newspapers on the planet” with a Sunday edition that is “as thick as a paying slab.”
The New York Times Company, with its roster of media properties which include The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, draws revenues of $1.8 billion annually, ranking it 231st based on net income in the Forbes magazine. Coleridge traces how Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Sur or “Punch,” who initially was not groomed for this top position, got to manage this prize of a company after the death of his brilliant brother-in-law who was then the publisher. The author contrasts Punch’s management style with his son.
Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., known as “Pinch,” highlighting his “number-crunching” abilities, his fascination with the latest printing technologies and his unobtrusive presence in editorial meetings.
Soft Words for Kay Graham
Coleridge has soft words for Katherine Graham, depicting in detail the pressures brought on this publisher as The Washington Post exposed the Watergate scandal. He has good words too for her son, Donald Graham, who is the publisher and CEO of the Washington Post Company. Coleridge writes that he is considered by many people as the best prepared publisher in North America.
As owner of a virtual monopoly in a capital city, the Washington Post Company remains hugely profitable, notes the author. By 1990, it generated $1.4 billion in revenues, majority of which was derived from The Washington Post.
Persona Non Grata?
With such bold and fearless pictures of the most influential people in the world, the newspaper tycoons, one wonders whether Coleridge has achieved a persona non grata status in the newspaper world unparalleled by any other writer. One expects the author to be heaped with libel suits or forever banned from their being hired by the newspaper world (not including his present employer, the New house chain of newspapers in the United States) which he did not write about.
Like a gourmet dish that combines the sweet and the spicy, Coleridge’s “Paper Tigers” is a refreshingly but fearfully honest book that must be read slowly to savour all the intricate details that compose this masterpiece. One will be awed by the wide expanse of its subject matter.
Pierced by the shocking truths in this book, the newspaper tycoons may yet become “real tigers” (pouncing on Coleridge) or live up to the book’s title of “paper tigers” (by placidly accepting their immortalization on Coleridge’s pages.)
by Nicholas Coleridge Mandarin Paperbacks,
London 1993, 592 pages
Author: Regina Galang Reyes. First published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer December 1, 1997.
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