Friday, January 4, 2008

Landmark for sale -- a scary thought

The big news in Virginia media circles this week is that Landmark Communications, which owns The Virginian-Pilot and other newspapers, is up for sale. That's big news for the civic/citizen journalism community, too: The Pilot, based in Norfolk, has been a pioneer in public journalism -- it tapped Jay Rosen as a consultant years ago. And Landmark papers also are strong practitioners for citizen journalism: The Greensboro, N.C., News and Record, for example, was one of the first daily newspapers to invest heavily in blogs.

Here's what The Pilot reported today:

Landmark confirmed media reports late Wednesday that it had hired two national investment firms, JPMorgan and Lehman Brothers, to “assist in exploring strategic alternatives, including the possible sale of the company’s businesses.”

A formal announcement to employees at all Landmark properties nationwide was made Thursday.

Company revenues topped $2 billion last year. A sale of all, or some, of Landmark’s properties – which include The Weather Channel in Atlanta and Dominion Enterprises – could occur as soon as summer, Landmark executives said.

[Me again:] In the interest of transparency and full disclosure, I should note that I worked at The Pilot (and its now-defunct afternoon sister, The Ledger-Star) in the late 1970s and early '80s. I remember renting a high school auditorium and, with other editors and reporters, holding a community meeting with our readers. We didn't call it civic journalism back then; it was just good journalism -- part of our continual efforts to connect with people.

As a privately held company, Landmark has less subject to the vagaries of Wall Street. It could take risks and make investments without focusing on the quarterly dividends. That's why the possible sale is so distressing. The Pilot, the Roanoke Times, the Greensboro N&R and other Landmark papers may end up being owned by companies that care more about short-term profits than public service. And that would be a blow to journalism.

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