Goodwill. It's a notion that newspaper publishers and those of us who watch them have learned a bit more about over the past year.
Consider the goodwill write-offs:
- Gannett, with the granddaddy of newspaper goodwill write-downs at $5.2 billion last week.
- Media General, late last month, removed $130 million from its books.
- McClatchy added another $1.39 billion in writedown to a previous $1.37 billion.
- Lee took a $722 million write-down last spring.
That's all a recognition that the industry going-forward financials are waning dramatically. Goodwill has been that je-ne-sais-quoi intangible, the notion that the journalistic enterprise is more than just its building, its presses and its advertiser and subscriber lists. As journalists, we'd like to believe that it's an indication of the social worth of the enterprise, but it's plainly not that. It's the financial world's way of saying that the combination of physical assets, the people who use them and the brand itself, combined, should be able to generate lots of revenue going forward.
That's the huge doubt, really -- no one's got any kind of big, growth strategy for news media. So these public companies are compelled to write down goodwill. Which feeds into the big questions of the moment:
- So what's the opposite of goodwill? Bad will? Ill will? Or too little will in a time of crisis? We are seeing more fight, more will, in the industry, as people understand that as our new, good ami of the democratic press, Nicholas Sarkozy, has suggested, the Western World is in the midst of a press emergency.
- Since the the American press has always been about two things -- profit and public service -- how do we value the public service? Good reading to stimulate thinking here comes from Jed Emerson, the proponent of "blended value" and who believes we may be able to "price" in public value. In an interview with Fast Company, he lays it out quickly:
Notice that the act of creating jobs shows up on both lists. There is an economic value to that. Likewise, it has social value: Jobs lead to stable family units. That alone shows how value is inherently indivisible. Economic, social, and environmental value is all part of a piece. You can't disaggregate it. This is a very simple, intuitive idea. A colleague calls it "common sense suppressed by thinking." Blended value is a way of trying to measure the whole picture."
The whole picture includes civic life, information, journalism and knowledge. That's undeniable. While for-profit newspaper companies must, by financial regulation write down goodwill, the will to do good, to do journalism, to do public service, is what we're having trouble expressing.
We're fumbling for words, non-profit, for-profit, angels, foundations, funders, members. Those are all means to do good journalism. We just need to focus on the end -- paying experienced and newbie journalists to do good work -- and get less caught up in the cross-fire of the how. There won't be -- going forward -- one how; there were be numerous ones. Let's get on with the testing.
Final goodwill note: Goodwill is a fascinating concept, and we've got a timely description of it, courtesy of American Public Media's Marketplace and its useful Decoder segment, done by Rico Gagliano.
Marketplace is part of the new emerging business journalism landscape, joined lately by Slate's The Big Money and NPR's Planet Money. So as daily business sections do a disappearing act, well-cataloged and described by Chris Roush in Talking Biz News, we see new business journalism popping up here and there. And to those having the abstract arguments about whether journalism should become -- in part -- a non-profit enterprise, I say, well, it has already been that for awhile. This journalism is part of the new landscape, and it's good to have it, as long as their funders can't slant or direct their programming.