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A much remarked-on aspect of Rupert Murdoch's bid for
( DJ) is that business news is probably the only sort that readers are willing to pay for online. What also bears mention, however, is how often readers are being asked to pay for news about newspapers in the business pages of newspapers.
Uh, no wonder readers aren't willing to pay. Worse, this overweighted coverage gives investors the false impression that the business of newspapers is worth their attention, maybe even their investment dollars. At this point it's not, and -- barring the cloning of Rupert Murdoch or a technology to increase online advertising revenue that has yet to be invented -- it never will be again.
Still, all we seem to be getting from the business pages of newspapers these days is coverage of the newspaper business.
Look at this morning's
New York Times
Business section, which is focused on newspapers to a degree that can only be described as comic. OK, OK, it can also be described as ridiculously overdone.
The two top stories are "
." We'll get to a larger lesson about those margins -- and coverage of those margins -- in a moment, but beside that lead is this column: "
The Star Tribune
in Minneapolis in a state of what else? Mourning.
As if that weren't enough about the dead, the dying and those saved by the grace of a man named Rupert, above those two articles sit teasers for two inside: "
," about David Montgomery, who has, unlike Rupert, been buying small papers; and
the editor of
. I'm not even counting the
being the victim of plagiarism. OK, I will.
But there were not much more than a dozen articles in the section. Three are on newspapers and two more cover their troubled close cousins, magazines.
The larger lesson for investors is that newspapers have traditionally weighed coverage proportionally toward the important, the worthy of your notice. But newspapers, as I've noted for two years with sadness and regret, are increasingly irrelevant.
Because newspapers are an obsession of those who write them, however, coverage has been disproportionate. Don't be lulled into thinking it means anything beyond "those who put together newspapers are obsessed with the dimming state of their industry."
As for those margins, The Business Press Maven wants to make a quick point. For several years, many said that newspapers should go private. They had good margins, this conventional line of thought went, and without Wall Street bothering them they could operate at peace.
Now, The Business Press Maven hates giving Wall Street credit for anything, much less foresight and a long-term outlook. But margins have never survived flat or declining revenue. You just can't sustain them.
Costs increase, the resulting cutbacks affect quality and mistakes are made in a desperate bid to save quality. In this case -- somewhat ironically -- Wall Street did a better job of anticipating that this would play out as it always had, with fat, dumb coverage that saw margins sustainable in perpetuity and the top line they spring from a nonfactor.
With an American automaker becoming privately owned and the possibility of the nation's most renowned and revered business paper getting pocketed by Rupert Murdoch, the business media have been searching for that defining deal that will indicate the top, the final straw, of this historic (read: getting crazy) merger and acquisition binge.
For guidance, they look to history and, like salmon swimming dumbly upstream, invariably make their way back to AOL-
That should come as no surprise. When it comes to historical context, people in most fields either lack it or fixate on the very last time that something even remotely similar happened. Here, with many journalists in their 20s and their ingénue intellects hampered further by the fact that journalists have minds that are geared toward the afternoon's news, not history's sweep, you can't expect better.
And that is why The Business Press Maven is starting the week off in smiling serenity instead of in his more familiar hard-bitten, hard-biting state.
of looking at this year's running total of $2 trillion in acquisitions (that's right, $2 trillion, more than The Business Press Maven makes in three entire years). It asks the question, what deal will indicate that deal mania has gone too far?
rejects the AOL-Time Warner point of reference out of hand.
. And if you listen up, good for you.
In short, AOL-Time Warner was an inflated stock deal done between two companies on colliding ends of the same industry. Back in the 1980s, we had leveraged buyouts, private equity groups using large amounts of borrowed money to take companies private.
But even in looking back at this era, where the impulse is to look at the most convenient, high-profile mark for the top of a market -- the RJR Nabisco takeover -- as a point of comparison,
rightly serves up the collapse of
( UAUA), the parent company of United Airlines, as the point in history we should be frightened of it repeats.
A deal of that order unspooling for financial reasons (Qantas might, but that's more political) would spook investors, as it did the last go-round. That would be the final straw, the punctuation mark just like this period: .
At the time of publication, Fuchs had no positions in any of the stocks mentioned in this column.
A journalist with a background on Wall Street, Marek Fuchs has written the County Lines column for The New York Times for the past five years. He also contributes regular breaking news and feature stories to many of the paper's other sections, including Metro, National and Sports. Fuchs was the editor-in-chief of Fertilemind.net, a financial Web site twice named "Best of the Web" by Forbes Magazine. He was also a stockbroker with Shearson Lehman Brothers in Manhattan and a money manager. He is currently writing a chapter for a book coming out in early 2007 on a really embarrassing subject. He lives in a loud house with three children. Fuchs appreciates your feedback;
to send him an email.