Samuel Irving Newhouse Jr. (aka Si Newhouse) is an alchemist whose family discovered the secret of turning dross into gold with the Staten Island Advance, a lowly suburban daily. That Comstock lode begat 37 other newspapers, as well as Condé Nast (The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Vogue) and media holdings that make him the 43rd-richest American (net worth $7.1 billion), according to Forbes.
Si may be on to something even richer with his latest discovery. He is redefining the daily newspaper as a periodical by turning the New Orleans Times-Picayune into a sporadical.
Sly Si will be cutting his publishing costs by coming out only on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays. That is not as cost-effective as not publishing at all (a profit-improving method taken by less imaginative media moguls), but it should be enough to get organizations like the Newspaper Association of America to select him as an honored guest speaker at their next convention.
This is a lot of food for thought -- or indigestion -- for purists who still believe dailies should appear every day, as has been the case since Ben Franklin was the shrewd publishing tycoon who invented the concept of a US Postal Service to distribute his periodicals.
On the other four days, what will people use to wrap their fish or line their birdcages -- two of what some consider the major functions of daily newspapers? And why publish on those three days? It's not because there is more news. Not even Si is prescient enough to predict important breaking news.
Apparently, those are the best advertising days in the Big Easy.
The all-new, unimproved, ad-bloated Times-Picayune of the future is being blamed on the Internet and other fast-food information sources that make news "olds" by the time a paper is thrown on to the front porch.
Everyone seems to agree, except Warren Buffett, who just signed a deal to buy the majority of Media General's (NYSE: MEG) papers for $142 million in cash. "It's not a soft-headed business decision," Buffett told the Daily Beast's Howard Kurtz.
If you ask me, newspapers began taking on water as early as the 1920s, when publishers rushed to scuttle their properties by performing the media alchemist trick of buying a rival newspaper and turning two-newspaper towns into one-newspaper towns. Or no-newspaper towns, when business warranted. Remember the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Rocky Mountain News in Denver (RIP)?
When I was growing up, my family newspaper in the New York market was the World-Telegram & Sun, an entity formed by taking three once-great newspapers and turning them into one of the worst ever published. It finally vanished like a stone thrown into a lake.
The exciting makeover of the Times-Picayune, which even made the front page of the New York Times, may be a case of another newspaper springing a leak. Three days a week could be a lifeboat drill for the revered Picayune. Dedicated loyal readers jump out of the boat to make room for Newhouse family members and executives from Advance Publications, which the Newhouse family owns.
Another bitter truth is that, on most days, like most newspapers in the Fly Over Zone (between New York and LA), it won't be missed. There just isn't enough important real news to make it worth reading. There's always a Katrina, of course, but you can't count on it.
I am reminded of A.J. Liebling's theory that newspapers should be like the National Guard and the fire department, coming out only in emergencies. Every city should have a standing journalistic institution, staffed and ready to go, in case there is news. Wasteful? Well, you don't expect a fire department to set fires just to justify its existence.
In the meanwhile, sly Si and his family are hailed for their many philanthropic gifts ($15 million to Syracuse University) and their art collecting. At one time (2006), Si owned one of the most valuable paintings in the world: a Jackson Pollack drip painting entitled "No. 5, 1948." With his invention of the sporadical, he can now add to his laurels by doing his bit to save our forests. If this Times-Picayune gimmick catches on, tree huggers should hug him.