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Dan Mackie: Newspapers for Sale!

The recent news that the Boston Globe and Washington Post sold for a billionaire’s chump change got me thinking. If those icons of mighty American cities sold for so little, I might be able to sell my 2000 Toyota Corolla and raise enough dough to buy something a little more down-market, such as the fabulously named Walla Walla Union-Bulletin.

Not that I’d ever want to answer the phone there, since I am of the age that once I say walla walla, my brain skips along right to bing bang. (Note to young people: You’ll have to Google it.) The Post sold for a mere $250 million and the Globe, a measly $70 mill. The New York Times Co. paid more than a billion for the Globe in 1993, so its return on investment is right up there with the current value of my Corolla, originally purchased new by my sister. At least my car still has a neat-o cassette player, so I’m living large with tapes I snag for a quarter at thrift stores and yard sales. That’s me thumping down Route 12A playing Patsy Cline ( Crazy), Glenn Miller ( String of Pearls) and Sam and Dave ( Soul Man). You can save a lot of money by being out of date.

I have the good fortune of working for a newspaper that has suffered much less than those that are melting like popsicles in a heat wave. I remain proud of the work we do, imperfect though it may be. Something about our efforts — and much about the Upper Valley — means that readers here still value local news enough to retrieve the morning paper from wherever it might land in the dark. (Note to publisher: just kidding.) It is enjoyable work, though there is an awful lot of it — a barn raising every day.

I have spent my career in the news trenches, so I have no great insight about the business side. When I went to work for a weekly newspaper in 1975, times were so good that any idiot could make money in publishing, and many did. Years after I left there, the weekly was sold to a media group that sold it to a conglomerate that sold it to a communications empire. I imagine they gulped down debt and demanded a high profit margin, so salaries were cut and expenses trimmed. The paper looked worse and worse over time.

Now I suppose those companies had economies of scale and efficiencies, but none of that went back into the newspaper. It was as if a hedge fund bought Dairy Twirl, cut the size of the cones and reduced the dollops of chocolate sauce. Then cut wages by 10 percent, and 10 percent more. And then laid off a couple of the high school kids. And finally, replaced the local manager with an odious assistant regional vice president for consumer services and sprinkles.

This might be simplistic (I’ve been in the trenches, after all). But I am slightly optimistic that both the Globe and the Post are now owned by people, rich to be sure, but actual humans. These human people might be capable of feeling that a newspaper is something more than an investment. (Somebody get me a soapbox.) Corporations can’t run a fine restaurant and I doubt they can run a great newspaper, because you can’t make truly great food if you do nothing more than cut costs and add a lot of salt. (Works for the chains, though.) The Internet is the prime threat to print, though I suspect that brain scans will eventually prove that online reading has a downside. The computer mouse is to deep reading what the remote control is to thoughtful television viewing. Eventually, we will all have the attention span of a toddler in front of a balloon stand.

Newspapers, on the other hand, are informative, calming and go well with coffee. They connect you to your community, and have no harmful side effects — you need call your doctor only if after four hours you’re still fuming about possible U.N. influence over the town road crew.

And newspapers — ink, presses and all — are cheaper than ever. Who can resist such a bargain?

May it be many years before the final closeout.

The writer can be reached at dmackie@vnews.com.