It’s said that “all things must pass,” and after 110 years it looks like The Columbus Dispatch will be passed to new owners. The tight grip on central Ohio media the Wolfe Family has held since it acquired the paper in 1905 won’t be as tight now with the loss of its flagship property that enabled the family to deliver on its political and civic plans.
New Media New Owners
It was announced Wednesday that The Columbus Dispatch will be consumed by New Media, a New York City-based whole vast holdings now include the Columbus paper and its sister print properties. New Media said in its 2014 annual report that it wants to spend $1 billion by 2016 to acquire newspaper assets, and John F. Wolfe letter to the community spelled out why the deal was done.
With a big sign that sits atop its building at 34 South Third Street, that lights up at night and advertises that it’s “Ohio’s Greatest Home Newspaper, the venerable Republican organ stares directly at the Ohio Statehouse across the street. It’s readership shrinking, it still has 252,564 in circulation, sources say. It’s not news to Plunderbund readers that the paper’s claim to greatness is an exaggeration, given its consistently biased reporting, most especially since 2010, when it helped John Kasich become governor then supported him win a second and final term last year.
Like so many last-century newspapers, some like the Dispatch whose reporting roots go back to the 1870s, the paper has encountered hurdles as it tries to keep up the revolutionary changes brought by the digital age, changes that include the emergence of new news sources, like Plunderbund, Ohio’s greatest and most influential online political news group.
In its 2014 annual report, New Media said last year was “an incredibly successful and transformative year.” This year, in February, it completed a spin-off from Newcastle Investment Corp. So far, New Media has spent about $540 million of capital through eight acquisitions. “The foundation of New Media is its strong, local media brands which are, in most cases, the dominant providers of unique, local content,” the report notes, adding that it owns, operates and acquires local media properties that provide comprehensive, high quality, local news in the small to mid-size communities they serve.
When federal officials allowed the Wolfe Family to keep its communication businesses, including the Dispatch, WBNS-TV and WBNS radio, when others had to divest themselves of their overlapping holdings, the family’s grip on news in central Ohio remained strong. The Dispatch forced the Citizen Journal out of business, and through the years acquired small news groups including The Other Paper, an alternative weekly tabloid that amused by irritating the big paper.
The Other Paper and Columbus Alive! were scooped up by the Dispatch Printing Company, the former in 2013 and the latter in 2005. The free publications offered arts and entertainment coverage, including events calendars, concert reviews and profiles of local performers, along with humor that often poked fun at the Dispatch. Both were eventually shutdown. President and Chief Operating Officer Michael J. Fiorile said at the time, “In viewing the research of who reads the two publications, and after hearing from the local advertising community, it became more and more obvious that one publication would better serve our readers and advertisers.” The best way to out compete your competition is to run them out of business, or if that doesn’t work, buy them and close them.
Gone But Not Gone
Years of operational adjustments and measuring the paper’s performance were offered as key reasons why the Wolfe Family sold the paper. “We concluded the paper’s future success is most enhanced within a newspaper company that has both regional and national reach, as well as strong marketing and digital operations, providing the economies of scale essential for optimum efficiency,” Mr. Wolfe said in his letter to the community.
It helps if you want to make kings to be a king yourself, and the Wolfe Family did that successfully, generation after generation. They make not own the paper anymore, but Mr. Wolfe made it clear they won’t be leaving civic and political life in Columbus anytime soon. “While our family no longer will be in the print business, we will continue to own and operate our television, radio, and commercial and agricultural real-estate enterprises. We also will maintain our historic involvement in civic, community and philanthropic endeavors that contribute substantially to the quality of life we all enjoy in central Ohio.”
Now that New Media owns the Dispatch, other sacred cows in central Ohio may not be able to depend on the paper’s editorial board and reporting staff to maintain a hands-off approach as has been apparent for so many years. It’s well known that Wolfe family leaders over the generations were active political contributors, especially to Republicans. Some who follow media closely don’t necessarily see that tradition continuing, or at least not with the surety it did before. There’s little doubt the Dispatch would go to great lengths to shield, for example, Gov. Kasich from any investigative reports on the scale it did with the Columbus Public School system. Last year, The Columbus Dispatch, along with its like minded Cleveland paper, let Gov. Kasich off the hook on one issues after another, but bore down on Ed FitzGerald, Kasich’s Democratic opponent, for his personal and campaign missteps. Drum beats could be heard on both sides, but FitzGerald had the hyenas nipping at him while Mr. Kasich could sit back and watch the hounds run, knowing they would not turn and bolt toward him.
As owners change, it may come to pass that Gov. Kasich or even a group like JobsOhio, which would probably be found unconstitutional if the Ohio Supreme Court would permit it to be challenged, finds itself looking down the barrel of a newspaper with a changed attitude toward, some hope, taking on sacred cows.