Chicago Cubs fans should demand that their team spend big in free agency this offseason. With all the money that the club's owners are saving by skimping on journalism, they can surely afford another ace pitcher or all-star slugger.
Billionaire Joe Ricketts, whose family owns a majority stake in the Cubs, abruptly shuttered seven local news sites on Thursday, saying in a statement that the financial return “hasn't been sufficient to support the tremendous effort and expense needed to produce the type of journalism on which the company was founded.”
Meanwhile, Cubs minority owner Tribune Media is moving toward a $3.9 billion acquisition by Sinclair Broadcasting. Sinclair this week ruled out hiring Bill O'Reilly, whose last contract at Fox News was worth $25 million per year. If the FCC approves the acquisition, maybe Sinclair can use the money it isn't throwing at O'Reilly to sign a new outfielder for the Cubs, instead.
I'm a Red Sox fan. I really don't care what the Cubs do. The point is that people with the kinds of vast fortunes required to own and operate Major League Baseball teams have the resources to fund local news organizations, if they want to. Money is just an excuse — and not a very good one.
Ricketts pointed to his bank account when he announced the decision to close New York news sites DNAinfo and Gothamist, along with sister sites in Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Shanghai. Here's an excerpt from his statement:
I started DNAinfo in 2009 at a time when few people were investing in media companies. But I believed an opportunity existed to build a successful company that would report unbiased neighborhood news and information. These were stories that weren't getting told, and because I believe people care deeply about the things that happen where they live and work, I thought we could build a large and loyal audience that advertisers would want to reach.
A lot of what I believed would happen did, but not all of it. . . . DNAinfo is, at the end of the day, a business, and businesses need to be economically successful if they are to endure.
What Ricketts failed to mention is that his journalist employees had defied him by voting last week to unionize. The sudden closure of the sites looks more like scorched-earth vengeance than a “difficult decision,” as Ricketts called it.
What's more, Ricketts did not merely cease publication; he took down all of the websites' previous work — a move that Vice contributing editor Molly Crabapple likened to “burning a library.”
The content was later restored, but it is hard to view as credible Ricketts's stated belief that “exceptional neighborhood storytelling . . . remains essential” after he erased such storytelling from his sites.
Ricketts can do as he pleases with his businesses. But the rest of us can be skeptical when he presents himself as a champion of local journalism who just couldn't swing it, financially, any longer.