"No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions." --Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1804.

Up for investment

The next newspaper up for sale in the Seattle area is – no, not the Post Intelligencer, but rather the suburban daily to the east across the water, the King County Journal.

King County JournalIt never seems to have had an easy history. It started with great, bright promise: two small east King newspapers, the Eastside Journal and the Bellevue American, were sold to a new publishing group which turned them into the daily Bellevue Journal-American. We remember visiting their offices in the late 70s (in a beautiful woodsy setting); the place was full of ambition and seemed ready to vault ahead. And the timing would seem to have been perfect, since the Eastside then was just on the edge of the fierce growth that continues today. We would have guessed then, if we’d known how Bellevue, Renton, and the other communities in the area were about to grow, that the J-A would become an extremely successful paper, its circulation well over 100,000.

The King County Journal, which is its renamed successor today (and consisting as well of merged local papers), is well short of that. Not a bad newspaper for its area, and something like the 7th-largest daily in the state, it does seem to have a limited ambition, operating in the shadows of the behemoths across the water. Its owner, in recent years Horvitz Newspapers (led by Peter Horvitz), has put money into it – a big $20 million plant project just a few years ago – and tried various combination and approaches, but the papers never quite seem to have found their niche.

Usually newspaper companies describe the reasons for putting papers on the block in terms of corporate strategic planning – “this paper didn’t mesh with our long-term corporate plan.” Horvitz, who in the past has been quoted as saying the papers never have been as profitable as he would like, was more blunt in his announcement.

The paper said “Horvitz said he and his board of directors decided to sell because the company doesn’t have the resources to achieve the paper’s potential.” That’s a remarkable statement. And more: He was quoted directly as saying, “We’re proud of the significant progress these newspapers have made over many years, especially in a very difficult economic and competitive environment, and we believe that much progress can be made in future years if King County Journal Newspapers is owned by a company that can continue to make the necessary investments in the newspapers.”

In other words: Don’t buy these papers with the idea you can make any quick bucks, and expect to pour money in before you get much out. If that’s not the most conventional commentary an owner might offer before sale, Horvitz’ statement does have an uncommon ring of painful and precise truth.

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