Blogger and innovation coach Steve Buttry has done a thoughtful analysis of the Pew study on media in Baltimore. The study itself has been getting a lot of national attention. (But not so much attention by the media in Baltimore. I wonder. Why is that?)
Buttry points out that traditional media has been taking the study as validating their role, since the Pew study found most of the local stories originated in the traditional media.
The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, editorsweblog and more tweets than I could count trumpeted the finding that most news originates with newspapers and those upstart blogs contribute barely a trickle of original news. The favorite fact cited was that 95 percent of stories reporting fresh information came from the endangered old media, newspapers primarily.
In fact, as Buttry also points out, the Pew study missed many potential new media sources of news that may in fact have contributed original reporting, including this blog. (Buttry noticed my blog and posted an update citing me as someone who in fact had done original reporting on The Senator story, but was not included in Pew's sample.)
The more disturbing thing that was more buried in the Pew study, and which should not be giving the traditional media much comfort, is also noted by Buttry. Most of what was reported as "news" was driven by official government sources (63% in the overall study, 94% in the case of The Senator). The fact that the Pew study was flawed by leaving out some new media sources does not detract from this conclusion being essentially accurate. What might change if a larger sample of new media was used is the percentage, but probably just a bit.
I've seen first hand how much damage can be done when the press, which ought to be a watchdog on the government, acts instead as its publicist.
Here's the core of what happened with media coverage on The Senator:
City officials gave the newspapers inaccurate information. The general wisdom that politicians often lie is not somehow different in this case.
The newspapers repeated the inaccurate information, without bothering to check it. There are many specific cases where what was reported on The Senator and about Tom Kiefaber could have been shown to be false by anyone who had done their homework.
Chief among the lies that were given to the media by the city government was the idea that the city had invested a lot of money in The Senator. Simply not true. In fact, ALL of the money that the city spent on The Senator in the past 10 years ultimately went into acquiring the building in a forced auction sale at a cut-rate price far below the theatre's estimated value. Nothing went into keeping the theatre open and operating under Tom Kiefaber's stewardship in 10 years. Not one dime. This can be verified by anyone who actually bothers to sort through where the money actually came from, and where it went.
The newspapers repeated the lies. The TV news cited the newspapers. Other blogs cited the newspapers. (I cited them too, but usually to point out that they were wrong.) Very little original reporting was done by anyone except me and Tom Harris at the Friends of The Senator blog (another person who actually took the time to find out what was going on).
This media echo chamber that served to perpetrate lies coming out of city government had tragically harmful effects on some really good people. Tom Kiefaber put all of his resources, passion, and relentless hard work into doing something good for future generations of Baltimoreans. As a result of the media echo chamber of falsehoods, everything he has worked so hard for might now potentially be lost, his family's financial picture is bleak, and a large number of Baltimoreans who should be recognizing him for his monumental efforts instead vaguely believe he has done something wrong.
So let's see...94% of the reporting on The Senator's auction was driven by the city government (as taken into account by the Pew study). Is it any wonder that 94% of what 94% of the people in this city think they know about The Senator's situation (and about Tom Kiefaber) is 94% wrong?
Of course I hope the wrongs that have been perpetrated on Tom and his family can somehow be put to rights. At the moment, though, the past is the past and what's done is done.
The very real situation now, however, is the future of The Senator is at stake. Of the four proposals on the table, two are seen as credible by many and were popular at the public meeting on the RFPs. The problem is, credible industry experience and data from all over the country shows that one of these proposals is essentially on the right track (WTMD/Towson's proposal, which would have the theatre owned by a non-profit connected to proven fundraising powerhouse WTMD), and similarly credible industry experience and data from all over the country, including the statistics on how many single screen historic theatres have been lost, should prove to anyone who investigates it that the single screen movie theatre business model is dead and cannot be resurrected.
Putting a new operator into a failing business model is not going to change the fact that it's a failing business model, and a business model that has failed all over the country. Single screen theatres that continue to stay open under a for-profit model are extremely rare statistical anomalies. The Cusack/Charles Theater proposal for The Senator simply cannot work without considerable subsidy on a level of financial commitment from the city or others that Tom Kiefaber simply has not enjoyed. In other words, if Mr. Cusack is awarded the right to operate The Senator with his current plan, we will almost certainly be right back where we are now within 5 to 10 years, unless someone gives him a whole lot of money he does not have to repay.
Now, I am speaking in generalities here, but the information is out there. Single screen movie theatres used to be all over the place, about 150 of them in Baltimore alone. They hardly exist anymore. Why? The business model is just not viable, because of industry factors that are slightly complex, but not so complex that they can't be understood by someone who takes the time to do their homework. I've attempted to explain some of them on this blog in the past, and I continue to try to pull together that research into a tighter, more comprehensive explanation.
There are some noted anomalies. The Uptown Theater in Washington, DC is a widely known, highly regarded for-profit single screen theatre with a very high profile (although Mr. Cusack indicated in the recent public RFP meeting that he had never heard of it). Why does it work? Well, you may find a clue to this in the fact that the full corporate-branded name of the theatre is AMC Loews Uptown 1. In other words, it is owned by one of the most powerful theatre chains in the entire country. I've heard rumors that it is nevertheless struggling financially and my guess is the other theatres in the chain actively subsidize it, but at this time that is just an informed hunch.
The more important point, however, is that the vast majority of historic theatres that are currently open and operating on a daily basis and preserved to historical standards are owned by non-profits, which can use capital campaigns to raise the considerable sums needed to restore and maintain these very expensive architectural gems. Without that non-profit advantage, it's a constant struggle to see a profit, and expensive building preservation and maintenance falls by the wayside when making a profit is the focus. This is not because for-profit owners of historic theatres are bad business people. It is because they are constantly fighting an uphill battle against industry trends that are only getting worse for them.
To bring this back around to the main point about the Pew study: active, intelligent investigative reporting on the RFP proposals on the table could play a vital role in ensuring that the proposals are fully vetted and the one that makes logical sense based on the preponderance of industry data wins. With most media echoing the newspapers, however, that would mean that newspaper reporters would have to do some legitimate research into industry trends and industry realities, and not just report what someone at city hall or the BDC told them to say.
Good reporting still could ensure that The Senator is preserved and protected for future generations of Baltimoreans. If the trends noticed by the Pew study continue, however, this important role the fourth estate could play will likely go unfulfilled.