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Losing the Ewings 

Urban journal

As the new year starts, a major change is taking place in local media: the Messenger Post newspaper group has been sold.

The newspapers --- the weeklies in the suburbs ringing Rochester and the Daily Messenger in Canandaigua --- will continue to publish. What's making some of us nervous is that the new owner is a national chain, GateHouse Media Inc.

GateHouse, which owns more than 400 newspapers, recently moved its corporate headquarters to Perinton, so it's now a locally based company. And maybe GateHouse officers will sink down roots here quickly. Maybe they'll become as passionate about this region as their predecessors --- outgoing publisher George Ewing Jr. and his father and the late Andy Wolfe, from whom Ewing bought the Post suburban weeklies --- have been.

I hope so. But I'm troubled by what's happening with chain-owned papers around the country.

In a candid exchange in the Messenger Post papers on December 13, Ewing and Syracuse journalism professor John Hatcher discussed the GateHouse purchase. Hatcher, who is a former Daily Messenger city editor and columnist, worried that "many of the things that made the Messenger great may be in the past."

Hatcher cited this statement about the purchase, made by GateHouse CEO Michael Reed:

"This acquisition fits extremely well with our strategy of acquiring dominant local media franchises that are accretive to free cash flow per share."

"Now, I can't tell you what it means to be 'accretive to free cash flow,'" wrote Hatcher, "but I can tell you that it doesn't have anything to do with great journalism." Reed's statement, noted Hatcher, wasn't meant for the folks who've been reading any of the Messenger Post papers. It was meant for GateHouse investors.

Being interested in good cash flow is no sin, of course. No company --- privately or publicly owned --- buys newspapers intending to lose money on them. A newspaper that can't make a profit won't serve the public very long.

But publicly owned newspapers have been making huge profits, and their shareholders have gotten used to that. They expect it. Many of those stockholders care far less about the quality of the newspapers the companies produce than about the high profits the companies make.

And in some of the most well-known chains, the lust for extraordinary profits has led to drastic staff cuts and, in some cases, to sell-offs.

What none of us want to see with the change in Messenger Post's ownership is a lessening of quality and public service. Under Ewing's ownership, the weeklies have become much stronger journalistic efforts than they once were. Their editorial pages frequently put the Democrat and Chronicle's to shame.

It's hard to overstate the importance of local ownership for newspapers. No, local, independent ownership doesn't guarantee quality. It's possible that the new owners will invest heavily and kick the suburban weeklies and Canandaigua's daily yet another notch higher.

And in his printed response to Hatcher's fretting, Ewing said he was encouraged by his discussions with the new owners. Give them a chance, he urged.

But now ownership by stockholders replaces the devotion of a family with deep roots in the community.

George Ewing has given much of his adult life to his community, through his newspapers. And out of sight of most of his readers, he has contributed a great deal to the community-newspaper industry, through his service and leadership in the New York Press Association.

Ewing deserves a big thank-you as he leaves the company he loved and nourished. Here's mine.


Losing Pearl

The Rochester community lost a giant last week. Pearl Rubin died December 20 at age 85, after a valiant, determined fight with cancer.

In their tributes to her at her funeral service on Friday, her daughters, a grandson, and friends tried to describe this most remarkable woman. They laughed about her love of food and her high energy. They referred to her enjoyment of art, opera, and theater. They called her "the greatest of mothers," "the smartest woman in the world."

And most of all, they talked about her passion for justice and her commitment to a long list of causes that contribute to the Rochester community. Close friend Louise Slaughter described Pearl as the "backbone" in the struggle for justice. "When we would flag," said Slaughter, "she would get us going again."

Al Sigl Center President Dan Meyers described her as "a warrior, a strategist." "She didn't beat the drum," said Meyers, "she was the drum."

Pearl was devoted to women's rights, noted Slaughter, "and even more devoted to human rights." And she had positively railed against the Iraq war.

Pearl was a straight talker, someone who looked you in the eye and told you the truth, always. She was fun, and funny, and had an unforgettable voice. She was an inspiring role model for hundreds of us. And beyond all that, she had a quality that was simply indescribable.

"She was an untamed bird singing in full voice of justice and love," as one daughter put it. She was "the greatest, the rarest, the most lustrous," said Dan Meyer. "Strong as a tree, broad enough to cover everyone," said Slaughter.

She should have had many more years of life, and her death left her friends raging at the injustice dealt her at the end.

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