The great unwinding

tHE THIRD act of the Tribune’s ownership of the Los Angeles Times opened Thursday, without pausing for an intermission, when the board allowed that it might sell some of the company’s newspapers.

So maybe Dean Baquet and Jeffrey M. Johnson’s astonishing defiance of their bosses last week will after all have the same dramatic impact on their company as Jay Harris’s resignation in San Jose had on Knight Ridder. (See “You can take so much cheese off the pizza that nobody will eat it.”)

Now the unwinding of the company is inevitable. They have already sold three TV stations. The Chandlers, LAT’s founding family and now the Tribune’s biggest shareholders, increasingly furious at the stock price of the company they sold to, and evidently ashamed at the steady pressure to diminish their old flagship’s resources, have been placated with an A $180 million option to buy the real estate out from under their old media properties.

News of the possible break up raised the Trib’s share price stock six points Friday. The Tribune indicated that the LA Times itself is not for sale, but, hey, when deals are in play, anything can happen.

As with Knight Ridders’s Philadelphia Inquirer, one or a number of civic knights is expected to bid for the paper, and the cash might look good right now. After all, no one is predicting that media stocks are going to go up.

Eli Broad, philanthopist and art collector, is the newsroom’s favorite suitor, since David Geffen, who says he is ready to write a check, seems a bit, uh, rock and roll. But the Valkyrie are swooping down on Chicago, and the fat lady in the Viking helmet is warming up in the wings.

After 40 years of media consolidation, is it all coming apart? Viacom has split from CBS. The New York Times is selling off its TV stations. Murdoch wants to trade Diller’s stock in News Corp for DirecTV. In a funkier part of the island, David Pecker’s consolidation of the supermarket tabloids has come unstuck, and AMI has put five magazines on the block.

Time Warner has put up for sale their much vaunted collection of vertical magazines, including Field and Stream and Popular Science. Ironically, many of the titles were bought from the Chandler’s Times Mirror magazine group five years ago. There are probably smarter sales (e.g., AOL) for the megalith, but these niche magazines may just not work well inside a big company.

In an increasingly diverse, global world, the old "special interest" media seem boringly broad. The future is in smaller and smaller niches, not in the million-plus circ. blockbusters of yore. The big New York magazine groups, Time Inc., Conde Nast, Hearst, ony consider start-ups with the potential of giant sales, where the advertising can be counted like TV—in terms of CPM.

They wouldn’t touch the super-narrow, personal magazines, with visual narratives and a little unvarnished writing (vide, Rove!) seem very attractive in the era of Reality TV. Eventually everything may be digital, but a printed-out magazine that is graphically interesting and personal may be a delightful thing to have with you when you’re alone at a Starbucks.

And each of these hot little magazines needs a web site for the back current of readers’ ideas and criticism to keep the flames burning. Without the loop, no medium today can be sustained. The problem is that you don’t see any big magazines with a community web site—or even a decent web site at all.

Newspapers, which have better web sites than magazines, need to bundle more sharply personal verticals, and get out of the common denominator business before no one reads them at all.

It’s the intensity of the attention of readers, users and viewers is what advertisers and sponsors look for. (There is business here national and global ad reps for small magazines/sites.) But the numbers small potatoes for the big media groups. Which leaves some interesting room in the meantime for entrepreneurs.

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