Thursday, March 26, 2009

The newspaper is dead, long live the newspaper

Anyone paying an iota of attention to the current media situation knows that things are looking dire. We're talking Fall of the Roman Empire dire. The rebels at the end of "The Empire Strikes Back" dire. Y'know, bad. Major news organizations across the nation are folding, shuttering their offices, laying off workers, slimming down, cutting back, and desperately trying to find ways to keep afloat.

Charge for online content. Employ fewer journalists. Combine operations when a city has more than one newspaper. Shrink the actual size of the paper. And the list goes on.

What few of the major media conglomerates who run many of these operations seem to realize, however, is that the old, profit-driven, mega-consolidated way of doing things is coming to an end. And, I'd say, it's about damn time.

I'm a writer who sometimes moonlights as an actual journalist, so I certainly have a vested interest in finding ways for folks like me to get paid for their work. I think it's important to have a healthy balance (operative word being "healthy" here) between the so-called "citizen journalism" of blogs, etc., and the professional, comprehensive news gathering of honest-to-goodness trained journalists.

Things are fast becoming unbalanced, though, and we need to act very quickly to see that our country, our world, does not lose one of the most vital elements of any democracy: The free press.

Madison's Mayor Dave Cieslewicz yesterday penned a post wherein he called for newspapers to begin charging for online content:
Charge me. Please charge me. Why is it that I should expect to pay for news delivered on paper, but not expect to pay for the same story I read online? It costs something to hire reporters and editors and why shouldn't I, as a consumer of the news, pay for some of that cost?

So first and foremost, charge me. Second, charge me twice. Competition is a good thing. The blending of our two daily newspapers into one is not a healthy thing. When I see a Cap Times byline in the State Journal I wonder what that means. I know who wrote it, but who edited it? And what does it mean for competition between the papers? Are reporters tripping over one another to break a story or are they sleepily cooperating?
His concerns are not misplaced, but his solution, I believe, is. Jesse Russell, writing at Dane101, makes a counter offer and points out Maryland Senator Benjamin Cardin's current proposal to allow newspapers to reorganize under non-profit status. They would then enjoy benefits typically only previously given to educational entities. They could claim circulation revenue and advertising as tax exempt. The caveat, however, would be that those newspapers could not "make political endorsements."

That's where you lose me. John Nichols and Robert McChesney of The Nation have another idea (and it's a fantastic article, so please do give the whole thing a read): Government intervention.

My hackles raised almost immediately upon reading that. Letting the government have any say over how a newspaper runs its operations is a recipe for disaster, 1984 style. But wait! they say, that's not what we mean:
Only government can implement policies and subsidies to provide an institutional framework for quality journalism. We understand that this is a controversial position. When French President Nicolas Sarkozy recently engineered a $765 million bailout of French newspapers, free marketeers rushed to the barricades to declare, "No, no, not in the land of the free press." Conventional wisdom says that the founders intended the press to be entirely independent of the state, to preserve the integrity of the press...

...We are sympathetic to that position. As writers, we have been routinely critical of government--Democratic and Republican--over the past three decades and antagonistic to those in power. Policies that would allow politicians to exercise even the slightest control over the news are, in our view, not only frightening but unacceptable. Fortunately, the rude calculus that says government intervention equals government control is inaccurate and does not reflect our past or present, or what enlightened policies and subsidies could entail.

Our founders never thought that freedom of the press would belong only to those who could afford a press. They would have been horrified at the notion that journalism should be regarded as the private preserve of the Rupert Murdochs and John Malones. The founders would not have entertained, let alone accepted, the current equation that seems to say that if rich people determine there is no good money to be made in the news, then society cannot have news.
They go on to explain that, during the early decades of the country, the Founders worked with government to create and implement "extraordinary postal subsidies for the distribution of newspapers. It also instituted massive newspaper subsidies through printing contracts and the paid publication of government notices, all with the intent of expanding the number and variety of newspapers."

The trick in this scenario, of course, is making sure that the policies and regulation remain "enlightened" - that is, the government provides money and subsidies, with pretty much the only thing it gets in return being a vibrant, independent press. So beyond funding, they lay off--no editorial control, not even a tiny bit of leaning.

Honestly, that may well be what it takes. Or maybe a combination of the non-profit and government subsidy models. Because newspapers should be freely able to editorialize and endorse. That's part of being a free press, after all. But they should also be recognized as a vital part of our society, one worth funding so that they're not run according to what might bring the most profit to their owners.

Newspapers, indeed all news organizations, should be run according to news. And it should be readily available to everyone, regardless of the size of their pocketbook. That's the great thing about the internet, and the sooner everyone recognizes this major, fundamental shift in how things are done, the better off everyone will be. Including our dying newspapers.

(photo by jamesjyu on Flickr)


Anonymous said...

Media conglomerates with stakes in broadcast and online products aren't having the same issues as those in print, and don't look to be dying anytime soon. It's wishful thinking to say that they are, unfortunately. The problem is far more complex than that.

Emily said...

The problem is far more complex than that.

That's pretty much what I was trying to say. Apparently not clearly enough.

You're right, of course, that the big conglomerates aren't necessarily hurting in their other media ventures, but their newspapers are certainly suffering. And because they're solely profit-driven companies, when their papers start losing money, they start losing their papers. That's a big part of the problem right there.

George H. said...

A couple of observations:
The edges of the conglomerate sword are that a profitable paper's profit could be used to keep an unprofitable paper afloat, and, darkly, a profitable paper's profit could be raided to keep a failing conglomerate afloat.
Government support of media is not unheard of elsewhere, where newspapers are owned by political parties for example, or where governments dole out subsidies depending on the strength of that party in the current parliament. Even in those cases, newspapers are failing today.
I work at the State Journal, where no one has even hinted at charging for internet content, but where I look across a desert of empty desks - a "deskert?" The Nation article is remarkably straightforward and makes a good case for subsidies from a non-profit angle.
On the literary front, I would have hoped more lovers of language and literature and communication would recognize the threat that comes from the loss of newspapers. When you lose a newspaper, you lose a training ground for writers. Hemingway famously (and supposedly) wrote that journalism is a great profession as long as you get out of it soon enough. Everyone has to start somewhere, and newspapers are a great place for an aspiring writer to practice. Skills of observation, narration, dialogue, recognition of irony, exposure to injustice and its cures and causes, all contribute to what might become good writing from a good writer, or even great writing.
You also lose generations of advisers who can provide positive, negative and passionate responses to the work of young writers. I could go on, but then I would need a copy editor, and goodness knows where you will find one these days...

Anonymous said...

"The edges of the conglomerate sword are that a profitable paper's profit could be used to keep an unprofitable paper afloat, and, darkly, a profitable paper's profit could be raided to keep a failing conglomerate afloat."

Why not just come out and say it directly? Here, I'll help.

"The edges of the conglomerate sword are that the Wisconsin State Journal's profit could be used to keep The Capital Times afloat, and, darkly, the State Journal's profit could be raided to keep Lee Enterprises afloat."

That's clearly what's going on now, and what you're referring to.

Emily said...

And it rolls on....

Madison Guy said...

We lose so much when we lose real, physical newspapers, but I don't think we'll ever break Americans of their century-plus habit of getting most of the true cost of their news paid by advertising. But advertisers are fleeing in droves -- much faster than readers, actually.

What to do? I think technology will have to solve the problem technology created. If newspapers can hold on until a true, paper-like wireless reader using "electronic ink" technology (in color) is available -- something people can spread out but also fold up and carry around easily -- newspapers will be fine.

For readers, it will be the best of the internet (searchable) and paper. For advertisers, they'll have the space to do what they do in newspapers -- but also be interactive.

It could work. Question is, will we get it soon enough. I needs to be the next iPod-scale killer app.

Emily said...

MG - I hear you, but the problem with that approach is two-fold, I think.

One, it assumes technology will move quickly enough and in the right direction to come up with a viable e-reader in time to save existing news organizations. The current rate of decline is pretty rapid, though, so I'm not sure that's going to be feasible.

Two, it leaves out a large chunk of the national and world population who simply do not have access to technologies of that sort. Unless we plan to subsidize the technology to the point that it's free and easily accessible to everyone (something we're already running into trouble with), I think it'd be unreasonable and dangerous to rely on that route alone.

George H. said...

Anonymity: The death of civility and the vessel from which flows the means to ending an interesting and open discussion.

- George Hesselberg

George H. said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...


Copy-and-paste of an entire article goes to show how our society values digitally published assets. Let's set a good example and provide a link to the source.

Emily said...

George - Interesting article, and more than a little frustrating.

Timothy - Thanks for the link. :)

George H. said...

Thanks Tim. I thought I had just copied the link. My apologies. I should have asked Emily to remove it immediately, which I will do right now!
George Hesselberg

The Lost Albatross