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?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."
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?
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...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."
...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.
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)