Monday, March 23, 2009

The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers

John Nichols & Robert W. McChesney, writing in The Nation, have published a thought-provoking analysis of the steps necessary to rebuild the Fourth Estate, which today appears to be collapsing. The authors view this collapse as a struggle for American democracy.

Nichols and McChesney lay out the dire situation faced by modern newspapers--shuttered bureaus, gutted staffs, and profit-minded focus on fluff rather than hard news (that reminds me: What has Octomom been doing lately?). We see some of the results today: major cities with no major newspapers to contribute to public life.

The authors trace this predicament to a generation preceding the internet age. They add that today's economic woes alone do not account for the struggles faced by newspapers. For these authors, the return of conglomerates, vaster and more intricate even than the Gilded Age trusts, helped doom the independent press. The result? "We are entering historically uncharted territory in America, a country that from its founding has valued the press not merely as a watchdog but as the essential nurturer of an informed citizenry."

Nichols and McChesney offer a solution that they readily admit will inspire a knee-jerk reaction by some folks: Federal subsidies. A bailout for journalists. A sort of infrastructure stimulus plan for the Fourth Estate.

Anticipating the howls from both the Left and the Right (mostly from the Right, I presume) about government interference in the free press, Nichols and McChesney note that the U.S. government has always subsidized the press in one form or another, through reduced-rate mail to revenue-enhancing public notices, not to mention the reservation of some of the electronic spectrum to the "public good." And even amid our current fiscal difficulties, enhanced support for a free press can hardly come at too dear a price, they say. What do they propose?

  • Eliminate postal rates for periodicals that make little money from advertising. "This keeps alive all sorts of magazines and journals of opinion that are being devastated by distribution costs. It is these publications that often do investigative, cutting-edge, politically provocative journalism."

  • Authorize a $200 tax credit for Americans to subscribe to daily newspapers. "This will buy time for our old media newsrooms--and for us citizens--to develop a plan to establish journalism in the digital era. We could see this evolving into a system to provide tax credits for online subscriptions as well."

  • Support funding for a decent newspaper and low-watt radio station in every American school (at or above the middle school level). "We need to get young people accustomed to producing journalism and to appreciating what differentiates good journalism from the other stuff."

  • Increase funding for public and community broadcasting. "Other democracies outspend the United States by whopping margins per capita on public media: Canada sixteen times more; Germany twenty times more; Japan forty-three times more; Britain sixty times more; Finland and Denmark seventy-five times more."

    Nichols and McChesney conclude that the total pricetag should be around $60 billion over the next three years. What do you think? Are they onto something? Or are they ignoring the inevitable?

    Read the entire article: The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers

  • March 24, 2009 update: Reuters reports that Senator Benjamin Cardin has proposed an amendment to allow newspapers to gain tax breaks by becoming non-profits - and losing their ability to make political endorsements: U.S. bill seeks to rescue faltering newspapers


    Jenny Wood said...

    I think they're not only ignoring and delaying the inevitable, they are forgetting a couple of key things - the government is already bailing out several things and it's costing US a ton of money. They're also ignoring the fact that most newspapers are already online and this not only saves money in distribution and printing but is also more interactive and saves the environment through less trees.

    Let's stop trying to save the old paper versions and encourage them to transition to the more efficient, interactive and environmentally friendly format of online. They can still do investigative journalism and all the things they want - in a better format.

    Jon said...

    Bravo Jenny.
    Let's not confuse journalism with newspapers.
    I find myself more and more getting my news from other newspaper web sites outside the US - Britain in particular - where the papers seem to where their biases more openly on their sleeves like American papers used to a century ago - so you can get a level set on where they stand when you are reading something.

    Of course, less paper use actually means LESS trees grown, since most newsprint is produced by fast growing hybridized cottonwood derivatives. It's not like they're cutting down old growth redwoods to print the comics. So as the market for paper erodes, people will stop farming that crop, which means fewer trees converting CO2 to O2.

    I, for one, look forward to the next plan to come out from Washington to bring a recovery to the buggy whip trade. We can't be a serious world power if we don't produce our buggy whips on American soil with American workers making a living wage!!!!

    Anonymous said...

    As one who works for a newspaper it's nice to see our print product and new web innovation recgonized for it's national and local reporting.

    As our CEO and chairman Paul Tash said today to the staff "during one of the most difficult economic climates Florida has ever faced, we were still pushing toward excellence and innovation, reaching the highest standards of our craft."