Lamenting the death of newspapers in the Nation, John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney enlighten us on how the free press can be saved from evil corporations and the internet: government subsidies and a bunch of rules
I've been meaning to blog about the decline of the newspaper industry for a while now (Bill Simmons and Chuck Klosterman had a podcast on the subject in relation to sports journalism on Simmons's podcast a few weeks ago, for those interested in such things) and this piece seemed as good starting point as any. What's interesting to me is how the debate tends to flow from the historical role of newspapers in America, as if this history was of the utmost importance in today's technologically sophisticated climate. So much emphasis is placed on declining journalistic standards and corporate control that little time is given to why it is exactly that newspapers are failing as a business model across the board.
Newspapers have spent the last decade forging ahead into the digital age, changing little in their plan of attack beyond providing free content on the internet. Some like to correlate the financial woes of the newspaper industry with the rise of free news content on the internet, but the stronger correlation seems to be with the growth of Craigslist and other online sources of free advertising. When I was in college in the early part of the decade there was plenty of free news content available on the internet, but I didn't know about Craigslist. According to Wikipedia, Craiglist expanded from 30 or so cities in 2003 (the year I graduated) to over 450 by 2007. As Craigslist has grown exponentially, so has the plight of newspapers. This change happened so quickly it's hard to place blame on anyone in the newspaper business, but it does mean that newspapers need drastic changes to survive, not cheaper attempts at doing more of the same thing.
The biggest mistake made by Nichols, McChesney, and a hell of a lot of other newspaper mourners, is the conflation of the newspaper with journalism, as if the newspaper in it's current state (or classic state really, seeing how watered down current newspapers have become) is the only mechanism by which journalists can fulfill their role as the fourth estate. I'm certainly not the one to reinvent the newspaper industry in one felled swoop, but just think about the many different costs that are part of newspapers. Are editorial boards and opinion writers necessary expenses in the age of blogs and online commentary? Are photographers necessary in an age of cable television and Youtube? Do the Sunday comics actually bring in more cash from readers than they cost to produce? And given reduced circulation, do newspapers actually make enough money from sales of physical sales of papers to cover the costs of production?
It seems to me as though newspapers have made cuts here and there and continually failed to ask the big questions about the product they're producing. I'm with the newspaper romanticizers who long for newspapers to provide quality groundbreaking reporting. But how much does that actually cost? How many reporters does a small city like Hartford actually need? I have no idea how many reporters they actually employ, but it seems to me as though the local Hartford Courant only has a few worthwhile stories a week and has that groundbreaking type stuff only a few times a year. Either you've got a lot of people doing a shitty job or you really only need a few journalists in a small city. It sounds outrageous, but just look at your local paper and see how many stories or either from the AP wire or are simply rewrites from the AP wire.
Allow me to be clear. There's no reason that the problems of newspapers need to be the problems of good journalism. There are plenty of quality journalists out there working independently of newspapers. Take Radley Balko for instance, who writes for Reason magazine (which is in part funded by the non-profit Reason think tank), and has done tremendous investigative work in the area of criminal justice on stories not covered by local or national journalists- the Cory Maye case, Dr, Stephen Hayne and the disreputable Mississippi forensic system to name a few. I've seen more solid, traditional journalism from Balko alone than I've seen from the Hartford Courant over the past five years.
There are plenty of reasons why the level of journalism in newspapers has sunk so low, but that's a separate issue from the financial troubles of newspapers. Yes, newspapers have cut back on news staff, but that's got nothing to do with the crap the remaining news staff is printing.
Nichols and McChesney propose that government money and government regulation is needed to support good journalism while completely missing the idea that yes, it may be possible for good journalists to make money independent of the outdated newspaper model. That people don't want to pay for the online content of a crappy paper doesn't mean that they wouldn't pay a lesser amount to support the work of a good reporter. For pennies a day, a mere 10,000 people could support a good reporter to the tune of $100,000 plus per year and yes I do think that people would pay these small amounts to support good journalism.
ESPN online offers sports fans the opportunity to access premium content on it's website and ties that offer in with its print magazine for a cost of $40 a year. I pay it and plenty of my friends pay it because there are columnists we want to read and information we want. There's no reason the same model can't work for good journalism. Journalists could go solo, they could form non-profits, or they could try and make a go as a profit making enterprise. I don't know the best answer and I don't know if there actually is a best answer. But there's a world of possibilities made all the bigger and all the easier because of the internet, not in spite of it. To throw in the towel and rush to the outstretched hand of government is a failure of imagination, perhaps even a concession to the argument that Americans are too stupid to know what's good for them.
But like all the bailout banks, give newspapers a chance to fail so that we the taxpayers don't wind up subsidizing the same lousy crap. Let's give real, worthwhile journalists the opportunity to reinvent themselves and change the news business for the better.