There is little doubt that the nation’s newspapers are in deep trouble. And not just a few rags here and there. The entire industry is in the process of going extinct with the exception of a few papers funded by individuals with very, very deep pockets and can absorb the millions in losses incurred by running a modern, metropolitan daily newspaper.
Why this is so, is a trickier question and not conducive to simple, one sentence answers. You can say the internet is killing the daily newspaper and that would be true, but not the whole story.
You can say blogs are killing newspapers and you would be indulging in wishful thinking. They have certainly affected newspapers but most bloggers need newspapers more than newspapers need blogs.
You can say political bias is killing newspapers and you would be picking nits. Bias in reporting only makes the political class angry. No one else really notices or cares.
You can say that the standard business model for the daily paper does not reflect the reality of the marketplace and you would be correct - except most papers have already tried to adapt to the internet age and are finding it very tough going.
The number one reason newspapers are dying is because they cannot compete in a rapidly changing information marketplace. The print editions are not as immediate as television. The web editions are hard to navigate and difficult to find the information for which you are looking. Advertising revenue for both is dropping as marketing whizzes use social networking sites and techniques to drive conversation about products and services that were once full page ads. The huge falloff in revenue from classified ads moving to websites like Craig’s List has also contributed to the decline.
People’s reading habits are changing. Audio books and Kindle are revolutionizing the way we read and web sites like Memeorandum make it a simple matter to pick out information that the reader feels is necessary to know or in which he is interested. Newspapers are becoming superfluous - an unwanted appendage that doesn’t fill any need except that of tradition and continuity.
Blogs and message boards do a better job of informing about sports, style, even business. Ditto for what used to be called “opinion journalism” and is now simply ranting, for the most part. Such opinion columnists don’t marshal arguments, illuminate options, and recommend a course of action. They have - with very few exceptions - become creative writers, trying to outdo blogs in their use of colorful invective and snarky sarcasm.
If Rupert Murdoch gets his way and readers are forced to pay for the privilege of accessing on-line newspaper content, it will only hasten their demise. The New York Times “firewall” experiment proves that. Not enough people are willing to pay to read opinion - even if they are usually in agreement with the columnist. They can get pretty much the same thing for free on blogs. And sometimes, the writing and thinking is superior to that which is found at newspapers, online or otherwise.
That leaves paying for “news” stories. This presupposes that no one will step in and offer for free what these newspapers want to charge money for. The Army of Davids who would eagerly dive into the void and “report” on various news stories using what they discover on local blogs, YouTube, or even Twitter would doom to failure any attempt for newspapers to alter their revenue plans to include charging for online access - even if it’s only a “nominal” fee.
I love newspapers - both online and dead tree. But they belong to another age, much like the elegance of a horse drawn carriage or the friendliness of a Mom and Pop grocery store. What exactly is it that newspapers do that would justify their continued existence?
“Investigative” reporting? Most newspapers don’t do that anymore - too expensive. And even if a paper has an investigative reporting department, is that reason enough to pay for the privilege of access when these stories make up such a small percentage of news reported during the course of a year?
“In-depth” analysis of issues? Anyone who is interested in an issue or a story can find a dozen websites ranging from think tanks to university professors who would do an equally good job of giving context, history, and analysis to any issue.
There are niche areas where newspapers could thrive. I can see an ESPN or IDB, or Wall Street Journal remaining viable as long as their price for access was reasonable and commensurate with the value of the content. Ditto for websites that report on fashion, or movies, or any other department found in daily newspapers. I wouldn’t doubt it if there weren’t already websites that contain obituaries. Many would pay for access there too.
But why pay to read about New York sports teams in the New York Times? If you’re from New York, you could get equally good coverage and analysis on any of a dozen blogs. Sports talk radio would give the sports fan access to the same news with the bonus of it being free.
As long as newspapers were the gatekeepers for information and commanded the attention of the masses, they could charge advertisers enough money to make a profit. But with such diluted information streams coming from all points, and advertisers finding alternatives that are cheaper and actually promise to promote their products better, newspapers have become entities in search of a mission. They are casting about desperately, trying to manufacture reasons to remain relevant. And no one - not readers or advertisers - is buying it.
Nothing I’ve written so far is news to anyone who follows the newspaper industry. Nor is the idea that somehow, the government must step in and “help” newspapers survive. Direct subsidies would be ridiculous. The government should not be in the business of subsidizing opinion. The slippery slope there is so obvious a 3 year old could see it.
But what about indirect subsidies in the form of tax breaks for newspapers that reorganize themselves into non profit organizations? The Hill reports:
The president said he is “happy to look at” bills before Congress that would give struggling news organizations tax breaks if they were to restructure as nonprofit businesses.
“I haven’t seen detailed proposals yet, but I’ll be happy to look at them,” Obama told the editors of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Toledo Blade in an interview.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) has introduced S. 673, the so-called “Newspaper Revitalization Act,” that would give outlets tax deals if they were to restructure as 501(c)(3) corporations. That bill has so far attracted one cosponsor, Cardin’s Maryland colleague Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D).
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs had played down the possibility of government assistance for news organizations, which have been hit by an economic downturn and dwindling ad revenue.
In early May, Gibbs said that while he hadn’t asked the president specifically about bailout options for newspapers, “I don’t know what, in all honesty, government can do about it.”
Obama said that good journalism is “critical to the health of our democracy,” but expressed concern toward growing tends in reporting — especially on political blogs, from which a groundswell of support for his campaign emerged during the presidential election.
“I am concerned that if the direction of the news is all blogosphere, all opinions, with no serious fact-checking, no serious attempts to put stories in context, that what you will end up getting is people shouting at each other across the void but not a lot of mutual understanding,” he said.
The president obviously doesn’t spend 10 hours a day on the internet like the rest of us. If he did, he would have known that there are many websites and blogs that already offer mostly unbiased analysis and fact based opinion. The idea that these qualities are solely the province of old school journalists found in the newsrooms of America is absurd.
Sadly, many on both the right and the left read only those blogs and websites that reflect their partisan tilt (this is less true on the left but there is still a very significant percentage of liberals who will read only liberal blogs.) It is not that the kind of information the president is talking about isn’t already available, it is that the number of people interested in non-partisan or less partisan reading is relatively small.
And perhaps the president would like to tell us how newspapers have promoted “mutual understanding?” Newspapers have historically promoted their own biased viewpoints, from Hearst to Ochs. Until relatively recently, newspapers were basically organs for one party or the other. Some still are.
If newspapers believe they can investigate corruption, fairly analyze politics and culture, and offer fact based opinion pieces that seek to inform rather than inflame, then by all means give them the tax breaks.
But you and I know that won’t happen. In fact, it is the profit motive that restrains newspapers from being too overtly biased in their reporting. Currently, newspapers must attract as many people as possible regardless of their political biases or party affiliation. If they were to go non-profit, what would be the incentive to be fair? There would be some, of course, who would respect the idea that they were in the business of informing their readers in as neutral a way possible of the issues and politics that are newsworthy. But such nobility would be even rarer than it is today. Without the incentive to make money, newspapers would de-evolve and revert to their past practice of being openly partisan or ideological. Remove the profit motive and you remove the one thing that governs content.
In the last 5 years, I may have read half a dozen dead tree newspapers. My reading habits have changed and the time spent perusing a newspaper could be better spent googling what I want to know. That’s the bottom line and I see no way that newspapers - online or traditional paper editions - will ever to be able to overcome the problem that the meteor has already struck Chicxulub and there is nothing they can do to save themselves from catastrophe.