Does the news media need a government bailout?
Consider the news of recent weeks: Tribune — owner of the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune — filed for bankruptcy. Scripps announced it would sell or close the Rocky Mountain News. The New York Times said it would borrow $225 million to keep its operations running. The Miami Herald is for sale. And everywhere else, it seemed, layoffs were cutting news staffs to the bone.
Can anything be done to save newspapers? Can American democracy thrive without them? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, weigh in.
The problem with journalism isn’t journalism. It’s capitalism.
Despite the dire talk about declining circulation and slowing revenues, there’s a growing audience for what newspapers do — but that audience is online, where newspapers saw a 25 percent increase in visitors during the third quarter of this year. Nobody has figured out how to turn that audience into double-digit profit margins for newspaper owners, however, so the bankruptcy filings and layoffs continue apace.
It’s time to consider an alternative model. It’s time for the government to get into the news business.
Actually, it already is: The Corporation for Public Broadcasting spends about $400 million in federal funds each year to subsidize programming on PBS and NPR. Why not double, triple or quadruple CPB’s funding and distribute that money to newspapers across the country? That might someday lead to the ugly prospect of twice-a-year pledge drives by your local newspaper, but it’s worth the risk.
Why? Because journalism is essential to a thriving democracy; that’s why the Founding Fathers protected it with the very first amendment to the Constitution. It’s a mission too important to be left to the mercy of market forces. If the public good is served by bailing out the banks and carmakers, then journalists shouldn’t be far behind. They’ll be much cheaper to save.
When was the last time anyone heard about National Public Radio or PBS scooping the New York Times or the Washington Post? The Corporation for Public Broadcasting isn’t exactly a font of innovation. And innovation is precisely what the news media need right now.
The problem with journalism isn’t capitalism. The problems with journalism are, among other things, a hidebound attachment to an obsolete distribution model, an inflated sense of importance and utter shellshock in the face of an information revolution.
Here’s what is going to happen. Some very good, very old newspapers will disappear. Others will merge. A lot of press operators and ad sales people will need to learn new trades. Some journalists who dreamed of winning Pulitzer Prizes will instead find themselves teaching English at community college. A lot of good people are going to be left hurting.
And once the tremors stop, there will be a new business model. It will depend on agreements between the old content-makers and the new mega-distributors. Peter Osnos of the Century Foundation argues that newspaper publishers need to follow book publishers’ lead and force the likes of Google and Verizon into licensing agreements. Google in November reached a $125 million settlement with publishers and authors over the search engine giant’s project to digitize copyrighted material. The agreement requires future royalty payments and ad revenue sharing.
Fact is, information is not free. It’s a commodity. Somebody has to pay for it, whether it’s readers, advertisers or, in this go-go digital age of ours, search engines and other distributors. Osnos also notes that news agencies in France, Britain, and Canada also have licensing agreements with Google.
All that prevents U.S. publishers from reaching a similar arrangement is a failure of will and a lack of consensus. And they wonder why they’re dying?
The news media doesn’t need a government bailout. It needs a free-market reboot. Wishing it were otherwise will not make it so.
(Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis blog daily at http://www.infinitemonkeysblog.com and http://politics.pwblogs.com/ )