Journalism Today: The Last One Out, Turn Off The Lights

I had an interesting (and admittedly heated) debate with a friend yesterday about the current state of affairs regarding the economy, the government bailouts, and personal culpability.

Indulge me for a moment, here, because I do have a point. Our discussion stemmed from the $165 million in bonuses that AIG determined necessary to hand out to their employees that has caused such an outrage.

I was in a huff because, contractual obligation to offer “bonuses” aside, like most people I wanted to see some heads roll. What I understand about the whole situation is that the banks are in the position they are in largely because they didn’t see the trouble that was coming down the road. They didn’t (or couldn’t, depending on who you talk to) foresee a collapse in the housing market that, in the precarious position they put themselves in by issuing shoddy mortgages, threw them and us into this panic.

What if these weren’t major banks with tons of political and financial clout? What if they were local banks? And local businesses? How many businesses fail on a yearly basis for reasons they couldn’t possibly foresee? What business are yet to fall? Where’s the cardboard cutout of Uncle Sam with his arm stuck out saying “you must be this big to be safe from your own financial mistakes”?

This is a long-winded way for my to ask the question: Why is nobody clamoring for newspapers to be saved? Where’s their bailout?

The newspaper industry, and journalism in general, are democratic institutions. Banks are extremely important, no doubt, especially when people’s homes are on the line, but an informed public is not obsolete, nor is it merely rhetoric – it’s a fundamental part of our democracy. The question begs, then, why are newspapers not on the docket to be propped up while they weather the storm of the economy and their own lack of foresight?

To say the newspaper industry should have seen this day coming is at least as ridiculous as saying the banks should’ve seen the housing market collapse. How many people thought of Craigslist? Or Ebay? Or Monster.com? Or all the other parts of the Internet that allow people to just sidestep the gates that newspapers, once upon a time, held all the keys for?

Argue about declining readership numbers and free market economics all you want, but other industries are in a similar situation. The American auto industry has been in trouble since the 70s, seemingly always outpaced and out-innovated. But they’re getting their loans, largely because they employ so many hard working Americans.

Well the Hearst Corporation has over 20,000 employees. Gannett employs over 46,100 people. McClatchy has about 14,000 but is cutting 1600 jobs. I could go on. There are simply thousands of people at Tribune Co., New York Times Co., Newhouse News, Dow Jones and Co., etc. and their jobs are all in danger.

General Motors employs (or employed) roughly 100,000 American workers and it’s not like newspapers are outsourcing more than half their workforce to other countries. They’re never going to move all the NY Times presses to South America.

How many hundred thousand newspaper people have to look down the barrel of a buyout before anybody does anything for them? Before anybody even brings up the subject in a serious way?

The truth, and this is the sobering reality that keeps newspaper people (myself included) up at night, is America doesn’t need her newspapers anymore. The news business can survive without them.

I’m not being coy or flippant with that fact, but it is a fact and the market is bearing it out. People need their news, but they can get it from places that are already in place and will likely expand in the future, especially on the national level.

Now, local news will thrive and small towns will likely continue publishing newspapers for a long time. But the big papers, especially the big city papers, are likely to go under and very soon and there won’t be any real papers to replace them.

I’m also not being doom and gloom about the future of journalism, although it’s going to take a real hit compared to where it is now and where it was just a decade ago. However, it’s got to change and it’s got to change soon because, as several newspapers have begun to prove, nobody’s going to pull them out of it.

Now where’d I leave my bonus soap box?

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0 comments

  1. I agree with your opinion that the newspapers need to be saved, but I thought I’d point out that there is already legislation introduced to accomplish this.

    The idea of the Newspaper Revitalization Act would be that newspapers could choose to operate as a non-profit, thus making their revenues tax exempt. Think of it as PBS-style newspapers, but with editorial freedom. The only thing they would no longer be allowed to do is make political endorsements.

    It may not be perfect, but it will at least allow journalism to remain alive for a while longer.

    Link: http://www.reuters.com/article/politicsNews/idUSTRE52N67F20090324

  2. How much bail out money will the papers need? Now matter how much the government may give them that will not allievated the problem that most people are getting their news off the internet.

    The people hurt the most by all this are people that can not afford computers or older people that are just not savvy about the internet.

  3. I have to disagree a wee bit here. Newspapers did see it coming, they were warned, and they did not move quickly enough to adapt.

    The coming housing bust was foreseen as well, but the banks chose not to adapt their practices. That was their risk, and we are all suffering because of it (I lost my job last Friday).

    Some big city newspapers do little for their community. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has gotten so bad that they deserve to die frankly. Why? Because over the years they have consistently dumbed down the news.

    Papers like the Washington Post and New York Times need to survive because of their quality. But they should not be bailed out.

  4. Well newspapers are adopting their practices. They saw the Internet and tried to utilize it, but nobody could see that their hold on things like classifieds and job postings would evaporate because of things like craigslist.

    Those are huge sources of revenue for newspapers and they’re basically gone now. Readership and subscriptions pay for some of the paper, but most of their revenue comes from advertising and classifieds. My point is that newspapers are trying to transition to a digital-delivery system but there’s no equivalent of a full page Macy’s ad online (in terms of advertising revenue). I’m a believer in personal responsibility. I don’t agree with the idea of bailouts anyway, but if we’re going to prop up other industries that are in the same dire straights because they’re so important to the country, why not newspapers?

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