Senate hearing today on plight of newspapers

6 05 2009

71950128CS012_Senate_Holds_WASHINGTON (AP) — A Senate panel is looking at the plight of struggling newspapers in the digital era.

Sen. John Kerry said Wednesday’s hearing on the future of journalism comes as many papers falter and new ways of delivering information multiply by the day.

The Boston Globe in Mr. Kerry’s home state of Massachusetts is the latest major paper facing the threat of closure unless it can cut costs.

Mr. Kerry said steps must be taken so the news media can stay diverse and independent.

Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland wants to help newspapers restructure as not-for-profit organizations.

Among those scheduled to testify is David Simon, who is a former reporter at the Baltimore Sun and creator of the HBO drama “The Wire.”

Among the topics to be discussed, according to panelists on Diane Rehm’s show this morning, are government support for newspapers or a bailout for struggling newspapers. This is bound to stir up vehemence on both sides of the ideological spectrum. And many journalists, no doubt, will posit that the press cannot be totally independent if it receives government support, that the essential watchdog function over government will  be compromised.

Sounds reasonable in theory, but it hasn’t worked that way in practice. In my view, the best broadcast journalism going today, including tough investigative pieces into government functioning, come from NPR and PBS — both government funded. None of the networks or cable outlets, and certainly no radio I’ve heard, comes close in terms of journalistic quality. The comparison is almost ludicrous.

Then there’s the BBC, long considered a paragon of global journalism

I can see no reason print journalism should be different. I’m not necessarily advocating government subsidies, I just think the argument of compromised journalism is weak.

I would be more concerned about practicality and implementation. Which outlets will the government decide to support? How much will it cost, and what programs would we have to sacrifice? Do readability figures support the argument — in other words, if we save it, will they come? Has our culture so shifted away from the newspaper habit that the goal of an informed electorate is unattainable?




5 responses

6 05 2009
matthew frederick

Which outlets will the government decide to support?

That issue seems to me the one most likely to stir controversy. Does, say, the Washington Times get access to the same funding level as, say, the Chicago Sun-Times?

One paper, the Washington Times, is funded by a multi-millionaire who doesn’t care if he operates the paper at a loss. This paper doesn’t really need subsidization. This paper also happens to be incredibly right-wing.

The other paper, the Chicago Sun-Times is on life-support … entirely dependent upon dissipating external funding sources. This paper needs subsidization just to survive. This paper also happens to be (editorially, at least) left-of-center.

If the left-of-center paper that truly needs the money to stay in business is subsidized while the right-wing paper is not, then that looks an awful lot like the government is picking what paper to fund based on editorial content and editorial decisions.

On the other hand, just subsidizing every paper (even with funding pegged on circulation/readership) is incredibly wasteful. Papers that don’t really need the money are going to get it at the detriment of those papers which really do need the money.

Adding to this an American political culture adverse to government funding or subsidizing of journalism, and I don’t think it is possible.

6 05 2009
matthew frederick

Two other questions that I would like these hearings to address:

1. To what extent are newspapers’ current woes attributable to consumer choice and other market dynamics?

2. To what extent are newspapers’ current woes attributable to newspapers being bought up and then leveraged to the point that they are now shells of their former selves?

The more that question 1 describes what happened to newspapers, the stronger the argument for government assistance … journalism being a “public good” that the market cannot adequately deliver.

The more that question 2 describes what happened to newspapers, the stronger the argument that government assistance would create a “moral hazard” and as a policy should not be pursued.

My suspicion is that question 2 describes what happened to a greater extent than what is commonly believed. Maybe not to an extent greater than question 1, but sometimes I’m not so sure.

6 05 2009

But I think the practical gets in the way of ideological and journalistic considerations. Because of the multiplicity of newspapers and their production/distribution model is so costly and antiquated, the NPR/PBS model can’t work.
I think that many in Congress will want to do something. But because issues of fairness and practicality rule out nearly all alternatives, they’ll probably come up with some kind of tax break for newspapers that will accomplish next to nothing.

11 05 2009
Post-Dispatch: Newspapers are too essential to fail « InfoMash

[…] Post-Dispatch: Newspapers are too essential to fail 11 05 2009 In its lead editorial today, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch rejects the call for federal aid to news organizations. I agree with this conclusion, but for reasons of pragmatism, not journalistic integrity. […]

28 08 2009
J-schools sitting out debate over journalism’s future? « InfoMash

[…] points out that at the Kerry hearings in May, not a single journalism professor testified. Their absence points to a serious underlying […]

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