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Originally published April 3, 2009 at 2:55 PM | Page modified April 4, 2009 at 12:04 PM

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Finding ways to breathe new life into journalism

America's newspapers are on a death march. Corporations — and their obsession with profits — triggered the downward spiral. The Internet and the economy are threatening to finish the job. Recognizing that vibrant, independent voices were vital to democracy, the Founding Fathers created a favorable environment for the press. It's time for government to step in again.

The Nation

COMMUNITIES across America are suffering through a crisis that could leave a dramatically diminished version of democracy in its wake.

The crisis involves more than mere economics. Journalism is collapsing. With it comes the most serious threat in our lifetimes to self-government and the rule of law as it has been understood in the United States.

After years of neglecting signs of trouble, elite opinion-makers now recognize that things have gone horribly awry. Journals ranging from Time, The New Yorker, The Atlantic and The New Republic to The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times concur: Newspapers are disintegrating and are possibly on the verge of extinction.

Time's Walter Isaacson concludes, "It is now possible to contemplate a time in the near future when major towns will no longer have a newspaper and when magazines and network news operations will employ no more than a handful of reporters."

A newspaper industry that still employs roughly 50,000 journalists — the vast majority of the remaining practitioners of the craft — is teetering on the brink.

Blame has been laid first and foremost on the Internet, for luring away advertisers and readers, and on the economic meltdown, which has demolished revenues and hammered debt-laden media firms. But the understanding of what can be done about the crisis has been woefully inadequate. Unless alternatives and reforms are enacted, the media will continue to flail until journalism is all but extinguished.

Chains started this

Let's begin with the crisis. In a nutshell, media corporations, after running journalism into the ground, have determined that news gathering and reporting are not profit-making propositions. So they're jumping ship.

The country's great regional dailies — the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Philadelphia Inquirer — are in bankruptcy. Denver's Rocky Mountain News recently closed down, ending daily newspaper competition in that city. The owners of the San Francisco Chronicle, reportedly losing $1 million a week, are threatening to shutter the paper, leaving a major city without a major daily newspaper. Big dailies in Seattle (The Times), Chicago (the Sun-Times) and Newark (The Star-Ledger) reportedly are near the point of folding, and smaller dailies such as the Baltimore Examiner already have closed.

The 101-year-old Christian Science Monitor is folding its daily print edition. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer scuttled its print edition and downsized from a news staff of 165 to about 20 for its online-only incarnation. Whole newspaper chains are struggling as the value of stock shares falls below the price of a single daily paper. And The New York Times needed an emergency injection of hundreds of millions of dollars by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim.

Those are the headlines. Arguably uglier is the death-by-small-cuts of functioning newspapers. Layoffs and bureau closings mean surviving newspapers have few resources for actually doing journalism. Job cuts during the first months of this year — 300 at the Los Angeles Times, 205 at The Miami Herald, 156 at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 150 at The Kansas City Star, 128 at The Sacramento Bee, 100 at The Providence Journal, 100 at The Hartford Courant, 90 at The San Diego Union-Tribune, 30 at The Wall Street Journal and on and on — suggest this year will see far more positions eliminated than in 2008, when almost 16,000 were lost. Even Doonesbury's Rick Redfern has been laid off from his job at The Washington Post.

As former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. and associate editor Robert Kaiser have observed, "A great news organization is difficult to build and tragically easy to disassemble."

That disassembling is in full swing. Newspapers that long ago closed foreign bureaus and eliminated crack investigative operations are shuttering at warp speed what remains of city hall, statehouse and Washington bureaus.

The Cox chain, publisher of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Austin American-Statesman and 15 other papers, will padlock its D.C. bureau April 1 — a move that follows the closures of the respected Washington bureaus of Advance Publications (the Newark Star-Ledger, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others); Copley Newspapers and its flagship San Diego Union-Tribune; as well as those of the once-great regional dailies of Des Moines, Hartford, Houston, Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City, San Francisco and Toledo, Ohio.

Mired in debt and facing massive losses, corporate newspaper firms seek to right the ship by cutting costs, leading remaining readers to ask why they pay for publications that are pale shadows of themselves.

More than newspapers

But it is not just newspapers that are in crisis; it is the institution of journalism itself.

By any measure, journalism is missing from most commercial radio. TV news operations have become celebrity- and weather-obsessed "profit centers." Cable channels "fill the gap" with pundits and "business reporters" who got everything about the past decade wrong but now complain that the government doesn't know how to set things right.

Cable news is defensible only because of the occasional newspaper reporter moonlighting as a talking head. But what happens when the last reporter goes into PR or lobbying? She'll leave cable an empty vessel.

The Internet and blogosphere, too, depend in large part on "old media." Web links still refer readers mostly to stories that first appeared in print.

Even in more optimistic scenarios, no one has a business model to sustain digital journalism beyond a small number of self-supporting services. The attempts of newspapers to shift operations online have been commercial failures, as they trade old-media dollars for new-media pennies. Wikipedia and other collaborative efforts on the Web can help democratize our media and politics. But they do not replace skilled journalists and investigative reporting. Indeed, the Internet cannot achieve its revolutionary potential as a citizens' forum without such journalism.

As a result, much of local and state government, whole federal departments and agencies, U.S. activities around the world, the world itself — vast areas of great public concern — are either neglected or on the verge of neglect. Politicians and administrators will work increasingly without independent scrutiny and public accountability.

From its founding, America has valued the press not merely as a watchdog but as the essential nurturer of an informed citizenry. Such a crisis demands solutions. So what are they?

Major woes, minor fixes

There has been a flurry of modest proposals to address the immodest crisis. These range from schemes to further consolidate news gathering at the local level to pleas for consumer donations and hopes that philanthropists and foundations will go into the news business. All range from ineffectual to improbable to undesirable.

Isaacson has proposed that newspapers charge readers "micropayments" for online content. Even if such a system were practical, electronic walls should not block the openness and democratic genius of the Internet.

Yes, many efforts to promote original journalism online — such as ProPublica, Talking Points Memo and the Huffington Post — are worthy. And there are exciting local endeavors, such as MinnPost in the Twin Cities — a nonprofit, five-day-a-week online journal that covers Minnesota politics with support from major foundations, wealthy families and roughly 900 member-donors contributing $10 to $10,000. But even MinnPost acknowledges that its project is not filling the void in a metro area that still has two large, if struggling, daily newspapers.

Just about every serious online journalist readily concedes that, even if these ventures pan out, the result will be a dreadfully undernourished journalism system with considerably less news gathering and reporting, especially at the local level.

The place to begin crafting solutions is with the understanding that the economic downturn did not cause the journalism crisis; nor did the Internet. The crisis can be traced to the 1970s, when corporate ownership and consolidation of newspapers took off. Managers quickly began to satisfy the demand from investors for ever-increasing returns by cutting journalists and shutting news bureaus.

Print advertising, which still accounts for the lion's share of newspaper revenue, also declined gently as a percentage of all ad spending from 1950 to '90, as television grew in importance.

Starting in 1990, well before the rise of the Web as a competitor for ad dollars, newspaper ad revenues went into a sharp decline, from 26 percent of all media advertising that year to what likely will be around 10 percent this year.

Even before that decline, newspaper owners chose short-term profits over long-term viability. As far back as 1983, legendary reporter Ben Bagdikian warned that if publishers continued to water down their journalism and replace it with (less expensive) fluff, they would undermine their raison d'être and fail to cultivate younger readers. But corporate newspaper owners abandoned any responsibility to maintain the franchise. When the Internet came along, newspapers already were heading due south.

Increasingly shoddy

While there are tremendous journalists doing outstanding work, most commentators are loath to acknowledge that the quality of journalism in the United States is dreadful.

The news media blew the coverage of the Iraq invasion, spoon-feeding us lies masquerading as fact-checked verities. They missed the past decade of corporate scandals. They cheered on the housing bubble and genuflected before the financial sector (and Gilded Age levels of wealth and inequality) as it blasted debt and speculation far beyond what the real economy could sustain. Today, they do almost no investigation into where the trillions of public dollars being spent by the Federal Reserve and Treasury are going but spare not a moment to update us on "Octomom."

No wonder young people find mainstream journalism uninviting. Older Americans have been giving up on old media, too, if not as rapidly.

Solutions are needed that provide hard-hitting reporting that monitors people in power, that engages all people, not just classes attractive to advertisers, and that seeks to draw all Americans into public life. The old corporate media system choked on its excess, and there should be no effort to restore or re-create it. We have to move forward to a system that creates a journalism far superior to that of the recent past.

That can be done — but only if the necessity of government intervention is recognized and embraced. Yes, this is a controversial position.

When French President Nicolas Sarkozy recently engineered a $765 million bailout of French newspapers, free marketeers declared, "No, no, not in the land of the free press." Conventional wisdom says the founders intended the press to be entirely independent of the state, to preserve the integrity of the press.

That position has merit. Writers have been routinely critical of government — Democratic and Republican — over the past three decades and antagonistic to those in power. Policies that would allow politicians to exercise even the slightest control over the news are not only frightening but unacceptable.

Fortunately, the rude calculus that says government intervention equals government control is inaccurate.

Not only for the rich

The founders would not have entertained, let alone accepted, the current equation that seems to say that if rich people determine there is no good money to be made in the news, then society cannot have news.

The founders regarded the establishment of a press system, the Fourth Estate, as the first duty of the state. Jefferson and Madison devoted considerable energy to explaining the necessity of the press to a vibrant democracy. The government implemented extraordinary postal subsidies for the distribution of newspapers and instituted massive subsidies through printing contracts and the paid publication of government notices, all with the intent of expanding the number and variety of newspapers.

Moreover, when the Supreme Court has taken up matters of freedom of the press, its majority opinions have argued strongly for the necessity of the press.

Subsidies established by the founders did not end in the 18th — or even the 19th — century. The government still doles out tens of billions of dollars in direct and indirect subsidies, including free and essentially permanent monopoly broadcast licenses, monopoly cable and satellite privileges, copyright protection and postal subsidies. Because these subsidies mostly benefit the wealthy and powerful, they rarely are mentioned in the fictional account of an independent and feisty Fourth Estate. Both the rise and decline of commercial journalism can be attributed in part to government policies, which scrapped the regulations and ownership rules that had encouraged local broadcast journalism and allowed for lax regulation as well as tax deductions for advertising — policies that greatly increased news media revenues.

The truth is that government policies and subsidies already define our press system. The only question is whether they will be enlightened and democratic, as in the early Republic, or corrupt and corrosive to democracy, as has been the case in recent decades.

The battle ahead

The answer will be determined as part of what is certain to be a bruising battle: Media companies and their lobbying groups will argue against the "heavy hand of government" while defending existing subsidies. They will propose more deregulation, hoping to capitalize on the crisis to remove the last barriers to print, broadcast and digital consolidation in local markets — creating media "company towns," where competition is eliminated, along with journalism jobs, in pursuit of better returns for investors.

Enlightened elected officials, media unions and public-interest and community groups that recognize the role of robust journalism are going to have to argue for a real fix.

This is not about newspapers or even broadcast media; it entails all media and accepts that the country may be headed into an era when nearly all communication will be digital.

Ideally, this will be a pluralistic system, where there will be different institutional structures. Varieties of nonprofit media will have to play a much larger role, though not a monopolistic one.

We recognize and embrace the need for a system in which there will be a range of perspectives from left to right, alongside some media more intent on maintaining a less explicitly ideological stance. We must have a system that prohibits state censorship and that minimizes commercial control over journalistic values and pursuits.

The right of any person to start his or her medium, commercial or nonprofit, at any time is inviolable. From this foundation, we can envision a thriving, digital citizen's journalism complementing and probably merging with professional journalism.

What will the mix be? It would vary, with more nonprofit and subsidized media in rural and low-income areas, more for-profit media in wealthier ones. The first order of any government intervention would be to assure that no state or region would be without quality journalism.

Journalism is a public good and that has broad social benefits. Like all public goods, resources are necessary to produce it. This is the role of the state and public policy. It will require a subsidy and should be regarded as similar to the education system or the military in that regard.

Only a nihilist would consider it sufficient to rely on profit-seeking commercial interests or philanthropy to educate our youth or defend the nation from attack. A moment has arrived at which tax dollars are needed to create and maintain news gathering, reporting and writing with the purpose of informing all citizens.

Ideas to consider

What form should government intervention take? In the near term, an immediate journalism economic stimulus is needed, to be revisited after three years. Eliminate postal rates for periodicals that garner less than 20 percent of their revenues from advertising. This keeps alive all sorts of magazines and journals of opinion that are being devastated by distribution costs.

What to do about newspapers? Give all Americans an annual tax credit for the first $200 they spend on daily newspapers. The newspapers would have to publish at least five times per week and maintain a substantial "news hole," say at least 24 broad pages each day, with less than 50 percent advertising. This would buy time for our old-media newsrooms — and for citizens — to develop a plan to establish journalism in the digital era. This could evolve into a system to provide tax credits for online subscriptions as well.

The primary condition on media recipients of this stimulus subsidy would be a mild one: that they make at least 90 percent of content immediately available free online. In this way, the subsidies would expand the public domain and provide the Internet with a rich vein of material available to all.

What about the disconnect between young people and journalism? Allocate funds so every middle school, high school and college has a well-funded student newspaper and a low-power FM radio station, all with substantial Web sites.

The essential component for the immediate stimulus should be an exponential expansion of funding for public and community broadcasting, with the requirement that most of the funds be used for journalism, especially at the local level, and that all programming be available for free online. Other democracies outspend the United States by whopping margins per capita on public media: Canada 16 times more; Germany 20 times more; Japan 43 times more; Britain 60 times more; Finland and Denmark 75 times more. These investments have produced dramatically more detailed and incisive international reporting, as well as programming to serve young people, women, linguistic and ethnic minorities and regions that otherwise might be neglected by for-profit media.

The government now spends less than $450 million annually on public media. (To put matters in perspective, the Pentagon spent several times that on public-relations efforts to encourage favorable press coverage of the wars that most Americans oppose.) Based on what other highly democratic and free countries do, the government allocation should be closer to $10 billion. The suggestions here for subscription subsidies, postal reforms, youth media and investment in public broadcasting have a total price tag in the range of $60 billion over three years.

It's worth the money

In normal times, such a sum might be too much to ask. But in a time of national crisis, when an informed and engaged citizenry is America's best hope, $20 billion a year is chicken feed. It would keep the press system alive and would have the added benefit of providing an economic stimulus. If journalists (and tens of thousands of production and distribution workers) are not put to work through these programs, their knowledge and expertise will be lost. Their unemployment will contribute to further stagnation and economic decline — especially in big cities.

These proposals are a good start, but the really hard work then begins. We have to convert failing newspapers into journalistic entities with the express purpose of assuring that fully staffed, functioning and, ideally, competing newsrooms continue to operate. Policymakers should be open to commercial, municipal, staff or independent nonprofit ownership. Ideally, the next media system will have a combination of the above.

We need members of Congress and leading scholars to approach this matter with the same urgency with which they would approach the threat of terrorism, pandemic, financial collapse or climate change. We need an organized citizenry demanding the institutions that make self-government possible. Only then can we, like our founders, build a free press.

John Nichols, left, a pioneering political blogger, writes about politics for The Nation magazine. He is a contributing writer for The Progressive and In These Times and the associate editor of the Capital Times, the daily newspaper in Madison, Wis. Robert McChesney is a communications professor at the University of Illinois.

Nichols, McChesney and Josh Silver founded the media reform network Free Press (www.freepress.net), which has launched a campaign to save the news.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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