In Norway, Sweden and Finland, where Internet use is high and strong public broadcasting systems provide sound radio and TV alternatives, newspapers are in a dramatically better position than in the United States--in part because of longstanding government commitments to encourage competition, diversity and quality. In Norway, for instance, the Media Authority, an administrative body within the country's cultural affairs ministry, uses public subsidies to encourage the development of local newspapers that compete with bigger established papers. The program promotes the development of newspapers in sparsely populated regions and helps sustain publications that may have an ideological following but are not necessarily popular with advertisers. The system is strictly controlled to avoid government censorship or pressures on publishers--in fact, the joke goes that the best way to get government assistance is to start an opposition newspaper. Even large newspapers that have little or no need for the subsidies are influenced by the system, as they find themselves in competition with papers that push the journalistic envelope. The basic requirements to qualify for subsidies provide encouragement to newspapers to invest in journalism. At the same time, key subsidies are not available to newspapers owned by companies that pay stock dividends--a restriction that prevents investors from cashing in on the public largesse.
One byproduct of the Scandinavian commitment to newspapers, especially in Norway, has been the development of some of the finest news-oriented Internet sites in the world. If newspapers do eventually slide out of existence, the strength of these websites offers encouraging evidence that journalism will survive. Norway's Schibsted newspaper firm now earns 35 percent of its operating profits from Internet ventures that have built on the reputation of its newspapers to develop the most-visited news websites in Scandinavia. Another Scandinavian publishing house, Orkla Media, owns what is frequently referred to as one of the world's most successful web-only newspapers, Germany's Netzeitung. "It's not a blog, a search engine or an aggregator," explains web journalism consultant Jeff Jarvis in an enthusiastic review of the initiative. "It is a newspaper without the paper, but with 60 journalists reporting the news. Netzeitung has not only survived the Internet bubble and a ping-pong game of corporate sales, it has acquired other media properties; it is starting an ambitious effort in networked journalism with citizen reporters; and it is set to be profitable [in the near term]."
The point here is not to portray subsidy programs as a panacea. While they seem to have worked well in Norway and a few other countries, their track record in countries like Italy is decidedly more mixed. The lesson from the rest of the world isn't that the United States ought to set up a particular program of subsidies--or borrow any other individual idea. It's that government can in the right circumstances and with the right intentions play a useful role in stabilizing the fortunes of newspapers and in encouraging investments in serious journalism. For instance, allowing Americans to deduct the price of an annual newspaper subscription from their taxes would boost circulation while creating the potential for papers to be less reliant on advertising revenue, and thus less vulnerable to pressures from advertisers. However, even this innovative approach runs the risk, if it were embarked upon in isolation, of reinforcing the bad habits of US media owners.
What America needs are new and better models of newspaper ownership. Instead of letting the FCC open the way for chain newspapers to establish local monopolies by eliminating the ban on cross-ownership, Congress should concern itself with re-establishing competition and innovation by encouraging the breakup of chains and the sale of big-city dailies to local owners who value the role a great newspaper can play in a community. Much has been made of the interest expressed by wealthy newspaper fans like entertainment mogul David Geffen, former supermarket magnate Ron Burkle and former home builder Eli Broad in buying the Los Angeles Times. Broad, a critic of chain ownership who suggests that distant owners of local newspapers ill-serve the communities in which they publish, explains, "I believe a newspaper is a civic asset, a civic trust. I see a role for foundations that are not totally bottom-line oriented somehow being involved in the newspaper industry and/or civic-minded families or others."
Broad's line of reasoning should be encouraged. But the most important aspect of his vision is that reference to "others" who might own newspapers. Civic-minded families may well have a better record of running newspapers than distant investors, but there aren't enough wealthy philanthropists to go around, and besides, they aren't all "civic minded." Foundations and trusts, which control a handful of American newspapers, present a more interesting prospect. While the experience is limited, foundation-controlled newspapers such as the St. Petersburg Times do, for the most part, have better journalistic reputations than their competitors. Congress should concern itself particularly with developing policies that would make it easier--through shifts in approaches to taxation, postal subsidies and the often-abused "joint operating agreements" established in a number of larger cities to help maintain competition--for newspaper employees, unions and even community coalitions to buy, and perhaps even start, newspapers.
Representative Maurice Hinchey, the New York Democrat who chairs the Congressional Future of American Media Caucus, has the right idea when he says Congress should seek to assure that the American people "have easy access to vast sources of news so that they can be well-informed with a diverse mix of reporting and opinion." That may sound like a broad goal, but it's the right organizing principle. No matter what the fate of newspapers, developing new models for ownership of institutions that gather, analyze, comment upon and then distribute the news--be they newspapers, television stations, radio stations, websites or whatever the product of the next great technological leap--is essential to making sure that journalism survives and thrives.
Much of the current media landscape would have been unimaginable just a few decades ago. Much of what will be is equally unimaginable. What is necessary now is a determination to insure that the media of the future deliver not merely for owners but for workers, news consumers and democracy. Perhaps newspapers really can survive in a form familiar to those of us who cherish them. But even if that is not to be, they must survive in a form that fosters a healthy transition from old media to new, and that preserves and, one hopes, improves journalism. The transition need not be tidy. It should embody the experimentation, adventurousness and glorious failures that our current crop of risk-averse publishers have shunned.
Above all, the debate about the future of newspapers should not be ceded to the investment-driven corporations that have failed so miserably to maintain media that sustain both themselves and democracy. Americans who recognize that newspapers remain, at least for the time being, essential generators of journalism, and that the serious-minded gathering and analysis of news is still necessary for an informed and engaged citizenry, must join reporters and editors in the struggle to assure that even if newspapers do not survive forever, journalism will.