The New York Times is losing millions and threatening to close the Boston Globe. The Washington Post is living off the profits of its sister business, an educational testing-prep company. Chicago’s two newspapers are in Chapter 11, together with the Los Angeles Times. The San Francisco Chronicle may disappear entirely. These are in America’s largest, most sophisticated cities. If they cannot support a profitable newspaper, then no place can.
The crisis has been a long time coming. I recall sitting in Ben Bradlee’s office nearly twenty years ago and listening to the legendary editor bemoan the fact that it was all but impossible to get young people to pick up a copy of the paper. And that was before we had ever heard of the Internet, much less Craigslist. Twenty years is a long time to watch your business model die. To believe in the notion that, in the midst of the cost-cutting mania that is sweeping the business, we are likely to stumble onto a new source of profit sufficient to sustain the size of the news gathering and dissemination operations we’ve enjoyed in the past is akin to placing one’s faith in divine intervention.
What is missing is neither the need for newspapers nor the desire for the services they provide. Rather, it’s a way to make money from them. Remember, readership is rising. The New York Times enjoys many times as many regular readers on the web as it ever did in print. But the genuinely important parts of the paper–the stuff that caused our country’s founders to write the First Amendment and that helped reveal the crimes of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, etc.–happen to be those that are most costly and least profitable. If we rely strictly on the market to sustain them, we will forgo our society’s most important source of independent information and accountability. “Oh, to be a state or local official in America, [without newspapers],” The Wire impresario David Simon recently mused to the Guardian. “To gambol freely across the wastelands of an American city, as a local politician! It’s got to be one of the great dreams in the history of American corruption.”
Some are sanguine about this possibility. Michael Kinsley writes, “You are saying that people should get this information whether or not they want it. That’s an unattractive argument: shoving information down people’s throats in the name of democracy.” Well, yes, I’m saying it. Newspapers have traditionally provided a healthy helping of “pudding” to go with the “spinach” a democracy needs, and it remains a decidedly open question whether our political system can survive, much less thrive, on pudding alone.
Since direct government subsidies remain anathema to both the likely subsidized and the subsidizers, the obvious answer would be for newspaper owners to spin off their properties and turn them into nonprofit institutions. This would be a body blow to the self-image of newspaper owners and editors, as nonprofit status would deprive them of one their favorite activities: editorial endorsements. Nothing makes the juices inside a newspaper flow like a meeting in its boardroom with a presidential or senatorial candidate paying tribute to their collective wisdom and power. And nothing exercises an editorial staff like a good fight over who, or what, is going to get its endorsement.
Thing is, nobody cares. Once upon a time, when newspapers were the sole source of detailed information about almost everything and really could be said to represent the communities they served, this particular kabuki dance may have made some sense. Today, however, with so few people subscribing to their local papers and so many sources of information available, the editorial endorsement has become a near total anachronism. (That goes for magazines like this one as well.) The journalism scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson studied the question and in 2004 told American Journalism Review‘s Tim Porter, “The direct effect of editorials does not appear to be significant enough to find….” This was true, according to Jamieson as well as many others Porter interviewed, regarding regional elections where most voters had never heard of the candidates. “Many Americans in 1996 had no idea which presidential candidate their newspaper supported; many more had the wrong idea,” Jamieson explained. “To judge from the responses, many people were guessing.”
Newspaper editors and editorial writers tend to take refuge in arguments about furthering “conversation,” forging “community” and speaking for the newspaper’s most deeply held principles. This, too, is nonsense. As Will Bunch persuasively argued during last year’s presidential election, given the fact that most newspapers endorsed either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama in the Democratic primary and John McCain in the Republican contest, they cannot really be said to hold any principles terribly deeply, since these candidates held diametrically opposed views on everything, from the invasion of Iraq, to abortion rights, school vouchers, assault weapons, universal healthcare and so on. What endorsements do, however, is convince readers that the news they receive is being colored by bias expressed on its editorial pages. The notion that these two are separate and unrelated to each other has, by and large, yet to penetrate the public mind beyond journalism classes. The net result, in the real world, is that newspapers often bend over backward to please conservatives, in order to demonstrate that their Democratic-leaning endorsements do not color their coverage.
Senator Benjamin L. Cardin recently introduced the Newspaper Revitalization Act to facilitate exactly this transition. It would allow advertising and subscription revenues to become tax-exempt, and would make donations to support coverage or operations tax-deductible. Sad to say, but it may be our last, best chance…