The American newspaper–born in Boston sometime between 1690 and 1721, depending on the prerequisites one prefers–is dying a remarkably sudden death. Overall circulation, adjusted for population growth, is about half of what it was in 1946 and is declining rapidly. And while the number of Internet readers is rising, they are no replacement for print readers from the standpoint of advertisers, who must pay the freight. To ad buyers the worth of an Internet reader is barely 10 percent of that of a print customer. Because of these and other no less destructive trends, publicly owned newspapers lost roughly 15 percent of their already falling advertising revenue last year, and with it, according to the invaluable analyses of journalism and technology maven Alan Mutter, a whopping 83 percent of their already decimated stock value. From an economic perspective, this is what it looks like to fall off a cliff.
The industry has finally wakened to the seriousness of its predicament but continues to come up empty-handed vis-à-vis anything resembling a solution. And the almost universal response to the crisis–an orgy of downsizing that is destroying the worth of the product whose economic value it seeks to restore–demonstrates how ill equipped newspaper owners and publishers are to find a way to save themselves.
Clearly an Internet-only newspaper is a nonstarter. The Huffington Post, perhaps the most successful news website, relies largely on free labor and produces precious little of what we have traditionally understood to be “news.” Internet evangelist Jeff Jarvis has made much of the fact that ad revenue for LATimes.com covers the cost of its newsroom and proposes that the Times go paperless. He forgets, however, that even without the costs of paper production and delivery, “backroom operations” for a newsroom can be almost as expensive as the cost of the reporters and editors. There’s travel, technology, rent, business planning, ad sales, health insurance, pension payments and, well, plenty of things that make this calculation a net loser. Walter Isaacson, writing in Time, has proposed a program of micropayments to be made by the reader, but if these average out, as Michael Kinsley predicts, to just $2 a month, it won’t come close to covering the costs of reporting, editing and distributing the news.
A more promising idea is to call on foundations and philanthropists to commit the kind of cash that supports university endowments to the newspaper business and turn it into a nonprofit enterprise. The New Yorker‘s Steve Coll notes that lovely little Williams College in bucolic Massachusetts enjoyed a (pre-recession) endowment of more than a billion dollars. He suggests that newspapers would benefit from similar largesse from those who profess to love them. Unfortunately, this assumes that those who give money to Williams (or Amherst or Wesleyan or Harvard or Yale) are doing so out of a charitable impulse rather than feeding some combination of nostalgia, status anxiety and a desire to see their names outlive their bodies. Just how newspapers can compete on this playing field in time to stave off what looks to be an epidemic of bankruptcy filings in the near future is awfully difficult to imagine.
Yet another potential panacea lies in government funding. If we can bail out banks and auto companies, goes the argument, why not an industry on which the health of democracy depends? And while direct government funding of the press is anathema to all who value free expression, we have the examples not only of the extremely independent-minded BBC and CBC but also an innovative set of steps taken by the French government to shore up that country’s newspaper industry, none of which impinge on said industry’s ability to write freely about the government. As sensible as this idea appears at first blush, it’s hard to see it taking hold quickly enough to ride out the coming tsunami. In France, as in much of Europe, dirigisme is a time-honored tradition in many industries. But my sense is that not only politicians but also many journalists would let 95 percent of America’s newspapers disappear before they considered accepting a nickel from the government.
Perhaps it is a mistake to try to save “the newspaper” per se. Given the unavoidable splintering of what once was a “mass” audience for just about all forms of culture and entertainment, the old-fashioned notion of a mass “newspaper” with a sports page, a comics page, a crossword puzzle and a heartwarming story about the winner of a local high school science fair is a predigital phenomenon, however great the devotion to its daily appearance on our doorstep by old farts like yours truly. Ironically, it is the sections of the paper most crucial to informed democratic discourse that are in danger of disappearing. Sports news, entertainment news, health news, fashion, celebrity and style reporting will always be with us in one form or another, because they are such delightful places to advertise.
But as New York Times executive editor Bill Keller pointed out in an Internet Q&A, we are losing the kind of journalism that, “however imperfect, labors hard to be trustworthy, to supply you with the information you need to be an engaged citizen.” Alas, nobody wants to sell soap alongside a story of an IED killing a dozen US soldiers in Kabul or Karbala. Along these lines, Joel Kramer, former publisher of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, suggests the creation of a philanthropic endowment that will match donations to nonprofit enterprises doing public-affairs journalism. Indeed, plenty of people would love to provide this kind of reporting; journalism schools are filled with young people educating themselves for a profession that they are taught is about to become economically obsolete. They aren’t there to get rich; they’re there in the hopes of offering their fellow citizens what Walter Lippmann, writing in 1920, called “Liberty and the News.” If history is any guide, you can’t have one without the other.