Once newspapers were the answer to the riddle: “What is black and white and read all over?” They’re no longer just black and white, but they are red all over. Red ink spills off nearly every page onto balance sheets across America.
The newspaper business is bleeding to death. Hidden amidst the other obits at the back of the Metro section should be “R.I.P. American Newspapers b. 1690 d. Soon – from self-inflicted wounds.” On Feb. 15, the Baltimore Examiner becomes the latest sad casualty of an industry racing headlong to its death.
It is not something to celebrate. For all of its many faults, the news industry is essential to our democracy and newspapers have been the best and most comprehensive examples of journalism for 300 years. But it is a death brought on by hubris and incompetence on the part of too many in the news media – from top to bottom. Now the rest of us might end up paying for it.
Rather than learn from bad business decisions, journalists want Wall Street style rescues. Both the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News were working with Pa. Gov. Rendell to get the two largest state employee pension funds to help bail out the papers. Lawmakers in Connecticut recently tried to save The Bristol Press and The Herald.
Back in September, the industry magazine Editor & Publisher argued against a newspaper bailout idea that was scarily gaining credibility with the press. “[T]hose talking up a government bailout also include such respected newspaper veterans as Seattle Times Publisher Frank A. Blethen and editor-turned-academic Geneva Overholser,” wrote the magazine.
But government support of media, while anti-democratic, isn’t unusual. Look at the hundreds of millions of dollars we throw at PBS or NPR each year. In return, we get taxpayer-funded, left-wing propaganda. Many in the media see that as the Promised Land.
That’s not the only option. The New York Times recently published an opinion piece by two financial analysts arguing that wealthy individuals need to turn news into nonprofits because “we are dangerously close to having a government without newspapers.”
Based on history, it’s highly unlikely newspapers will be savvy enough to save themselves. When the Internet gained popularity, news outlets were slow to cooperate and even slower to make money. Job ads moved online to places like Monster because new Web sites could react faster and better than stodgy news outlets. Classified pages were unable to compete against Craigslist, which does their job for free.
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