Dying Dinosaurs

Posted: May 28, 2009 12:01 AM
Dying Dinosaurs

Yes, it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. But is it better to read deeply biased news than not to read a newspaper at all? Or is a little knowledge exceedingly dangerous within a democracy?

Liberals are mourning newspaper demise, as well they should. Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times offers a typical moan: "When we go online, each of us is our own editor, our own gatekeeper. We select the kind of news and opinions that we care most about. Nicholas Negroponte of M.I.T. has called this emerging news product The Daily Me. And if that's the trend, God save us from ourselves."

Hmm—The New York Times finally admits that we need salvation. The Times certainly does. It recently mortgaged its Manhattan headquarters, borrowed $250 million from a Mexican billionaire at 14 percent interest, cut salaries by 5 percent—and still had to lay off 100 newsroom staffers. Now it's talking about shutting down a newspaper it bought 16 years ago, the venerable Boston Globe.

I grew up reading the Globe and later worked on it and on an Oregon newspaper, so newspaper death does not delight me. And yet, I wonder: True, we miss out if we read only The Daily Me, but the good old days of reading only The Daily Liberal were not so good. I don't believe that America will be worse off with fewer breakfasts of propaganda on newsprint, over easy.

Desperate liberals are proposing solutions. One is that newspapers become nonprofit organizations and readers contribute to them. The dinosaur maintenance funds will appeal to sentimentality, as do the contribution-seekers at big secular universities: Both sets of fundraisers want us to ignore the ideological poison spewed out in contemporary columns and classrooms. But mega-newspapers will be harder pressed to garner funds than mega-universities are, because they don't have football teams that lock in loyalty.

Others propose that liberal foundations endow newspapers: $5 billion for The New York Times, $3 billon for The Washington Post. That's fine too, although foundation officers will be wise to wonder about the efficiency of daily newspaper distribution. In recent years the typical subscriber has thrown away a pound of newspaper on most days and three pounds on Sunday, after chomping on only a few ounces. The obvious question: Why continue cutting down trees and expending gasoline when delivery of the news via computer is so much more efficient?

Maybe left-leaning readers and foundations will rush in where wise advertisers are increasingly reluctant to tread, but I'm not sure—these folks may be wrong but they're not stupid. Some are now advocating government bailouts of dying newspapers, often via artfully created rescues such as special tax treatments and preferences. Some are arguing that the nation will be imperiled by an information deficit that will endanger us more than budget deficits. That's unlikely: News of importance, like mosquitoes facing bed nets, will find a way to get through.

So, let's be frank about motivation: Many liberal journalists are concerned not so much about newspapers in general but about saving their jobs. Even with endowments and contributions, many of those jobs in their present form will disappear. News distribution via computer is so much cheaper that even an endowed New York Times would not last all that long in paper form. Goodbye, survival of the fattest.

Newspapers can thrive on the web if they find a way to monetize the content that competition now forces them to give away almost for nothing. That's why the great technological hope, the new Kindle DX that debuted early in May, excites some journalists. Kindle is a thin, flat device for reading electronic books; Kindle DX has a larger screen suitable for displaying newspaper content. Some newspapers that went online for free will now try to put the genie back in the bottle by selling their content only to electronic subscribers.

That will be hard—and in any event the deeper questions concern worldviews. Here lie enormous opportunities for Christians. Two decades ago we needed tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to compete. Now, almost any person reading this can become an editor/publisher this very day. Access is easy, but talent and commitment are rare. Do we have enough?

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