Archive for December, 2008

Do We Need a News Czar?

December 14, 2008 Leave a comment

Brian Lambert has a post outlining his concept to save modern journalism: Nationalize the news system, by making it the taxpayers’ responsibility to fund the newspapers.

Sort of turns the concept of “Free Press” on its head, does it not?
The failure of newspapers in most instances is the failure of big city newspapers to adapt to the fact that the fundamental financial underpinnings of their business eroded, and rapidly. It’s not the fact that the newspapers themselves are suffering operating losses (some are- tell me how the San Francisco Chronicle, at the heart of the Dotcom boom of the 90s-early 00s, continually lost money).
It seems to me that once the founding families of these papers sold the papers or took them public, two things happened: the papers suddenly had greater pressure to turn out consistent quarter-by-quarter profits, and they became much, much duller.
The next step was that, whatever the reason, these highly profitable papers then were sold again, in highly-leveraged deals. When Knight-Ridder was forced to sell, I’d surmise that virtually all of their papers were still profitable. Indeed, the STRIB and apparently the SPPP are still profitable, if you don’t worry about pesky things like debt service.

I also blame Nixon. I’m wildly generalizing here, but, pre-Watergate, journalism wasn’t held in especially high regard. The caricature was that you had hard-bitten, hard-drinking hacks cranking out stories, getting by until they could get their book published.

Suddenly, after Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein weren’t Woodward and Bernstein, they were Redford and Hoffman, and Journalism became cool. Not only that, a calling. It certainly swelled the enrollment of Journalism school.

Are the papers any better? They’re certainly less lively. The circulation, relative to population size, has shrunk. There are also far fewer of them.

Lambert, in a previous entry, indicated that he believed that there is still an audience for a Primetime news hour. How many years has there been erosion in the circulation of virtually any major daily?

Yes, bigtime dailies serve an important role. Yes, we need to have vibrant newspapers in this town. The Strib did an excellent job providing solid coverage of the bridge collapse. Most of the time, however (as a longtime subscriber, and, for quite a while, a subscriber of both papers until the SPPP dropped delivery in my area), the content is weak and uninspired.

Brian Tierney, the guy who bought the Philly paper, suggested that the business side had really let the operation down. When you’re accustomed to monopoly profits, it’s easy to grow self-satisfied and less likely to innovate.

Naturally, in their quest to stop the bleeding, the papers are hacking and slashing. With each cut, however, they’re making themselves that less compelling and less relevant.

As far as Lambert’s newspaper preservation plan, I don’t think that the answer is to turn the staffs of local dailies into civil service bureaucrats. Any time you have the government instituting a major program, you inherently have another bureaucracy, one inevitably rife with financial issues of its own.

No thanks. I think that we’ll see some more thinning of the herd in the short term, which is terrible for those affected. Ultimately new vehicles will be established, and may or may not succeed. Some may thrive. We may not see the same depth and breadth of the late 20th Century newspaper, but it might be interesting to see what does take shape.