let’s get small
It’s been another terrible week for newspapers. Four Michigan cities will soon be without dailies; Reuters reported yesterday that Conley Media is cutting the Monday editions of the Waukesha Freeman and the West Bend Daily News (what will they call it now?); Cox Publications is cutting about 245 jobs at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution; Hearst Corp. is relieving about 200 employees of their positions at the Houston Chronicle; the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is likely to see another round of layoffs very soon as well. These cuts represent staff reductions of 10 to 30-percent at their respective institutions, outpacing even the grim overall decline in American jobs exponentially.
Think about it: if the very people who hold our best hope for preserving journalism have given up, then what chance do we have?
It’s time to think small
In the now-notorious TIME Magazine article from February 5, 2009, former managing editor Walter Isaacson proposes that a micro-pay system for accessing online news content could help to rebuild plummeting newspaper revenue and decrease journalism’s reliance on the will and whims of advertisers. Regrettably, the article has been widely dismissed by many in the industry who are dead certain that readers will not pay for content.
I beg to differ. We willingly pay for premium television, for cell phone service, for high-speed Internet, for satellite radio, for GPS service. We buy music on the web. We pay monthly subscription fees for web-based services and to download books to our Kindles. There was great resistance to all of these things at first, but in the end, appetite overtook the reluctance to pony up. I don’t understand why it would be different for news, which has never been consumed in such quantities as it is today. But despite how obvious it seems to me (and other, far more qualified minds), this thinking is widely dismissed by the dwindling journalism community itself as over-simplistic. “People will still find a way to steal it” is one argument, as is “Someone will always be willing to provide it for free.”
But there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. I fear the NY Times is on a bad path with its recently-announced idea to re-institute an annual subscription fee of $55 or so. That is too much per head, and will create too little revenue to put the ailing paper back on track. It’s all about small, as the Obama campaigned recently proved: $5 a week from 20-million Americans is still $5.2 billion a year.
Admittedly, this isn’t a lot of money compared to what it costs to run the current industry. But the keywords there are “current industry.” I assert that we’re most likely going to have to give up many types of local coverage to private and community interests for now and concentrate on what absolutely must be preserved: relevant, experienced, trustworthy local news and investigative reporting. There really is no avoiding the massive downsizing the industry will undergo, but rather than attempt to spread the pain equally, it’s time to establish essential priorities and – well – consider setting aside the rest for now.
Public interest, public funding?
An additional, albeit potentially whimsical, possibility is to create new, leverage existing or convert for-profit news bureaus into non-profit agencies. The Associated Press, for example, already has offices in most major cities, though the Milwaukee bureau and many others have cut staff to a skeleton crew in recent years. If the AP was able to diversify its revenue model to include grant funding to subsidize local coverage (while still collecting subscription revenues and possibly even ad or sponsorship revenue), it could potentially take advantage of its inherent efficiencies as a worldwide news service to more cost-effectively serve local markets with reliable news coverage.
Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Maryland) introduced generally related legislation yesterday, and it’s an idea that bears serious consideration. Wired blogger Betsy Schiffman’s idea to sell the AP to Google, however, does not. A Hail Mary pass at best (the opposite of what she asserts), this kind of move would also prove disastrous to freedom of the press. Remember folks, Potter’s not selling, Potter’s buying. Half is not better than nothing and, more dangerously in terms of the rhetoric surrounding much of the “death of journalism” conversation, “nothing” is not a foregone conclusion.
In the end, there’s no magic bullet. And the closer one is to the problem, the more hopeless it appears. But, like our attempt to rebuild the national and global economies, we have no choice but to start somewhere. It seems inevitable that traditional printed newspapers are going the way of cassette tapes – CDs, even. But the demise of those mediums hasn’t killed music. Our challenge, as I see it, is to repurpose the delivery of what’s important – news.
And we should probably get on that pretty soon.