Columns, Opinion

SZAFRANSKI: News obituary

The economic downturn could not have come at a worse time for the beleaguered newspaper industry. Already facing declining revenue and shrinking circulation due to competition with the Internet and other new media, traditional newspapers have had to cut staff, shrink sections and close offices just to survive. Some papers have simply closed. Many say it is time to finally cast off this vestige of another age; newspapers have more than once failed to serve the public dutifully. Throw out the presses, go online and make do with whatever profits the web can yield. Unfortunately, such a scenario would destroy most papers. Those that could limp into this new age would have minute staffs barely able to cover next week’s spaghetti dinner, let alone a war on the other side of the planet or the intricacies of the economic collapse. Perhaps larger events like the war in Iraq and the economic stimulus can be adequately disseminated by other national media outlets. However, local news will suffer most. Television stations practically epitomize the saying ‘if it bleeds, it leads,’ meaning sensational news will dominate, essentially excluding any in-depth expos’eacute;s. Television stations have slashed what little local reporting budgets they have anyway. National Public Radio stations try to offer some more hard news, but their financial position is never secure. It has fallen to newspapers in smaller media markets, time and time again, to dig up the dirt to varying degrees of success. For example, The Providence Journal uncovered corruption in Rhode Island’s state government, leading to major reforms. If nothing else, newspapers provide informed – if sometimes divisive – opinions about local events and news. Two theories are getting notice from media analysts. Newspapers could earn more revenue by charging for each online article viewed, rather than plastering it on the Web for free. The cost would be pennies, but multiplied by the millions of viewers on the NYTimes.com, for example, it could add up to real money. This revenue, coupled with a traditional paper, could allow financial stability and great reporting to endure. The Wall Street Journal basically already does this and has not faced the same tailspin as other papers. The other option is government help. No, not a bailout. In the 1970s, Congress created joint operating agreements in which rival newspapers merged their printing and advertising departments. Newsrooms remained separate. Today, Congress could rewrite antitrust laws to permit papers to work together as an entire industry. Legislation could allow newspapers to switch over to a pay-per-click system en masse and avoid antitrust lawsuits for colluding on a large scale. Alternatively, nonprofit legislation could be written to allow newspapers to continue as a public interest group. Freed from the drive for profit but run as closely to a business as possible, newspapers could continue their mission to serve their audience without shareholders breathing down their necks. The media is not perfect, but it is still a necessary component of our democratic system. Without it, Americans cannot gather the most basic information needed to be informed citizens and voters.

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