Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Journalism’s challenge — and opportunity

A recent call from a desperate friend prompted thoughts about the uncertain future of American journalism.

The friend is an editor at a small daily newspaper that for most of its existence has been owned by a civic-minded family willing to make a 10 percent to 15 percent profit off the operation. By normal standards, that’s a more than fair return.

But with a change in generations, some family members who wanted to sell out prevailed.

Enter a succession of publicly listed, profit-driven national newspaper chains looking for upwards of a 30 percent return.

Corporate ownership took over before the internet, Amazon, eBay and Craig’s list came along, and drained off much of the newspaper’s lifeblood, its classified ads.

Good-bye 30 percent profit; hello a national downward spiral newspaper stocks.

So what happens at my friend’s newspaper? The staff is repeatedly sliced. Morale plummets. The newspaper shrinks. The “news hole” grows narrower and shallower, and my friend, after nearly 30 years in this one newsroom, is grinding his teeth, but hanging in there, until…the chain sends in the “publisher from hell” to clamp thumbscrews to the staff.

“Do you think I could get a job teaching?” my friend asks, groping for an exit, any exit.

“Why don’t you stage a revolt?” I suggest.

“That’s what they want, a reason to fire us.”

Fire the veterans — the ones who know the community inside and out but can be replaced with low-paid, out-of-town neophytes.

To the corporate bean counters, it makes perfect sense. To dedicated journalists, it is inane.

A free society (I still believe we have one, by degrees) thrives on information. The better the information, the better the society. Journalism has always seemed to me to be a quasi-public institution. It even has special protections under the constitution (vis. the First Amendment). But its financial underpinnings have been no different than those of Wal-Mart.

Even before the internet came along as the “new media,” the “old media” was suspect because of the pipers paying its tune. The pipers were advertisers and more recently interlocking corporate boards; the tune rarely strayed for the pipers’ desires.

At least the government wasn’t buying ads, and so government became the subject of choice, exactly as the Constitution’s framers intended. The Fourth Estate, you recall, was the Press.

Still, with the rise of corporatism and its financial and lobbying stranglehold on government, those pipers also needed journalistic watching, and that would mean an new financial arrangement.

None was found.

Now technology — the internet in particular — is challenging the financial underpinnings of journalism.

It isn’t clear where we are headed. Should the consumers of news be the sole source of financing? Some magazines have succeeded under this model. My favorites are The Sun and Consumer Reports.

Should journalism sever its connection to profit by journalistic enterprises becoming non-profits and being given tax incentives to serve the public interest (whatever that might mean)?

Should the owners of newspapers be collectives of journalists, not corporations?

As I listened to my friend’s lament, these thoughts rose to the surface. What advice could I give him?

“Start an on-line news site,” I suggested. “That’s where things is headed. Go there.”

Sure the site would be supported by advertisers, but the production costs would be a fraction of a newspapers. With time, some folks might even pay to receive the news.

I’ve started my own modest news site, “Hillsdale New” ( It’s an all-volunteer effort. That volunteer is me. But its 300 plus readers in Hillsdale find value in it. If the Hillsdale News is to survive me, I need to find a way for it to pay an editor/publisher to succeed me.

Where do I go? Advertisers? Subscribers? Foundations? “Pledge-week” donors?

All of the above?

I don’t see the underlying cause of my friend’s call as a crisis. It is a challenge to be sure, but ultimately it will give us journalism much better than what we have known.



Blogger Lisa M. Lynch said...

Wow - I believe I know who you're talking about, too. How very jarring.

1:35 PM  
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2:58 AM  

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