A recent article in The Nation took a hard look at the media as an industry and asked the question, “What happened?” Although it is easy to point fingers at the Internet or the down economy for the failure of newspapers such as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Rocky Mountain News, the argument was made that this crisis has been decades in the making.
It started with the consolidation of independent, largely family-owned media into huge multi-faceted corporations. Newspapers were suddenly just another commodity. When greater importance was placed on returns while at the same time cuts were made to newsrooms, the concern is not “what’s the news” but rather “what will sell papers, increase viewership and sell advertising.”
Lately I am asked on a daily basis how the newspaper industry is doing, and specifically how The Bellingham Business Journal is doing, and I’m proud to say that community newspapers such as ourselves are faring much better than the dailies. But that does nothing to assuage the fear that we are losing an essential part of our democracy.
On Tuesday, March 17 — the day the Seattle P-I printed its final issue — Sen. Patty Murray gave a speech on the Senate floor about the crisis in newspapers. She gave an interesting anecdote about the coverage of government by the state’s media:
“The depth of the problem hit home for me earlier this year when I visited the press in Olympia – our state’s capital city,” Murray said. “In 2001, there were 31 reporters, editors, and columnists covering the state house there. Now there are nine.”
Sen. Murray was correct in noting that this is a crisis not just for the newspaper industry, but for the state of our democracy. Newspapers have always provided the largest supply of professional journalists, and when they go away, so do the watchdogs of our local, state and federal governments.
This said, I do not agree with the idea of a federal “bail out” for the industry. Just like the auto industry, the media need to completely rethink what they do in order to survive. Just throwing money at the problem will do nothing but prolong the inevitable.
Instead, it is time to retool the newspaper business model — at least on a national scale. National Public Radio and public television both have non-profit models based on public funding, and maybe something similar would work for print media. One suggestion is to give a tax break for those individuals who subscribe to daily newspapers.
These discussions mostly concern dailies, of course. For small, community papers such as weeklies or monthlies like the BBJ, it is unlikely that any kind of bail out will be coming our way. But as long as we produce 100 percent local news that you can’t find easily on the Internet, we will continue to provide a valued product.
I am less concerned about the health of the large media corporations as I am about the consumers — you and I, citizens and voters, those people who stand to suffer the most if no one is watching our government. It is this that we should all be worried about.