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Finding journalism's Future

April 11, 2012 |
Today, even modest policy changes could bolster news organizations. Tweaking tax laws could eliminate barriers to innovative nonprofit journalism ventures and help struggling newspapers make the transition to new business models.
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This newspaper's parent company sold last week for $55 million, a staggering $460 million less than what it fetched in 2006. The plight of the company, which also owns the Daily News and Philly.com, reflects trends afflicting newspapers across the country, which continue to bleed revenue and jobs as readers and advertisers migrate to the Internet. It seems that advertising-fueled newspapers, nearly the last institutional bastion of journalism, are not sustainable.

The Philadelphia papers' questionable salvation came in the form of rich benefactors. But this is not an option for most papers, and it comes with obvious perils. Systemic solutions are required.

Too often, we see the news media as just another commodity. But despite its commercial devaluation, journalism is a public good that is essential to democracy. And the advertising-based model that's enabled it for 125 years is increasingly unworkable.

This failure of the market suggests a need for policies to preserve public-service journalism and encourage new journalistic experiments. Since journalism is vital to self-government, threats to its survival should be a focus of national debate.

Journalism crises have brought about reform proposals before. The Progressive and New Deal eras saw experiments with ad-free and municipal-owned newspapers. Later, the rise of one-paper towns and of newspaper chains had reformers considering antitrust action against media monopolies, subsidies for media start-ups, and other measures.

Today, even modest policy changes could bolster news organizations. Tweaking tax laws could eliminate barriers to innovative nonprofit journalism ventures and help struggling newspapers make the transition to new business models.

However, with neither nonprofits nor new for-profits offsetting newspaper job losses, public subsidies may be American journalism's last best hope. Strengthening our public media would be a good start. Right now, the United States is an outlier among democracies in its meager funding of public broadcasting.

Despite contemporary concerns, generous press subsidies have been the norm since the early days of the republic. And scholarly research continues to show that subsidies don't discourage critical journalism; often, they have the opposite effect. Removing commercial pressures, while maintaining strong fire walls between government influence and media content, could help liberate investigative journalism.

There's arguably more to fear from rich politicos and investors controlling newspapers than from public subsidies for the press. The local business leaders who have acquired The Inquirer have promised not to interfere with its content, but this hasn't quelled concerns.

Beyond the new owners' politics, the sale warrants close scrutiny for its implications about the future of journalism. Any cash-strapped newspaper is vulnerable to being co-opted by political and economic interests. Should we pray for billionaires to swoop in and save other papers? We might first ask whether this "Philadelphia model" promises to provide coverage of critical issues and to add new voices and viewpoints to local and national conversations - or whether it will only strengthen the influence of the already influential.

We can no longer take the Fourth Estate for granted. The current crisis should stimulate debate about journalism's role in a democratic society and about alternative structures that can support it. While scrutinizing The Inquirer's sale, we should take this opportunity to consider broader solutions. Otherwise, our struggling news media could disappear - or become playthings of the wealthy and powerful.