Is Subsidizing the Newspaper Industry a Good Idea?

Charlotte business coach Steve Gatter is on a laudable mission to save journalism.

A mutual friend put Mr. Gatter in touch with me recently to discuss his idea of creating a foundation to raise money to subsidize newspapers. The concept, as I understand it, is to supplement their lack of subscription and advertising revenue with what essentially would be a bailout so that newspapers in need of financial help won’t go under.

Bundle of newspapers

He was inspired by a July 15 editorial from Leonard Pitts Jr., a national opinion columnist with the Miami Herald, titled, “What will we do without newspapers?”

In an email explaining his efforts, Mr. Gatter invited readers to share their thoughts and ideas as to whether newspapers should be financially supported.

No doubt about it, newspapers have taken a huge hit with massive layoffs throughout the nation and many of them going out of business. They have traditionally played an important role in American society, though for quite a few media outlets that role has shifted from reporting to advocating.

Citing a 2018 report that found the U.S. has lost nearly 1,800 newspapers since 2004, Mr. Pitts lamented what he called a “devastating” impact on the coverage of local events.

“Decide quickly,” he warned, “because that future is being born right before our eyes, thanks to shifting economic realities and the rise of social media.”

Note where Mr. Pitts places blame for the industry’s decline: “shifting economic realities” and “the rise of social media.”

This is an excellent example of the type of thinking that has put so many papers in a bind: Playing the victim card and blaming external elements rather than trying to understand why this is happening and finding ways to reverse the trend.

Question mark

Instead of asking “What will we do without newspapers?” here are three other questions I think would be much more productive for Mr. Pitts to ponder:

Why are so many people abandoning their local papers?

Is journalism, in its current state, worth saving?

If so, how will providing additional funds improve the situation?

When I was in graduate school, one of my professors made the point that newspapers are first and foremost in business to make a profit.

Markets tend to be efficient, and if a business isn’t meeting a need—or doing so sufficiently to satisfy its customers—chances are that business will simply not survive in the long run.

Blaming others for lack of sales and interest is a sure-fire way to expedite an entity’s extinction.

Perhaps if journalism adapted to the new realities and became more market-driven, the industry wouldn’t be in decline. But that would mean quite a few journalists would have to get to know and understand their readers better.

As a starting point, how about some focus groups to see what readers want from their local paper, and make adjustments to the content and areas of coverage accordingly?

Many journalists and editors also would have to set aside their bias and re-orientate their reporting to inform the public about what actually happened (i.e. the facts), not what they want the public to think about what happened.

The media bias problem extends beyond newspapers, as evidenced by a new study that found a whopping 95% of Americans are “troubled” by the current state of the media, with more than half citing “reports on fake news” as a concern.

  • Wow. Now that’s what I call devastating.

Pollster Frank Luntz points out that the media has the lowest level of credibility in more than half a century–which is when polls first started asking about that issue.

Noting that “judgmental journalists” now include their own political bias in their accounts—especially in their coverage of President Trump—a Washington Times article quotes Mr. Luntz as saying such hostility toward Mr. Trump is “turning people off against the media.”

“That’s not their job. Their job in not to label. Their job in not to condemn or criticize,” Mr. Luntz said. “Their responsibility is to present the language as it is used.”

Mr. Luntz is not the only one noticing this bias. The Times article cited a recent Pew Research Center survey that found “68% of Americans say the press is both politically biased and covers up its mistakes, while 58% said news organizations ‘do not understand people like them.’”

“Gallup, meanwhile, found that 69% of Americans say their trust in the media has fallen in the past decade.”

No wonder so many media outlets are losing readers, listeners and viewers. When reporters no longer have credibility, the game is pretty much over because no amount of money can buy trust.
If Not Willing to Change 27847692823_dba5527a07

Someone has defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. My concern about giving money to newspapers to ensure they survive, without making some fundamental changes to how they approach their work, would only reward the biased reporting and agenda-driven behavior that causes increasing levels of distrust and disgust among the public.

Today there are numerous online news sources that give readers more choices than ever. Some even specialize in local news, so the idea that local coverage is headed for doom if the community newspaper vanishes is simply not borne out by reality.

I sincerely wish Mr. Gatter well in his efforts to help save America’s newspapers. As a former reporter, I believe they have an important function in informing the public, providing accountability in a democratic society and offering a forum for diverse opinions on the editorial pages.

Unfortunately, so many of them have lost their way and seem unable or unwilling to make the kinds of changes that are needed to respond to market demand and restore trust.

Until those issues are addressed and corrected, I suspect we’ll continue to see newspaper layoffs and closures in the years to come.

photo credit: NS Newsflash via photopin cc

photo credit: atomicity ? via photopin (license)

photo credit: symphony of love Author Unknown If you are not willing to change, then don’t expect your life to via photopin (license)

4 thoughts on “Is Subsidizing the Newspaper Industry a Good Idea?

  1. Well said, Don. Having been trained as a journalist myself, I think one of the problems is that so many of today’s journalists think their job is to “change the world,” to go be a Woodward & Bernstein, to right the wrongs. No, a journalist is supposed to objectively report what happened. Period. They are to be unbiased in their reporting, to be fair and honest in collecting all the facts from all sides and then report the situation, event, or something that someone said without embellishment. Doing so, over time, would earn them the trust they need as journalists, as the news media. And that trust would keep consumers, hungry for the truth, “buying” and reading the news these reporters report.

    Unfortunately, so many journalists have trampled on that critical trust by reporting things as they would like them to be, reporting their own opinions as fact, coloring the news in a certain way reflecting their own biases. This has been especially true for the national, mainstream media, and that has, unfortunately, tainted local journalists. Over the last decade or so, consumers have begun to see through such reporting as, really, opinion, and are rejecting the media for news they can no longer trust as the unvarnished truth.

    As a free market supporter, I’m not sure about bailing out the media. I think its going to be a matter of journalists proving once again that their news is balanced and truthful and not disguised opinion before consumers may return to purchasing their product. It can be done. Tylenol turned their own catastrophe around, but it took time. And a willingness to do whatever it takes to change the consumer’s opinion of them.

    Reply
  2. Nicely done Don. Thanks for sharing.

    Newspapers have had a long history as money-making machines, mostly due to advertising revenue which had little to do with the stories being reported. They were an excellent means for advertising.

    Today, not so much.

    Also today the sources of stories are greatly enhanced. Many more choices, too many of which have no proofreading or editing. And the readers cannot tell the difference. We believe what we want to believe and then our preferences become known and our inboxes become only what we want to see.

    My question is if journalism without the pressure of advertising dollars and if it were then a non-profit entity, might this be an environment to foster a more fact-based and unbiased reporting?

    Reply
  3. Good question, Steve. As you pointed out, advertising and news were traditionally separated. If the pressure of getting advertising revenue is driving biased and sloppy reporting–or at least a contributing factor–it seems to me there would be more of an effort on the part of papers to avoid alienating readers by focusing on plain, old fashioned reporting of news and more of an effort to fact-check sources before running with stories. It also would help if they made more of an effort to see what types of stories people are interested in locally.

    We have seen some truly ridiculous and irresponsible stories run in major media outlets recently, only to have them later back down when challenged and the truth came out. People just don’t have confidence in what the read, hear or watch in much of the news today, and that, in my opinion, is killing the journalism profession.

    Reply

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