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Newspapers’ future still floating


Last updated 1/20/2010 at Noon

I’ve never watched an episode of “Now on PBS” but saw one this past weekend that caught my attention. 

The guests were Robert McChesney and John Nichols, authors of “The Death and Life of American Journalism,” which proposes saving journalism through government subsidies, thus preserving the democracy once envisioned by the founding fathers.

I heard on NPR last year that an estimated 150 presses stopped in 2009. That would include Hearst’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer; as well as daily newspapers in Denver, Cincinnati and Albuquerque.

The Boston Globe is said to be in trouble.

After the PBS show I wanted to see what other journalists were saying about the book, and found a couple of reviews.

Steve Weinberg, a Missouri author writing in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, commented, “It will be interesting to observe whether the McChesney-Nichols recommendations become part of a serious discussion among policy makers, or fade into oblivion.”

And as book reviewer Mike Francis asked in the Oregonian, “But how to pay for it? That’s the question that drives ‘The Death and Life of American Journalism.’ And it’s the one that remains maddeningly unresolved.”

The book proposes to enlist the support of Congress, the Supreme Court and the White House in order to revive American journalism.

I found a column on the Seattle Times’ Web site written by the authors themselves, who say embracing the Internet instead of fighting it is not the solution to enhancing the Fourth Estate.

They point to the fact that postal subsidies, embraced by many of the founding fathers, were “the order of the day” from the American Revolution up to the 19th century.

Many of the original revolutionaries, such as Thomas Paine, were in fact, journalists. It was only when newspapers became for-profit operations where things started to go downhill.

When I first saw the “Now on PBS” program I thought McChesney and Nichols were proposing bale outs, which doesn’t seem like the case now. Bale outs are bad, as we have seen, because the companies that get them give raises to all the incompetent CEOs that ran things into the ground in the first place.

According to McChesney and Nichols, “If the U.S. devoted the same percentage of its gross domestic product to federal journalism subsidies in 2009 as it routinely did in the 1840s, the total would be more than $30 billion. In contrast, the federal subsidy in 2009 for all of public broadcasting was closer to $400 million.”

They continue, “Sweden and Norway ... maintain subsidies which on a per-capita basis would amount to around $30 billion annually if the U.S., which ranks 18th, adopted similar measures.”

I have to go with reviewers Weinberg and Francis, that it’s just too early to call this an ultimate solution, however, it is one possible answer that deserves further pondering. []


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