April 4, 2009

Free the Bound Periodicals!

[Map of troubled newspapers. Click to view original at full size]
As the ongoing global recession has made the American public increasingly aware, rampant deregulation is not necessarily a good thing. It's not that free markets don't work - they do - it's that the human cost of corrections in those markets is often terrible.

Underpinning the last decade's worth of the policies that have brought the world to its financial knees - but only recently becoming visible to most people - is the sad state of our national press, which, through calculated deregulation has been subsumed by increasingly concentrated corporate interests. A vigorous Fourth Estate, the existence of which is crucial to the ability of voters to make informed decisions, simply does not exist today. Instead, in an age when media is so much more pervasive than it has ever been during the course of human history, we are drowning in a sea of mediocrity and outright propaganda in support of policies like the invasion of Iraq. There is still quality news to be had if one knows where to look, but overall, we are only vaguely served by companies driven by the bottom line to the exclusion of all else, including journalistic integrity.

The prime exemplar of this deeply worrisome trend is the newspaper industry, which has seen incredible consolidation in recent years. Today, just nine corporations own 341 of the nation's newspapers - the Gannet Company alone owns 102 - and local reporting has deteriorated commensurately as economies of scale demand that these conglomerates share resources among their properties to reduce costs. This diminished relevance and diversity - along with the industry's failure to adapt to the internet age - has led to lower revenues from readers no longer willing to pay for information they can get for free on the web, and as a result, to both sweeping layoffs and bankruptcies, as well as the outright closure of major newspapers. (See graphic at top.)

Worse, a recent study by the Pew Research Center indicates that less than half of those surveyed believe that the loss of their local paper would damage civic life. This is short-sighted, as Mike McGrail writes over at Checkmate:
Newspapers are the foundation of an informed society – its first witness. Newspapers are low tech on the front end (reporters only need a notebook and a 39-cent felt tip to cover a story) so they can commit reporters to stories that other media can’t. Newspaper reporters can sit through four-hour zoning board meetings to make sure the local Dunkin’ Donuts doesn’t expand its parking lot onto a wetland. They can dig through decades of court records to reveal sexual abuse by clergymen across the country. By comparison, video crews can’t be idle for that long, and bloggers are usually one-person shops who can only cover a limited amount of stories at once.

Newspaper reporting, for all its oft-mentioned flaws, is the photosynthesis of the news ecosystem; it feeds everything above it. Broadcast and cable follow up newspaper articles with their own reports, bringing the news to a broader audience. Bloggers comment and contribute their own knowledge, correcting and expanding on stories that they would probably have missed if they hadn’t read it in a newspaper. The news ecosystem will not collapse without newspapers, but there’s no way it will uncover important new stories at the pace it does now. That’s not good for society. Fear of exposure is a powerful motivator for governments, businesses and individual to mind their manners. Newspapers have historically done most of the watching and scolding.
So what can be done?

One of the answers lies in more tightly regulating the number of media outlets that can be owned by a single entity in a given market. These rules, which have been relaxed in recent years have driven the consolidation we now see. True, they allowed some owners to rid themselves of unprofitable papers, but in the main, these were profitable media outlets before they were absorbed by the conglomerates of today. Forcing divestiture would make newly independent papers more beholden to their communities - and therefore more relevant - while freeing them from the constraints of the large corporate structures in which they presently wither. Agile, entrepreneurial and profitable print journalism is not an oxymoron; it just requires the right people and the right environment in order to flourish.

Saving newspapers is not only worth doing, it is vital to the political recovery of a United States riven by eight years of George W. Bush, who was ably abetted by a largely compliant - if not abjectly conspiratorial - press corps. Sir Francis Bacon wrote more than 400 years ago that "Knowledge is power." He was right then, and he remains so today.

Alternatively, of course, there is always this alternative solution from Matt Bors...