Nothing quite says 'freedom of the press' like government paying for it

Nothing quite says 'freedom of the press' like government paying for it
(AP Photo/Hiro Komae)

Nothing quite says ‘freedom of the press’ like government paying for it. From the PuffHo:

The Pandemic Is Crushing The Journalism Industry. The Government Could Save It.

The scale of the crisis facing the journalism industry requires a radical and dramatic response: a massive public investment in local news.

By Travis Waldron | April 12, 2020 | 8:00 AM EDT | Updated 3:20 PM EDT

Three years ago, Matt DeRienzo surveyed America’s journalism landscape and issued a dire warning that most reporters didn’t want or need to hear.

“The last recession was brutal for newspapers and local news,” wrote DeRienzo, who at the time was the director for a nonprofit organization that supported local online news outlets. “The next one could be an extinction-level event.”

The next one is here now, thanks to the economic crunch brought about by the novel coronavirus outbreak. The sudden shock has clobbered an industry that had already lost nearly 30,000 jobs ― roughly a quarter of its reporters ― over the last decade, as its advertising-based revenue model proved anachronistic in the age of the internet. City- and statewide lockdowns have further reduced revenues, even as readership soars, so each day now brings news of another round of layoffs, furloughs or pay cuts from somewhere in the beleaguered industry.

“It’s even worse than I thought it’d be,” DeRienzo said last week, “because no one predicted this.

So, “City- and statewide lockdowns have further reduced revenues, even as readership soars,” huh? That can only mean one thing: the readership is internet-based, and the industry has still not figured out how to attract enough people to pay for their product. Yes, advertising is down, as businesses are having to save money, but these news sources are still not getting enough new subscribers.

I can see what they are doing. My ‘local’ newspaper, the Lexington Herald-Leader, had stopped putting all of their COVID-19 stories behind the paywall, but this was the blurb on an article Saturday:

This article has Unlimited Access. For more coverage, sign up for our daily coronavirus newsletter. To support our commitment to public service journalism: Subscribe Now.

Oops, I guess they need more money! The Philadelphia Inquirer, another paper I checked frequently, had lifted the paywall for their content concerning Coronavirus, but has quietly reinstituted it. Too bad, because there are a few stories I would like to have read, but I can’t afford to subscribe to everything.

Of course, I previously noted the bankruptcy filing of The McClatchy Company (MNI), before the wave of closures due to the virus. And Wikipedia has a good, detailed account of the financial woes which have beset The Philadelphia Inquirer, leading to two bankruptcy auctions. In 2006, Philadelphia Media Holdings LLC bought the Inquirer and it’s tabloid sister, the Philadelphia Daily News, for $515 million. A bankruptcy auction in 2010 was voided due to a court action and unions unwilling to come to terms, and another was held, with the papers finally sold in 2011 for $139 million. Then, in April of 2012, the company was again sold, for just $55 million. In effect, the value of the company had dropped by almost 90% in six years.

The scale and speed of the economic crisis has inspired journalists to turn to an unlikely source for help: Congress. The News Media Alliance, one of the newspaper industry’s top trade groups, and the NewsGuild, journalism’s biggest labor union, have each called on Congress for emergency stimulus assistance to prevent layoffs and keep journalists working and news outlets in business amid the crisis. This week, a dozen U.S. senators said a future stimulus package should include support for local news outlets.

Talk of government assistance may seem like a third rail for an industry that prides itself on its independence, but even a one-time infusion of cash isn’t likely to alter the media’s long-term fortunes. This crisis, University of Pennsylvania media studies professor Victor Pickard argues, is an opportunity to overhaul the entire structure of the news industry, and it requires a much more dramatic response: a massive public investment that creates a permanent source of financial support and ensures the future of local news.

“There is no market option here. There’s no commercial solution,” said Pickard, the author of “Democracy Without Journalism?” The recently released book calls for wholesale reform of the media industry. “We’re going to need to think bigger and bolder for the long-term. The government will have to intervene, and I think we’ll need something much bigger than what’s being discussed thus far.”

One thing to remember: journalists have always had an outsized view of their own importance. Freedom of the press is enshrined on the Constitution, which only feeds the media’s collective ego, but, in fact, McClatchy and The New York Times Company and all of the others are just private businesses, and have no greater claim to success than a local Dunkin’ Donuts or gasoline station. If the government is going to make emergency loans to other businesses during this economic calamity, than media companies should have an equal opportunity to access such, but no greater claims to assistance.

Of course, many media sources are doing well financially; it’s simply not the printed media. The Cable News Network proved the model of a 24-hour news station was a profitable enterprise, even if CNN has seen its viewership drop due to competition from MSNBC and the Fox News Channel, both of which, at opposite ends of the political spectrum, have more viewers than CNN. Heck, the One America News Network was created in 2014 to compete with Fox from the right!

I have pointed out, many times, that print newspapers are, in the end, 18th century technology. Oh, they’ve been updated with color photographs and lots of graphics, but they are still printed material, and hours old before customers ever get to read them. Before I retired, I used to buy the print edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer at the Turkey Hill station in downtown Jim Thorpe, to take to the plant, where all of the crew had the opportunity to read it. There were uncounted times that I’d want to check a sports score and saw the blurb, “This game ended too late to be included in this edition,” so I had to look it up online.

Pickard has called for the creation of a public journalism trust fund, supported by tax revenue, that permanently bolsters the business and supports the most basic coverage.

The fund, in his eyes, would pay for the sort of local coverage ― of public affairs, politics, communities of color and the increasing swaths of the country that now have no local news ― that the market has proven it won’t.

Call it a public option for news ― and while it may sound radical, Pickard argues that neither the industry nor American democracy have much of a choice but to create it.

I have to admit it: I have a fondness for printed media. Some of it is nostalgia, having worked as a newspaper carrier for the Herald-Leader as a teenager, and some of it is due to my hearing loss: printed media are simply easier for me. More, printed information is easier to go back through, to make sure I understood something correctly, and easier to cite as a source on my website.

But my personal preferences do not mean that I believe the media should be given some kind of government bailout, and, worse, permanent government support. Making the media dependent upon government support means pushing the media to be less inclined to criticize the government or investigate the government; the subsidy — or whatever it would be called — would be subject to congressional appropriations and the President’s signature.

And then there was this:

Any bailout plan would likely run into even bigger problems in the U.S., where trust in the media is much lower, and where perceptions of bias are much stronger, in part because of the GOP’s multidecade effort to undermine the media.

That statement itself indicates bias, an attack on Republicans. Any credible observation would reveal that most of the credentialed media have a leftward slant; note that none of them major metropolitan dailies have endorsed a Republican presidential candidate in a few decades. The Herald-Leader, in Donald Trump’s fifth-strongest state, endorsed Hillary Clinton, and always endorses Democrats,¹ even though the voters in the paper’s region normally support Republicans. Travis Waldron, the writer, is asking for taxpayer support to promote one political party over the other. That OAN and Fox are biased toward conservatives and Republicans does not somehow outweigh, or even counter-balance the general leftward bias of the credentialed media as a whole.

For the media to be independent, it must be independent! That some media companies will eventually fail is regrettable, but if they fail it is because they weren’t good enough to draw the support needed to survive. Why should we use tax dollars to subsidize failure?

A government press cannot be a free press.
¹ – The paper, which my best friend referred to as the Herald-Liberal, endorsed Alison Lundergan Grimes over Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in 2014; Mr McConnell won in a huge landslide. The paper also endorsed Amy McGrath Henderson, who said “I am further left, I am more progressive, than anyone in the state of Kentucky,” over Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY 6th), and will certainly endorse Mrs Henderson over Senator McConnell later this year.
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