The News Business Is Not The Newspaper Business

Care of NOW on PBS, professor Bob McChesney and journalist John Nichols–co-founders of and authors of the new book The Death and Life of American Journalism–discuss the perils of a shrinking news media landscape, and their bold proposal to save journalism with government subsidies.

There’s a ton of rich material and finely-honed arguments in the program above. Speaking about advertising’s support for the news business over the last 100 years, McChesney says, “The advertising era is the anomaly, not the rule.” His argument is that advertisers could care less about funding news operations, and now that they have other means of reaching their intended audiences, they will not return to support newspapers–a fact which leaves our populace wanting for good information.
But is journalism truly a “public good”? Is “a free press” necessary for a free society to exist? The authors talk about an emerging propaganda state and how there are presently three PR people for every one journalist. They also refer to the founding fathers’ intentions and James Madison’s role in getting Congress to pass the Post Office Act of 1792, a law that helped newspapers gain widespread distribution for little expense. Yet, I’m not convinced journalism is a public good in the same way public transportation, or public utilities, are a public good. At the same time, I’m not against public funding. Show me an industry that isn’t supported by our tax dollars…
Dan Gillmor of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University, for one, has strong opinions on the matter.

I’m against direct subsidies. They are poisonous, especially so if they are designed to prop up a business that is failing in part because it was so transcendentally greedy in its monopoly era that it passed on every opportunity to survive against real financial competition. In my view, the newspaper industry deserves to die at this point.

Gillmor does support federal subsidies to help build out the nation’s broadband infrastructure. I’m good with that reallocation of federal funds too, however, I’d like to point out the Internet is not one’s local newspaper, or the nation’s newspaper, or the world’s. The Internet provides an infinite sea of data but the delivery of important news is far from automatic. A news consumer has to hunt for important news, then determine if the source is credible, then remember to go back for more.
Of course, the Internet is the best hunting ground for information ever devised, so for people like myself who now read dozens of newspapers online, I’m all set. But my habits are not the habits of the normal American. Knowing where to click is not nearly as easy as opening a newspaper. We need to make it easier, in my opinion, and there’s certainly a lot of activity in this area. In fact, the existence of this online trade pub is a know-where-to-click solution.
One development that concerns me is how isolating one’s media choices can be today. Precisely because the media menu is so vast and it’s hard to know where to click, it’s natural to find a comfortable place and stick to it, be it Fox News, talk radio, or a favorite Web destination that informs and reflects one’s world. But media at its best stretches people, challenges people, moves people. How such media is funded will continue to be decided in myriad and ever-evolving ways. No one answer will be “the answer.” The media business is too complicated for that today.



About David Burn

I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.