Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Newspaper crisis threatens freedom of press

America’s “Founding Fathers” seemed to think “freedom of the press” was pretty important. In fact, the First Amendment establishes the press as a central institution within democracy. But thanks to the economic crisis, things aren’t going so well in the press department.

Newspapers: the underappreciated backbone of American democracy: are collapsing.

Hundreds of talented journalists have been laid off. Large areas of the United States will now have no professional coverage. Our democracy will pay the price.

Here’s why:

Democracy requires an informed public. Americans need a variety of independent sources of information and viewpoints in order to decide their nation’s future.

Over the course of my lifetime, corporate mergers have put the control of media: and the public discourse: into the hands of a few giant corporations. These giants are driven by bottom-line profits over quality reporting, and yet according to the First Amendment, still have a central role to play in democracy. Even without the newspaper crisis, too few hands control most of what we hear and see everyday.

As newspapers fail, even fewer sources will provide citizens their news.

Newsroom budgets are cut and serious, investigative journalism is replaced by cheap fluff pieces. Local coverage that focuses on community issues is swapped for more profitable news: sensationalist celebrity coverage that does not require another paid journalist, for example.

Blogs and citizen journalists cannot fill the void. They can only accompany, not replace, those who physically gather our news. Only professional journalists do the dirty work: perusing manuscripts, attending long government meetings and investigating in the public interest.  

Here’s what is happening with newspapers today:

Although many newspapers still turn a healthy profit, the industry had been in slow decline for years. This economic crisis has rapidly sped the descent into bankruptcy.

Television and the internet’s ability to provide free, 24/7 content has cut sharply into newspaper’s market. The basic newspaper business model: centered on fixed prices of printing and mailing: has failed to compete. Web sites like craigslist.com have driven down the profitability of advertising and wanted ads.  

On January 9, 2009, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer announced it had 60 days to be sold before shutting down their presses outright. Major newspapers in Baltimore and Cincinnati have already shut down. The famous New York Times Company recently sold its $200 million stake in the Boston Red Sox to survive.  

Rob Blethen, Associate Publisher of the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, reports that the paper is still financially healthy, yet has also begun to feel some of the affects of the crisis as well.

America needs a healthy private media. What must be done to save newspapers?

A laissez-faire, free market approach is not going to help. The free market values profit over quality, and with news these two rarely coincide.  

Much like their counterparts in Detroit, newspaper executives have benefited from a do-nothing strategy that values protection of annual profits over planning for the future.  

First, newspapers must come together as an industry to determine how to best approach the 21st century.  

Second, the media giants that own many newspapers need to cut them some slack. Many papers make a healthy 15 to 20% profit, yet are held to Wall Street-like standards that deem them failures.

Third, Americans should invest in a strong, diverse media. As President Obama shells out billions to create jobs, why not consider journalists? How about an AmeriCorps for quality journalism?  

Last and most obvious, as consumers we must consider the importance of independent media and print news, and give it a second chance.

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