Archive for January, 2009

Good times, bad times

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

After three decades in the newspaper business, I realized there is a certain bipolarity within the industry: When times are good, newspapers are a business. When times are bad, they’re a public trust.

For most of my tenure, times were good and newspapers were flush. They charged as much for advertising as the market could bear, most of them had monopolies in their towns, and the money rolled in. If there was any concern that economic circumstance might someday threaten the business, it was never exhibited. Everyone proceeded on the belief that the good times would last forever. I never once heard a news executive suggest that if newspapers were so important to public life, then maybe some profits should be tucked away to sustain the industry in periods of adversity.

Now, the good times are over and newspapers are threatened. Guess what? The industry is now a public trust, and too important to fade away. Here’s how a recent opinion piece in the New York Times put it:

“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in January 1787. “And were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate to prefer the latter.”

Today, we are dangerously close to having a government without newspapers.

Putting aside the fact that Jefferson — who had neither television nor radio nor Internet — would today have said “media” rather than “newspapers,” the basic sentiment is still well-founded. Rigorous reporting on government is a valuable thing and worth preserving. But that’s just one thing newspapers do. They also provide comic strips, television listings, betting lines for sporting events, movie reviews, recipes, advice to the lovelorn, and lifestyle articles celebrating the glories of feng shui and such. Are those things likewise uniquely valuable to the nation?

Of course not. But newspapers provide all those extras in the belief that it helps the industry keep its audience — although that audience long ago figured out those features are available elsewhere. The one thing people can’t get anywhere else is tough-nosed reporting on how their government functions.

So why can’t the newspaper industry seem to figure out how to build a business model around that one thing, which is both a public trust and desirable consumer product?