The Future of Journalism



Last week, a U.S. Senate subcommittee held a hearing on a proposal to allow some of the nation’s struggling newspapers to become nonprofits, making advertising and subscription revenue tax-exempt and allowing tax-deductible contributions to support news coverage.

Last week, a U.S. Senate subcommittee held a hearing on a proposal to allow some of the nation’s struggling newspapers to become nonprofits, making advertising and subscription revenue tax-exempt and allowing tax-deductible contributions to support news coverage. By now, most Americans are well aware that some of the nation’s major daily newspapers already have gone out of business and others are hanging on by the proverbial shoestring. “We need to save our community newspapers and the investigative journalism they provide,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland), sponsor of the legislation.The remarks of Cardin and others led Arianna Huffington, editor of the online Huffington Post, which represents itself as a Web site of opinion and news, to declare that the future of journalism is not dependent on the future of newspapers. Not surprisingly, Huffington’s remarks exhibit a sense of self-importance that isn’t justified by the evidence.

The truth is that, to a very great extent, the future of journalism — at least credible journalism — is very much dependent on the future of newspapers. Fortunately, while Cardin is right to have concerns, many of those community newspapers — both dailies and weeklies — will be around for some time to come. And that’s a good thing, because it is those newspapers — with their staffs of qualified and experienced reporters — that continue to gather and produce much of the information that the Huffington Post and other similar Web sites that collect, distribute and huff about.

Most online news sites have few, if any, reporters of their own, pursuing and developing the stories that are so essential to keeping Americans well-informed. If the newspapers disappear, those online sites will be reduced to accepting government or public relations handouts and the omnipresent blogs that already have become a primary staple of the Web. There’s plenty of opinion to be found online, but it is exactly that, leaving the casual reader or viewer with little or no ability to assess its accuracy or truthfulness.

The problems encountered by some of the nation’s daily newspapers are well documented. In many instances, they can be attributed to greedy families and corporate owners who did not understand the business and failed to look to the future and ask, “what if….?”

Over the past few decades, there has been a huge consolidation of daily newspapers, and the conglomerators often overpaid based upon the conditions and advertising revenues of the past. Right here in Maine, the Blethen family, owners of the Seattle Times, paid $235 million for newspapers in Portland, Augusta and Waterville just 11 years ago. They’ll be lucky to get $35 million for them today. The New York Times paid $1.1 billion for The Boston Globe. The McClatchy Co., the third largest newspaper company in the country, paid $2 billion for the Knight-Ridder newspapers. The debt loaded onto those newspapers has become a burden that simply cannot be sustained in today’s economy.

But none of the handwringing about the demise of newspapers involves the thousands of smaller community dailies and weeklies that dot the country. They continue to operate successfully by using their wits and serving their markets effectively. Most of them are neither heavily in debt nor overstaffed. They simply go about their business, day in and day out, providing the depth and breadth of information so essential to citizens in a functioning democracy.

Contrary to the opinions of Huffington and others of like mind, it is those newspapers that will continue to be the backbone of journalism in this country for decades to come.

This editorial was orginally published in the May 14, 2009 issue of The Ellsworth American.

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