A Government without Newspapers

by Binoy Kampmark Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge. Email: 24.03.2009

"And were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate to prefer the later."

Thomas Jefferson, January 1787                                                                                                                                                 

It has rapidly become the common wisdom to state that journalism, in the conventional, hardnosed print sense, is doomed. The state of American journalism is particularly dire, given the rapid retreat of various papers into administrative purgatory or extinction. The trend is repeated in Britain, where it was announced on Monday (23 March) that 1,000 journalists would be axed from the local newspapers of Northcliffe. The cause of that was largely attributed to a 37 percent fall in advertising revenue.

The newspaper today is seen to be an institution neglected, shunned and disparaged. Revenue is not being generated for coffers through advertising (classified ads), having leaked out into such gratis outlets as Craigslist and other online formats of advertising. Nor is online advertising used by papers generating sufficient revenue to overcome the loss. The returns are strikingly small, in some cases a mere 5 percent of the revenue of print advertising. To compound this problem, circulation is falling sharply.

The carnage inflicted on the humble paper is impressive, with many of the casualties venerable and distinguished. 2008 had been, before this year, the worst in newspaper publishing history, with a fall of, according to veteran news analyst Alan Mutter, 83 percent in share value. The San Francisco Chronicle is haemorrhaging, menaced by the Hearst Corporation. The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News have filed for bankruptcy. To these can be added the Tribune Co. group, owner of the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and six other dailies. Foreign bureaus are being closed or stripped back, as in the case of the Baltimore Sun. Some, like the Rocky Mountain News, a paper having served Denver, Colorado for almost 150 years, have announced their closure. News coverage, at least at this level, is vanishing.

The situation is so gloomy that the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) announced earlier this year that it was cancelling its 2009 convention, which would have been held in Chicago this April. In the words of its president, Charlotte Hall, the ASNE leadership felt that 'the challenges editors face at their newspapers demand their full attention.' Fittingly, an electronic vote on removing the word 'paper' from the name of the ASNE to include membership of online-only news sites is on the cards.

Some put this crisis down to the inability of newspaper editors and journalists to understand the workings of the World Wide Web. Despite making a move into cyberspace, most newspapers abide by the dogma of daily article posts. Some journalists run blogs, an exercise that is desperately trying to win pieces of the cyber pie. Others have an active Twitter site which provides snippets of information through the course of the day, but these are rare.

More savvy operators have realised that the web runs on an endless supply of information, made readily available through regular updates. One blogger, writing for The Gaughan Report, a self-described column on politics and current events, is smug in the opening lines of a post from February 16, 2008. 'The fact that you are reading the Gaughan Report right now instead of reading a Saturday morning newspaper is telling. It is in microcosm an example of why the newspaper industry is facing an unprecedented financial crisis.'

Perhaps, as Eric Alterman writes says in the American liberal magazine, The Nation (Feb 11, 2009), the issue is less the death of newspapers, but the death of news that should bother us. The death of newspapers will kill off the field reporter, replaced by networks of recycled stories and opinion without an iota of investigative reporting. A world without them will be impoverished, a world of closed doors and scanty coverage.

A possible solution could involve subsiding newspapers. This has been suggested by David Swensen and Michael Schmidt in a piece in the New York Times (Jan 27, 2009). Turn them, in short, into non-profit, endowed institutions on a university or college model. Newspapers are institutions, after all. Without such a move, we may well have unruly governments inspired by a distinct absence of newspapers.

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