Members of Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee just held the latest in what’s become a series of hand-wringing sessions over the state of print journalism, having apparently discovered about 20 years after the fact that newspapers as a viable medium are dead. Said Jay:
The numbers alone tell a chilling story. During roughly the last six months, daily newspaper circulation has declined 7 percent. During roughly the past year, media companies have cut a heartbreaking 41,000 jobs. The inevitable result is less reporting, less news, and less coverage of our communities and interests at home and abroad.
From these facts we can infer that the newsgathering model that served us so well in the past is now in trouble. The future of journalism is digital.
Whoa! Stop the presses. Oh, wait, they already are.
In the near term, we must seek ways to make sure that our existing news entities find a firmer financial footing. In the long term, however, we face more fundamental concerns. From the very beginning our approach to media policy has been informed by a set of core values—encouraging competition, ensuring a diversity of voices, and fostering localism. Despite the changes all around us, I believe we should strive to make sure that these values continue to inspire our media policy in the digital age.
Now hold on there a minute, Jay. Before you start advocating a taxpayer bailout of the likes of Gannett or McClatchy or Rupert Murdoch, lets put this into historical perspective, shall we?
First and foremost, who do you think you’re kidding when you pretend “your” (as in the government’s) approach to media policy has somehow encouraged competition?
Some of us are old enough to remember when your Congress passed the humorously titled “Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970,” designed to allow most of today’s top media monopoly companies to ignore, now via legal exemption, antitrust laws by twisting the arms of their competitors and forming joint operating agreements, supposedly to promote the survival of multiple daily newspapers in large urban markets.
As you may recall from the dead newspaper list below, that went well:
→ Buffalo Courier-Express – 1982;
→ Charlotte News – 1985;
→ Chicago Daily News – 1978;
→ Cleveland Press – 1982;
→ Columbus (Ohio) Citizen-Journal – 1985;
→ Dallas Times Herald – 1991;
→ Dayton (Ohio) Daily News – 1986;
→ El Paso Herald-Post – 1997;
→ Houston Post – 1995;
→ Kansas City Times – 1990;
→ Los Angeles Herald-Examiner – 1989;
→ Louisville Times – 1986;
→ Miami News – 1988;
→ Nashville Banner – 1998;
→ Philadelphia Bulletin – 1982;
→ Pittsburgh Press – 1992;
→ Portland (Ore.) Journal – 1982;
→ Raleigh Times – 1989;
→ St. Louis Globe-Democrat – 1986;
→ Washington (D.C.) Star – 1981.
There were many others, Jay, but you get the picture. Your (the government’s) efforts to promote newspaper competition in America pretty much killed off all but one newspaper in every U.S. market of any size, as joint operating agreements predictably failed and then expired. And that happened between 10 and 20 years ago.
Then, Jay, you may remember the Telecommunications Act of 1996, passed by Congress but written by telecommunications lobbyists, which proved to be a great tool to strangle off any remaining independent newspapers by allowing cross-media ownership in any market.
I think Ben Bagdikian summed up Congress’ newspaper competition efforts pretty well the following year:
The new communications cartel has been made possible by the withdrawal of earlier government intervention that once aspired to protect consumers and move toward the ideal of diversity of content and ownership in the mass media. Government’s passivity has emboldened the new giants to boast openly of monopoly and their ability to project news, commercial messages, and graphic images into the consciousness and subconscious of almost every American.
By Bagdikian’s count, about 50 corporations dominated American media outlets in 1984. By 1990 the number had shrunk to 23. By 1996, in his estimation, it was down to 10.
And now, Jay, you want us to shed a tear for the same monopolists who killed off newspaper competition and the incentive for any publisher to hire and maintain a stable of investigative reporters – 10 years ago or more?
Where were you when we needed you?
I am not heartless to the plight of the American journalist, especially as that his been my pursuit, in one way or another, for much of the past 30 years.
But let us look at the bigger picture and see where we are, before we throw money at the likes of a Dean Singleton.
You want competition and diversity in the news-gathering business, Jay? There’s never been anything approaching the competition and diversity in the news business as there is now. In it’s way, it’s as if we’ve come full circle from the 1770s when dozens if not hundreds of independent publishers posted their manifestos, via hammer, nail and flier, on the door at the local inn.
Only now the hundreds of thousands if not millions of independent publishers out there also have a built-in, really cheap but tremendously effective distribution system. This advancement has come so quickly that sufficient time has yet to pass to allow reputation and brand to gel, but that’s happening quickly, too.
This may be the worst time in history to own a newspaper, but I believe we’re standing at the threshold of the golden age of journalism, one where a driven, talented individual can pursue his or her research and investigation unfettered from the bias of the entity more responsible than any other for killing or disfiguring good investigative work: The corporate newspaper publisher.
Jay, if you and the rest of Congress ever really gave a shit about the state of American journalism, perhaps you could create a low-interest loan program for laid off reporters and editors who want to start their own business, and then find some way to go kick the university journalism schools in their collective butts until they start offering classes in web publishing and technology.
That would, in my opinion, do a whole lot more to shore up the foundations of the Fourth Estate then feeding taxpayer-funded milk bones to the dogs who’ve been running the newspaper industry to ground for the past few decades.