Thanks to a nasty one-two punch from a rough economy and the Internet, newspapers have lost much of their income.
A better economy will certainly help. But newspaper classifieds — the industry’s lifeblood — have been routed by the likes of Craig’s List; automotive ads have gone the way of Cars.com. Without these two stalwarts in their corner, newspapers die — the Rocky Mountain News in Colorado, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and the San Francisco Chronicle are three notable casualties.
Papers that have managed to hang on have watched their ranks shrink, and few, if any, seem to know how to make money from their online content. The New York Times was one of the first to charge for it — and one of the first to abandon the plan when web visitors simply stopped coming by. Until newspapers find a way to monetize their online content, their numbers will continue to diminish and their staffs will do the same.
Don’t care? Paul Starr thinks you should, for the very sake of democracy.
Newspaper journalists have always positioned themselves as the guardians of democracy — watchdogs against corruption and underhandedness. But once papers go away, fears the Princeton University sociology and public affairs professor and Pulitzer Prize winning author of “The Social Transformation of American Medicine,” no one will be watching the statehouses, the assemblies, the Congress, or anything else. And this is not something Paul Starr is just making up. The United States Congress has taken up the issue of how to save newspapers because it agrees that saving them is an urgent need.
Starr will discuss the state of newspaper affairs when he presents “Good-Bye To the Age of Newspapers (Hello To a New Era of Corruption)” at a Princeton University conference on the newspaper crisis on Friday, May 1, beginning at 8:30 a.m. at Robertson Hall. Sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson School Policy Research Institute, or PRIOR, the event will feature panels on regional and national matters relating to newspapers.
Other guests include Phyllis Kaniss, executive director of the American Academy of Political and Social Science; Charles Layton, senior writer for the American Journalism Review and former editor, Philadelphia Inquirer; Rich Lee, director of communications at the Hall Institute of Public Policy; and Jim Willse, editor of the Star Ledger.
To register, or for more information for this free event, visit www.princeton.edu/prior.
Starr graduated from Columbia in 1970 and holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Harvard. He began his career as project director for the Center for Study of Responsive Law in 1971 and held fellowships at Yale and Harvard until he became an assistant professor of sociology at Harvard in 1978. He also was an advisor on health policy to the White House in 1993 and director of the Century Institute.
In 1984 Starr won the Pulitzer for his history of the evolution of the American system of doctors, hospitals, health plans, and government programs. In 1994 he founded the Electronic Policy Network, an online public policy resource. He holds the Stuart Chair in Communications and Public Affairs at the Wilson School.
Let the corruption begin. Starr says that journalists from regional papers are a special and vital breed. Large papers with regional bureaus have been able to monitor Washington, D.C., and offer local perspectives on national issues. And they’ve caught trouble. In 2006, he says, the San Diego Union-Tribune won a Pulitzer for exposing the bribes taken and tax evasion committed by U.S. Rep. Randall “Duke” Cunningham. The Union-Tribune’s coverage led to a conviction of more than eight years. But that bureau is now closed.
“The watchdog role of the regional press is even more critical at the state level, where no one else is likely to step in when newspapers cut back,” Starr says. He cites New Jersey as a prime example. In 2000 the Star-Ledger had 13 full-time reporters in Trenton, the largest statehouse bureau in the country. Now there are four. Gannett, which owns six papers in the state, has two reporters in Trenton. “Altogether, according to the governor’s office, the number of full-time statehouse reporters in New Jersey has fallen from more than 50 to 15 in the past decade,” Starr says. “That is a lot fewer pairs of eyes to keep watch over state agencies.”
There is also the quality in reporting. As papers have bled to death they have offered large-scale buyouts — the Washington Post began offering buyouts in 2006 and has lost hundreds of years of collective journalism experience, and the Star-Ledger nearly closed last year before 45 percent of its staff took buyouts. Left are inexperienced reporters with less oversight, Starr says.
Checks and balances. Without editors, reporters are little more than bloggers. While there has been a consistent note of optimism among the carnage that online media such as blogs will save the day, says Starr, the truth is the rise of online media is neither replacing the quantity of reporters nor their ability to be on the scene and deliver credible accounts. Bloggers might write, he says, but no one is providing them oversight, nor the wisdom and ethics that come with experience. “As editorial ranks are thinned,” he says, “internal checks on accuracy are being sacrificed.”
And going with them are relationships built up by reporters and editors among their communities. Trusted sources allowing papers to break news are evaporating, and those who can guide seasoned journalists through the morass will be unknown to young staffs at those papers that do manage to hang on.
Other outlets. Of major concern to people like Starr is which outlets will cover the news, and how. Television news, largely a parade of police blotter items, weather, and celebrity gossip these days, has largely shied away from investigating governments and corporate malfeasance. And small community papers, says Starr, are hanging on only because digital geo-targeting — the ability to advertize locally via the Internet — has not yet figured out how to reach people as members of particular communities.
“That’s going to change,” Starr says. “The technology has improved tremendously.” You know those spam ads you get on your cell phone? It won’t be long before they come from the store down the street.
Newspapers as nonprofits. There are about 30 types of ideas aimed at saving newspapers out there, everything from micro-charging readers to view online content to buying profitable businesses that allow papers to stay independent (the Washington Post, for example, owns education publisher Kaplan). But not everyone can afford to diversify, and readers of online content have yet to express their willingness to pay for it.
One idea getting a lot of play in government circles is to allow newspapers to become nonprofit organizations. Starr calls the idea plausible, if not quite a panacea. He does, however, have a reason for any optimism — it has helped the magazine he cofounded.
Starr is co-editor of the American Prospect, a left-leaning magazine of politics and public issues he co-foundedin 1990 with Robert Kuttner and Robert Reich. The magazine, like National Geographic, is a publication of a nonprofit organization. The Schumann Center for Media and Democracy has been a major grantor to American Prospect, having given it a substantial enough grant in 2005 to go from a monthly to a bi-weekly publication for a while. Now a monthly in print and online, the magazine has also received funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the JEHT Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, Open Society Institute, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Carnegie Foundation, and the Surdna Foundation.
Local papers, of course, might have trouble reaching so deep into the well, but fundamentally, says Starr, news agencies as nonprofits is a sound idea. The key, he says, is that there would have to be a nonprofit fund for journalism itself, not one for individual publications.
What Starr dreads is the idea of a press paid for by the government. A major criticism of news outlets, especially as they get larger, is that they are beholden to advertisers. And while Starr agrees that the system has not been perfect, he says advertisers have allowed newspapers to stay independent, at least from government agencies. Fringe talks of a journalism bail-out akin to those for the banking or auto industries, says Starr, would be ruinous. “The independence of the press would be far worse if it had to rely on the government for funding,” he says.