Deadman's picture

    Newspaper bailout? Please no ... but we do need The Watchmen

    What a shock. A reporter (fearing for his own job, perhaps?) asked White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs if the potential imminent closure of the venerable Boston Globe calls for yet another government bailout, this time to save the flailing newspaper industry.

    Gibbs was sympathetic to the plight of the industry but at best non-committal with his answer. Yet Clusterstock writer Joe Wiesenthal seems to think such a bailout is coming (although not in time to save the Globe), and that the Obama administration and Congress will justify such largess by carping "about how the lack of a thriving fourth estate posed (sic) 'systemic risk' to democracy."

    I don't think Wiesenthal is right. The public appetite for more bailouts is basically nil, and if the auto industry is now getting the stiff arm from Congress then I can't see how newspapers are going to be able to feed in any significant way at the public trough. The Obama administration has already rejected calls from house Speaker Nancy Pelosi asking for looser antitrust restrictions created under the Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970.

    However, I've also seen our government do some stupid and surprising things over the past year, and it did after all once create a Newspaper Preservation Act, so perhaps we will see government intervention in the newspaper industry.

    And make no mistake, a widespread newspaper bailout would be a stupid thing to do. No one under the age of 50 wants to read newspapers anymore. So what? Most of these people haven't stopped staying up to date on current events, but are finding the news - at least the news they want - through other means, such as our beloved Internet and the emerging blogosphere.

    As a former journalist, trained at one of our nation's finest J-schools, I want to be sympathetic to the cry and hue I hear everyday from folks in the industry. But media companies should have to deal with the same technological creative destruction forces that numerous other industries have been forced to confront.

    The newspaper industry will have to find a way to stay relevant amid emerging technological (perhaps the new large-screen Kindle will offer one answer) and societal changes, or die the slow death it deserves. I am confident a market will always exist - or at least eventually reemerge - for people who know how to effectively create and/or edit content.

    However, I have one important caveat here. There is one function that newspapers perform that I do think is vital to our democratic society: Investigative journalism. I cannot begin to enumerate all of the political and business scandals that would likely never have seen the light of day had it not been for the fine investigative work funded by the newspaper industry.

    Indeed, much of that investigative work is already disappearing as the industry adjusts to the new economic realities by paring their operations to the bone. Whether newspapers survive or not, the days are already numbered when editors would allow their best investigative journalists to go off the grid for months at a time pursuing a potential scoop that could net the publication a bunch of Pulitzer prizes.

    Other media - like magazines and television - have occasionally shed some light on some very dark corners of American history, and certainly some in blogland would pick up the muckraking mantle of the newspaper industry, but it is possible that the private market will no longer be interested in supporting the important investigative work the newspaper industry has historically done.

    If the newspaper industry does not survive, and no other privately funded source emerges to effectively replace the investigative work it once did, then the government should step in to create and fund an investigative agency that would perform that function.

    A group of Watchmen, if you will (and Watchwomen, of course).

    I haven't given much thought about the organization or mandate such an agency would have - maybe that will be fodder for another post - and certainly we would have to wonder who would watch the watchmen. It could be that the creation of such an agency may be too complicated or costly for the federal government.

    I can live easily in a world without newspapers. But a world without a functioning investigative journalism system would be scary indeed.


    Losing investigative journalism is a real problem.  The blogosphere doesn't really have an answer to this quandary, though there are a few examples of blog-based investigate successes like TPM's Polk-winning coverage of the U.S. Attorney scandal.  You make a good point that newspapers have provided less and less of this in recent years, but precious little is still preferable to none at all.

    As papers cut costs, investigative journalists were the first to be bought out or laid off. If the public sees a byline only every second month, it's less likely to notice when it fails to reappear at all. But of course, the reporters dropped were almost always among the most skilled and experienced.

    Maybe some of those laid-off journalists can find work at the SEC or DOJ, which have been falling down on the investigative part of their jobs. But there's no way I want the government funding, much less managing, investigative journalism. Even PBS, which started out so promising, was turned into a political football.

    BTW, the new large-format Kindle really does hold a lot of promise for newspapers. Newsprint and distribution are major costs. Eliminating them should enable the price of an e-subscription to be cut in half or more, while still retaining good staff levels. I prefer the paper to the electronic version, but then I only have a desktop computer, not a Kindle.

    I agree the formation of such a federally funded investigative journalism agency would have to be carefully considered and its independence from government interference and electoral politics even stronger than that enjoyed by the Federal Reserve and the Supreme Court.

    I also agree the there is a chance that no matter how carefully you set the Watchmen agency up that it would become a political football at best, and a prosecutorial tool at worst.

    But what is the answer if the private market does not step up to provide the means to effectively watch over our political and business leaders?? Or do we just assume that somehow, someway the markets will figure it out because collectively there is so much at stake? Would citizen watchdog groups spontaneously emerge, incentivized by no more than civic duty?

    I don't know the answers, I'm just thinking things through. Given how newspapers have already reined in much of their investigative efforts, it could be something we need to figure out no matter what happens to the industry.

    For the record, I am under 50, down with twitter and blogs and all that, and I f-ing love newspapers. Well newspaper, anyway. It's a hell of a lot harder to find the Times in Philly.

    Two reasons why I prefer the paper:

    1. I cannot read a web article all the way through. I skim for the point and then get distracted by some other story. The web, for me, is all marquee, rapidly scrolling headlines. I don't know why. has the same stories as the paper. I just can't sink my teeth into them.

    2. When I try to eat breakfast over my laptop, I get crumbs in the keyboard and grease on the keys.

    That said, I recognize that there aren't enough people like me to pay for the distribution.

    No to government creating an investigative 'Watchman' group and even if you put Obama in charge of it still no. 

    I think people will step up and form investigative organizations. 

    Unlike Dr. G., I like reading the NYT on line but I have to admit it took a while.  If you use the spoon and fork implements to eat with, Dr. G., there is less problem with destroying the keyboard.  OR you could get one of those plastic covers. (You may want to consult a nutritionist, or your mom, if you are eating something for breakfast with so much grease on it that it drips on your keyboard).

    When I read about newspapers closing, I think about my parents and the pleasure they take in reading the paper.  Neither one of them watch any news on TV now (to quote my mom "It is too trashy").  I don't think a large screen Kindle would help them. Because the papers they read serve a rural area I doubt they will close down for a while.

    I agree with you, Deadman, and find the idea of a bailout for the newspapers outlandish.  I've probably said this here before because I think about it so often, but I wonder what happened to all those companies and people that made typewriters and carbon paper.  I don't remember ever hearing a peep out of them when the computers and copies drove them into the dustbin. 



    maps, phone booths, VCRs, pagers, yellow pages, floppy disks, TV guide magazine, CD players - the list of products that have been made obsolete or soon to be made obsolete by technology in just the past ten years is neverending, and fascinating frankly. this is just the list that popped into my head. feel free to add others!

    If the yellow pages is obsolete, how come it keeps showing up on my doorstep twice a year? 

    well it's not dead yet - older folks still appreciate it, and small businesses scared by the web probably feel they have to be there, but when was the last time you used one of those things????

    the yellow pages may actually stick around for a long, long time to come - like the phone booth or the VCR - but its use will be so minimal that it will hardly matter - and the earth's trees will be thankful for it.

    I use them all the time--whenever I need to reach something on the high shelf.

    I refuse to give up my morning paper or my morning tripple-fried chicken with fries.

    Seriously though, it's not that I don't enjoy reading online news, but I do read it differently. Case in point: I had no paper this morning, so read the times on line. Clicked a couple of headlines, checked out the international section, bounced over to TPM, redirected to politico, did some dagging, all cool enough.

    But it was only way I got the paper later that I read anything in-depth about tax havens, including the big loophole that Obama's plan does not cover, learned about Republican Ray LaHood's qualifications (or lack thereof) for transportation secretary, found out that Khamenei had publicly rebuked Ahmadinejad, and learned that the Marxist prime minister of Nepal had resigned. I don't get the depth online b/c I read shorter articles and jump around too much. And the small, interesting stories often get buried by the most popular stuff. It's not that I can't find them online; it's just that I don't.

    That said, the NYT is really the only American paper that offers the depth and the more obscure international stories that I appreciate.

    ...found out that Khamenei had publicly rebuked Ahmadinejad...

    Pshaw. I learned that this morning on-line ... by watching the Colbert Report. ;)

    Genghis, I agree that one does read the NY Times different when reading on line.  I did at first and really noticed the different experience.  When I moved to the farm and had no access to the Times except on line I learned to read it almost like a I would a real paper.  What I am going to try tomorrow am is reading the Times on line while holding a piece a paper in my hand and see how that changes the experience.  I think it will stop those fingers from itching to click elsewhere.

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