ASNE conference report: Hey Tim Geithner - can newspapers get a bailout, too?
WASHINGTON D.C. -- After an hour of watching Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner put a roomful of journalists to sleep during a question and answer session at the American Society of News Editors conference today, I was struck by a question which i never got up the gumption to ask.
"Hey Secretary Geithner," I wanted to shout, "Can newspapers get a bailout, too?"
My thinking, admittedly was influenced by a panel discussion I had just led at the conference, featuring four decidedly different folks from journalism and politics chewing over that very question. The panelists -- Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen, The Nation correspondent John Nichols, anti-trust lawyer/former journalist Katherine Funk and Federal Trade Commission official Susan DiSanti -- basically agreed on one thing.
The current model for newspaper ownership is seriously flawed. And it needs to get unwound to save American newspaper companies and American journalism.
Basically, the advertising revenues newspapers are taking in now to pay for newsrooms with hundreds of reporters and editors have taken a serious fall -- both because of the general recession and because Craiglist and Monster.com have replaced the classified ad.
Classified ads, the horse and buggy of the newspaper world, will likely never come back to where they once were. But if the other advertising can come back -- newspapers may have a fighting chance to maintain quality and effectiveness while charting their digital future.
Enter the big media companies with chains of newspapers, such as the Tribune Company (Chicago Tribune, L.A. Times) and Gannett Co. (USA Today, Detroit Free Press, Tallahassee Democrat). Because they took on so much debt to build their empires, they must demand large profits to keep shareholders happy, which requires cutting staff and resources in a recession.
Blethen maintained that most newspapers are still profitable (only a few have actually closed their doors in the past year) and could survive as stand-alone entities -- if they didn't have to send such large chunks of profit to the corporate headquarters. Nichols suggested "paying the bad actors to go away" -- a move where government might give huge tax breaks to debt-laden media companies which sell their newspapers to local owners who don't need such large profits to stay in business.
Hence my question for Geithner. With Wall Street, the government paid off their huge debt obligations and is now trying to change the rules of the financial system to keep the same people who screwed up the financial system in the first place from doing it again. At ASNE he expressed full confidence that their reform measures will pass.
"Look at the devastation caused by this financial crisis," he said. "I don't think it's a tenable position to say we don't need to fix this system."
So, perhaps if newspaper folks suggest a way to ease out the folks who screwed up the newspaper industry, they would be even more receptive.
Okay, probably not.
Truth is, smaller ideas -- our own Pulitzer winner Lane DeGregory suggesting the government might eliminate fees for records which can require news outlets to spend thousands of dollars obtaining documents for investigative stories -- are more likely to happen.
I predict, we'll have to see wide swaths of the country without regional and local journalism outlets before the government will consider any kind of aid.
By then, many of the industry's best minds might be doing something else. Like, say, running Wall Street hedge funds.
So what do you say Mr. Secretary?