Is the community willing to help save newspapers from oblivion?
Former Tampa Tribune staffer Billy Townsend sent me a wonderful post he put on the Lakeland Local blog musing on the future of our craft, depressingly subtitled "The Deprofessionalization of News."
He outlines an idea I've broached in this space before, sparked by a conversation with Free Press board member Tim Wu in Minneapolis; that newspapers in particular will need to form a new partnership with the public in order to maintain the current news infrastructure.
What does that mean? Put simply, much of the news you consume in a single day is generated at ground level by the newspaper industry. TV reporters crib scoops from the newspapers; radio reporters and DJs often rip and read stories from newspaper pages; the Associated Press thrives on the fees paid by and stories contributed from member newspapers; blogs are filled with commentary on stories broken by newspaper writers. And so on.
As the downsizing of America's print media continues, the very foundation of our information system is at risk. Forget all the altruistic talk of watchdogging government and uncovering inequities in life -- the pipeline for all the information products we all enjoy is crumbling as the financial model of newspapers disintegrates.
If you doubt this truth at all, check out the financial figures released Tuesday by Media General, owner of the Tampa Tribune,WFLA-Ch. 8 and about 40 other newspapers and TV stations. Revenues for 2008 were $68.3-million -- a lot of cash until you note that revenues were $11-million higher in July of 2007. In Florida, publishing revenue declined 30 percent -- overall, classified revenues dropped 32.5-percent. Declines in retail advertising in Tampa and Richmond dropped $2.3-million from last year.
Some commenters here sneer whenever I broach this idea. But the fact is, if our news infrastructure keeps crumbling, communities across the country will have to consider whether this system is worth funding as a non-profit or publicly supported enterprise.
Because, even though we've trained our audience not to pay directly for the work we do, it holds tremendous value in bringing substance and depth to our media ecosystem. Consider radio as the template -- who else besides the local public broadcasting radio stations is doing real radio journalism anymore?
This may be the print medium's future if we don't figure a better alternative now.