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How bad must media decline before federal support looks like a good idea?



ASNE-Lead-Drop2 The news, as is often the case when talking about the newspaper industry these days, is decidedly bittersweet.

The bitter: the American Society of News Editors on Sunday released their latest survey of newspaper newsrooms, noting that 5,200 jobs were lost in 2009, or 13,500 positions since 2007.

The sweet part of that alarming figure? It's a slowing of job loss since 2008, when nearly 6,000 journalists left the industry through buyouts and layoffs. According to ASNE, U.S. newsrooms have lost more than 25 percent of their workforce in nine years, declining to levels the industry hasn't seen since the mid-1970s.

Which brings up a topic that has swirled the media circles for some time now, fueled by shrinking news staffs  and an increasing inability to fund robust newsrooms with a typical newspaper's advertising revenue:

Is it time for the government to help preserve newspaper journalism with financial support?

Asne_logo That's the topic of a panel discussion I'll be leading at the ASNE national convention in Washington D.C. on Tuesday; to explore some of the issues, I wrote a column on the same topic for Sunday's Perspective section.

The bottom line: there's ways to support the news industry beyond handing failing newspapers a bag of money, and it may be time for lawmakers, industry leaders and media analysts to start contemplating alternatives.

Even among those who advocate federal help to preserve journalism, few like the term "bailout" or are comfortable with the notion of handing media companies big checks in the way some Wall Street banks were saved last year (as one columnist noted, nobody wants newspaper companies to keep doing what got many of them into this mess -- namely, taking on crushing debt to build huge ownership chains).

And beyond the obvious political fights such proposals will likely generate, a large number of media executives are not yet comfortable with the idea. In a new survey released today by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, 88 percent of newspaper executives expressed "serious concerns" about direct subsidies from the government and 46 percent of executives polled expressed concerns over tax credits given to citizens for money spent on newspapers or media (in my Sunday story, St. Petersburg Times editor, Chairman and CEO Paul Tash expressed his opposition to direct subsidies).

Newspaper stack-thumb-117x103-2899 Here's a few notions which occurred to me:

-- Few people seem to realize how much of their news ecology depends on the journalism provided by newspapers. Or how the proportion of journalism is decreasing as information increases from blogs, smartphones, social media and other sources.

-- According to a study by the University of Southern California, newspapers and magazines still get $900-million in federal and state tax breaks. At one time, back in 1970, the government spent $2-billion subsidizing postal rates for newspapers and magazines. So this tradition may not be so new.

-- The great fear is that the economic formula which has funded newspapers for so long is breaking down before a new model can arise to ensure regional and local journalism continues in communities across the country. If the industry waits until the model is in serious peril before seriously considering federal help, will it be making the same mistake it made with the Internet?

-- Right now, industry analysts are hopeful print outlets have seen the bottom of their fiscal slide, amid hopes that advertising might pick up toward the end of 2010 as the recession begins to ebb. But news outlets continue to shed jobs -- though at a slower pace than last year -- and the biggest problem remains big chains forced to pay huge debts by sending what profits newspapers have to distant owners.

So, bad as times have looked for the newspaper industry, things may have to get much worse before anyone seriously considers government help.  

Is there a way government can help preserve journalism's economic future without corrupting it?

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 3:07pm]


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