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  1. Opinion

In the words of Ben Franklin, please pay for news

Our business is facing challenges, but it’s still a business. We need your help.

Part of my first job at the Tampa Bay Times was to fasten the day’s newspaper into an unwieldy cardboard binder. If a reporter needed an old story, she would walk to the front of the room and flip through.

I was an editorial assistant in our Carrollwood office, and this was not the 1800s. This was 2003!

It’s staggering how much has changed in those 17 years. I’ve witnessed more layoffs, pay cuts and reductions than I can count.

And now, goody, we find ourselves in the throes of a global health crisis. Our business model relies heavily on advertising. The folks who advertise with us are on hold, painfully, terrifyingly, like the rest of the country.

So at least temporarily, we’ve announced that we’re cutting the print newspaper to Wednesday and Sunday. We’re asking readers to subscribe online. More on that in a bit.

First, back to that word business. We are not good at explaining that we are one.

Let’s explore! Any journalism wonk should read Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism by Christopher B. Daly. If you finished Ozark and could go for a 576-page chronicle, this is the one.

Daly and I talked from our respective quarantines (what a thrill to speak to a new human). He wrote the book because his journalism students at Boston University had no idea how the business works. Most people don’t.

American journalism forefather Ben Franklin set principles that guide us today. But make no mistake — he was a hustler. To quote from the ancient text Tommy Boy, he could sell a ketchup Popsicle to a woman in white gloves.

For better or worse, many of journalism’s Early White Men of Note were that way. Benjamin Day, who invented the penny press. Joseph Pulitzer. William Randolph Hearst. David Sarnoff at NBC. William Paley at CBS.

“They were not dreamers,” said Daly, a former journalist with the Associated Press and Washington Post. “They were not writers. They were not photographers. They were business people who were pretty hard-driving, innovative types.”

For journalists today, the mission is our compass. We defend the powerless and hold the powerful to account. The hours are long, the pay is low and we wake up to readers calling us... let’s go with “dunderheaded fussbudgets.” We are adept at describing our duty, at times a bit breathlessly. We’re less good at settling the bill.

To demonstrate that this has always been a volatile, changing business, here is a brief summary of 300 years.

Daly traces the American newspaper to 1690 and Boston’s Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick. Among the stories, editor Benjamin Harris wrote that Louis the XIV was sleeping with a daughter-in-law. It went over like a bag of bricks and officials shut it down, pronto.

But the news could not be squashed. It grew in the 18th century, and it was gross. To apply the ink to the press, an apprentice would soak a sheepskin in urine “for a fortnight,” Daly wrote, then “pull the skins out of the reeking pail, twist them in his hands to wring out some of the moisture, roll them in old newspapers, and stomp on them with his feet until they were dry enough for the next night’s soaking.” I will never complain again!

Innovations emerged such as almanacs and pamphlets. Political pamphleteers were the original underground journalists and bloggers.

The early 19th century brought steam and railroads. The telegraph dramatically increased the speed of information, if not always the accuracy. Sound familiar? We got photography. Telephone. Linotype. Radio. Television.

Advertisers rushed to be included. When someone complained about ads in the New York Herald, publisher James Gordon Bennett said, “We permit no blockhead to interfere with our business.” Blockhead!

“Customers got out of the habit of fully supporting the full weight of gathering the news,” Daly said. “It’s a very expensive thing to do, especially news from far away. News that powerful people want to hide. News that doesn’t just walk in the door.”

And that actually worked until recently. But digital ad dollars pale compared to print, and a newspaper is very expensive to make and deliver. It is not sustainable to run a factory on the money from a few toenail fungus ads at the bottom of your online story.

It’s on us to innovate, like, yesterday. We are launching podcasts and newsletters and adjusting the structure of our newsroom.

Some newsrooms have had Wealthy Helpers, as when Amazon’s Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post. This, my new scholarly friend notes, is not without ethical questions. But it has worked. Here at the Times, we have loans from a group of investors that includes Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and Times chairman Paul Tash.

Some news outlets are looking at subsidies or help from foundations. Some have gone nonprofit. Our path will crystallize soon.

But this much is clear. We need you to pay for news online. We should have asked way earlier. You can also donate to our cause.

And if you can, try to keep an open mind. My grandma is 92 and uses Facebook. My mom put off our FaceTime call last week because she “had a webinar.”

Related: Pandemic prompts change in newspaper delivery at Tampa Bay Times

Our main news site tampabay.com is brimming with stories, graphics, photography, video, audio, much more than can go in the newspaper. During the coronavirus crisis, health news is free. Here I am begging you to pay us, and we’re giving it away. And you don’t have to wait for a paper to hit your driveway. It’s updated all day long and stories are posted as they’re ready.

Some of you may prefer the look and feel and smell of a newspaper, which makes sense. It’s a special thing. It’s curated. You can split sections over coffee. My heart aches for the dogs who fetch it. The pain of loss is real.

In the words of Ben Franklin, what if I told you we were still making the paper daily? It is called the e-Newspaper. It looks the same, but we are adding more pages and full color. You can read it on a tablet, phone or computer. You can enlarge the print. You don’t have to walk outside to get it. It’s eco-friendly. Try it at tampabaytimes.com.

If we got through the roller coaster of the sheepskin and the telegraph and that guy calling people blockheads, we can get through this. An information business, Daly pointed out, is still a pretty good one.

So, let’s change. In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes. You know who said that.

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