When Newspapers Headline the News
How often have you walked past a dusty newspaper stand without giving it a second thought? For most of us, that is most of the time. However newspapers are more than an archaic form of media. They are a form of public service. Study shows that countries with lower newspaper circulation score higher on the corruption index. Newspapers inform the public with impartial reporting, give voice to our grievances, investigate suspicious behaviors, and act as watchdogs on government and as guardians of democracy. Unfortunately, as the economy of the newspaper industry has changed, so has the role that newspapers play.
The growth of online media has shrunk newspapers’ two main revenue sources: advertisements and readers. The majority of a newspaper’s revenue comes from advertisements in print. However, as advertising online is much cheaper, if not free, companies have become less reliant on newspapers to reach their consumers. Even if newspapers adopt online sites, the lower revenues from advertising online cannot make up for the large losses from print ads. The online media has also swiped newspapers of their readers, as consumers prefer to get news for free, and at the convenience of their phones. So, you may say, the journalism giants are losing their main source of revenue because we found a way to get information and to advertise more cheaply online. That’s bad news for the newspapers, and not for us.
However, if the journalism giants fall, we all get crushed. The loss in revenue has driven many small newspapers to bankruptcy or to the arms of larger newspaper companies. This means that a few large companies now control a chain of newspapers and have disproportionate power over public knowledge. Many worry that we will lose the diversity of voices that small newspapers contribute to and that newspapers’ roles as guardians of democracy will be endangered; large newspaper companies cannot afford absolute impartiality and may be prone to government bribery, especially in times of financial difficulty. To quote Princeton University professor Paul Starr, “A financially compromised press is more likely to be ethically compromised.” To maintain profits albeit declining revenue, surviving newspapers have laid-off a large portion of their employees and reduced the resources available to their existing employees. This increases time and work pressure on journalists and jeopardizes the accuracy of their information and the quality of their reporting. If anything, the newspapers’ adaptations to survive may only lead to their deaths. Since opinion editorials are the cheapest to produce, newspapers are losing their attractions of investigative, unbiased reporting. This is worrisome as it encourages newspapers to produce what the public wants to hear rather than what is should hear, turning newspapers into more a form of entertainment than a forum for knowledge. Moreover, most other mediums of news, such as TV or radio, rely on newspapers for their information. Thus, regardless of whether we’ve ever touched a newspaper before, the decline of the newspaper industry will deeply touch and hit us all.
According to John Oliver, there’s never been a greater time to be a politician. Thus, in the time that we need them most, newspapers are leaving their public service post.
To recover newspapers’ role as guardians of democracy, an effective solution must consist of 3 requirements: 1) Impartial, quality journalism, 2) Money to support the first requirement, and 3) Readers to make use of the first requirement and contribute to the second requirement.
A solution people have raised is that, since newspapers are a public good, they should be, like other public goods, subsidized by the government. At first, this proposition seems to support the second requirement (money), which in turn will help fulfill the first and third requirements. However, financial support does not have the same merits as financial independence and many fear this will lead to political manipulation of the news by the government.
A second solution is to establish a non-profit organization focused on public service journalism. However, that fails to fulfill the second and third requirements, as non-profits’ thinner revenue streams are not sufficient to carry their message across cities the way for-profit newspapers could.
I believe an effective solution is one that merges the separate solutions and mediums: a policy that encourages existing newspapers to include a public service section in their newspapers, with the unbiased reporting coming from non-profit organizations.
With declining profits, newspapers alone do not have the financial resources to support investigative quality journalism. However if the newspaper partners with a non-profit journalism organization, the newspaper will benefit from the reporting its public yearns while the non-profit organization will benefit from a free distribution platform, and the production costs of both parties will be reduced. The non-profit organization may only do investigative and impartial reporting. The organizations’ staff may consist of volunteer journalism university students looking for experience, freelancers looking for exposure, and professionals looking to share relevant information about their fields. To fund the resources these volunteer journalists need for investigative reporting, the organization may rely on community donations (from readers willing to support this guardian of democracy) from university donations (as the organization gives the university’s journalism students experience in the job), and government tax breaks. Normally donations and tax breaks are not enough to sustain a newspaper, but this organization does not have to pay for distribution and production costs as these are covered by the for-profit existing newspaper. In return for distributing and providing a platform for the organization’s reports, the existing newspaper will benefit from a wider audience and hence, a wider range of advertising offers. Many argue that one reason newspapers are losing revenue is that they’ve abandoned their role of providing important, unbiased information. With the public service segment added to the newspaper, the newspaper will recover its credibility and its readers. Well researched and resourced, it will be able to provide what few online sites can: credible, impartial information. This will increase newspapers’ revenues once again.
This solution would cover all three requirements necessary for newspapers to maintain their role as a form of public service. First, quality, impartial reporting is guaranteed because the organization would be financially independent from the government or from advertisers who shy away from controversial messages out of a desire to reach the widest possible audience. Rather, because it is based on donations from members eager for impartial information and produced by diverse volunteers who’s incentives are experience and exposure rather than money, the organization is more likely to be impartial. Second, offering credible well-researched information allows newspapers to transcend the competition against blogs and online sites and recover its readers and revenues. Finally, partnering with existing newspapers and providing unbiased information will help the important message reach a wider and larger audience.
We live in a time when the scarcest resource is not information, but credibility of information. Thus, finding solutions to promote unbiased quality reporting is imperative. Of course, this is a complex issue with no easy solution. However let us at least begin to talk about it. For once, it’s time that newspapers be the headline of the news.