Reinvention, not rescue

I doubt it will get very far, but there’s another well-meaning but ultimately dangerous attempt to provide a government rescue for newspapers: a bill to enable papers to switch to not-for-profit, tax-free status from Sen. Benjamin Cardin. “A Cardin spokesman said the bill had yet to attract any co-sponsors, but had sparked plenty of interest within the media.” Yeah, I’ll bet. It’s doubtful that taxpayers will want to help bail out newspapers, too.

The obvious danger is government certifying what is and isn’t news and who does and doesn’t do it. Should my blog get to be a tax-free, not-for-profit enterprise? Who gets certified? Further, Cardin’s proposal also would forbid papers as charities from endorsing political candidates. That takes more voices out of the democracy. Not good.

But the real danger here is that these rescue attempts delay the inevitable. The sooner that papers reinvent themselves for the new age, the better. If this delays that inevitability, papers will only languish in the past and others will come and overtake them.

This is the problem, too, with the auto bailout and even the banking bailout. We are bailing out the past, not the future. We are forestalling the need to change. Change isn’t easy. It’s hard on people. It’s destructive. It will leave voids and vacuums. But it is inevitable. The smart thing to do today is to run to the change, seek it out, find the opportunities in it, deal with the hard problems it brings instead of avoiding them.

  • http://www.alexawesome.com alex awesome

    Thanks for saying exactly what I’ve been thinking. Newspapers have had years to adapt and reinvent. Some have – heck, a few have done a remarkable job of using the internet to EXPAND their original user base. And yet many others opted to complain and badmouth the technology, digging their heels in and refusing to even consider the idea of adopting it. I agree with you completely that a bail out for papers is ridiculous, especially since their decline has little or nothing to do with the current financial crisis. They have been dying out for quite some time.

  • http://www.goeverywhere.com GoEverywhere Team

    “…these rescue attempts delay the inevitable.”

    That is really the bottom line right there. I don’t understand why our government is concerned with holding back the inevitable tides of capitalism. If consumers are changing, then businesses must change with them…or die.

    Thanks for an informative and enlightening post.

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  • http://nevadaappeal.com Kirk Caraway

    I’m not sure I understand what this legislation is supposed to do. Isn’t St. Pete Times non-profit? Can’t newspapers become non-profit organizations now?

    Also, how does this effect non-profit startups like Voice of San Diego? I think the non-profit news idea has some merit in that respect, though I don’t see how it saves print.

  • Jimmy

    “This is the problem, too, with the auto bailout and even the banking bailout. We are bailing out the past, not the future. We are forestalling the need to change. Change isn’t easy. It’s hard on people. It’s destructive. It will leave voids and vacuums. But it is inevitable.”

    While there is truth there, it’s also not smart to allow entired business segments to go belly up. The automakers by themselves employ nearly 250,000 people, but when you add in the myriad of industries who provide services to the auto industry their failure could be catostrphic. A simple bailout is not the answser, of course. The auto industry needs to innovate, to “reinvent” themselves as you put it. But in the short-term, this country cannot afford to allow the auto industry to fail. (And no, I don’t work for any auto company nor does any member of my family; nor are we part of any union affiliated with the auto industry.)

  • Paul Evans

    “But in the short-term, this country cannot afford to allow the auto industry to fail.”

    Yet we can’t force them to succeed, what a conundrum. Despite having all the market incentive, peer guidance, technological innovation, etc. to become just as successful as their competitors in foreign countries the US automakers have pursued failure as if it was the highest goal. Now we must save them from themselves. Hmmm, how is that going to work?

    As for all of the other industries and institutions that are too big to be allowed to fail. What, then, is their incentive to be good businesses when being bad businesses have few downsides? They talk free-market as they destroy themselves and the world economy, then cry for public help once they can’t squeeze anything more from the sectors that have pillaged.

    Many newspapers are no different, owing their allegiance to profit-addled shareholders rather than the communities they purport to serve.

    How do you force any of them to be the institutions that they ought when they spent years carelessly being what they wanted? I’m not sure financially covering their asses will get the job done.

    • Mike Johnson (Phealixe)

      Paul, you are so right:

      <>

      The error is to think media companies are better run by bean counters and boards serving shareholders. IF any model is going to work (and that’s still a big IF), my money is on the good old fashioned idea of editors reaching readers with compelling journalism … to which the advertisers will harness their (albeit diminishing) spend.

      The idea that the tax-payer should fund the bean counter/shareholder model beggars belief.

      mike johnson (aka phealixe)

  • Those
  • Paul Evans

    Good link to the Paul Dailing piece at HuffPost. Let me see if I have him right, the problem isn’t the newpapers are dying, the problem is that people are writing about it. Too bad the Bush administration is gone, he could have been press secretary.

    In a month that may to see the failure of three major dailies as just the beginning of — of what’s the word — a bloodbath, maybe, the issue isn’t what newspapers need to do about it, rather it is that there are too many people making a career out of chronicling their demise. Let’s blame those writers for the closing of The Seattle PI and the staff cuts being experienced at newspapers across the country. Let’s blame them for saying that newspapers can’t sell shit no one wants to buy. Let’s blame them for talking about how clueless, backward and lazy are the owners of most major newspapers. Let’s blame them the death of journalism bloggers for all that is going wrong at a site that is demonstrating the failure of old-style mass media.

    His solution appears to be that everyone should just shut up and let what happens happen. Cogent, insightful. Amazing. Helpful. Very, very helpful. How’d he score that job.

  • http://www.ComicsPundit.com Shawn Levasseur

    I agree with Kirk about this, publications can already become educational non-profits.

    In the libertarian sphere, both Liberty and Reason magazines are non-profit organizations.

    Jeff: “Further, Cardin’s proposal also would forbid papers as charities from endorsing political candidates. That takes more voices out of the democracy. Not good.”

    Assuming that this is just the usual prohibition on non-profits, there are legitimate ways around this. You just don’t have the endorsement of the entire organization, but individuals at the paper giving their personal opinions. Every presidential election year both Reason and Liberty go around their staffs asking them who they will vote for and why.

    This is far preferable to the standard endorsement of the publication itself, as it doesn’t put words into other’s mouths, and puts more voices into the democracy.

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  • http://www.ahoving.com Allan Hoving

    how about trying my user-centric revenue model:

    USER-CENTRIC ONLINE REVENUE MODEL (Patent Pending)

    The site owner (Publisher) establishes a base price or value, say $4.99 per month, for unrestricted use of the site or service.

    The user arrives at the website and views the homepage. At that point, or at a later point designated by the Publisher, the user is asked to log in or register to proceed.

    To register with the site, the user must provide a username, password and email address. An email is then sent to the user’s email address to confirm the signup.

    When the user returns to the site and logs in, he is presented with a box or page that asks him to choose how he will pay for or support the site content and/or services.

    The choices presented include (but are not limited to):

    a.) Straight subscription (in this example, $4.99 per month)
    b.) Pay-per-view of articles, video or other content (with a maximum of $4.99 per month)
    c.) Voluntary donation (with a minimum of $4.99 per month)
    d.) Ad viewing (where the ad revenue yields a minimum of $4.99 per month)
    e.) Affiliate or commission sales, through the use of embedded modules, coupon codes or other methods (totaling a minimum of $4.99 per month)
    f.) Contribution of content or services (valued at $4.99 per month)
    g.) Any combination of the above, with the mix or proportion adjusted by the user, to achieve the minimum payment of $4.99 per month.

    Once the user has selected his preferred payment/support method, the system keeps track of his usage and serves the content in the appropriate way. Each time the user visits the site and logs in, the site recognizes him and displays the progress of payment, and prompts the user if necessary (e.g., “please donate $2 more by such-and-such a date”).

    The payment system can be revised by the user at any time so long as it meets the price or value requirement (i.e., the user must ultimately generate $4.99 per month). For those methods that require direct payment, a secure credit-card or PayPal transaction will be executed.

    If the user does not meet the minimum payment agreed to within the specified time, he will no longer have access to the site until the balance is paid.

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  • http://dissembly.livejournal.com David Elliott

    - With all due respect, i don’t think you (or many of the replies) have fully thought about the issues behind this bill. You say “The obvious danger is government certifying what is and isn’t news and who does and doesn’t do it.” – government already does this. Journalists are dependant on press releases and cozy relationships with members of government. To a degree, this is inevitable.

    The fact that newspapers are driven by profits deepens the damage. This bill would alleviate some of the market pressure that damages journalism in the US: Less pressure on journalists resources means less pressure to copy-and-paste official sources, and comply with the dictates of official press spokespeople. It means they would have more resources to go toward genuine, investigative journalism.

    - “Further, Cardin’s proposal also would forbid papers as charities from endorsing political candidates. That takes more voices out of the democracy. Not good.”

    Why should newspapers endorse political candidates (except in the form of clearly marked opinion peices) in the first place? This is against basic journalistic ethics as they currently stand, regardless of whether you encode it into law or not.

    If you have a problem with this aspect, why arent you campaigning for non-profit organisations to have the right to endorse political candidates? I’d rather have a non-profit talking about what politicians will or won’t do than a profit-motivated corporation that’s required to look after it’s bottom line!

    - “We are bailing out the past, not the future. We are forestalling the need to change. Change isn’t easy. It’s hard on people. It’s destructive. It will leave voids and vacuums. But it is inevitable.”

    What does this bill have to do with “change” in the newspaper industry? This is about re-orienting journalists concerns away from profits and towards – well, journalism!

    It’s about getting journalists to do their jobs, i don’t see how it would matter whether they did their job in print or online. The point is, they should be doing it. They’re not, because the ways things are set up, media outlets are run as for-profit organisations that cut back on resources wherever possible – limiting the amount of investigative journalism that can proceed, and forcing journalists to rely on press releases and the like.

    The way things are currently going, you’ll have people setting up websites, and people re-typing and re-phrasing the government press rleeases they get to put on those websites, and people to collect the money, and that’ll be it! Typists, accountants, and web designers. Is that what you want from journalism? Because that’s inevitable under a for-profit model.

    Alan Hoving writes: “how about trying my user-centric revenue model”

    Why would we want to? The aim is to get journalists looking at doing their jobs, not obsessing over the bottom line. Your model looks like it would exacerbate the problem. Not to mention the fact that nobody would bother paying for online media subscriptions when online newspapers are nothing but dumbed-down versions of the print counterparts, and better journalists are offering it for free anyway.

    • http://www.ahoving.com Allan Hoving

      how are they buying groceries?

    • Andy Freeman

      > Why should newspapers endorse political candidates (except in the form of clearly marked opinion peices) in the first place? This is against basic journalistic ethics as they currently stand, regardless of whether you encode it into law or not.

      That misses the point because no one outside of journalism thinks that journalists have respectable ethics.

      No one believes that journalists are objective. When journalists claim to be objective, we think that they’re trying to con us, are delusional, or both.

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