Few industries can boast that they serve the public good and also post a healthy profit. Yet that is what newspapers in the United States succeeded in doing for much of the last century. Flush with advertising dollars and comfortable atop the media food chain, newspapers managed to please both their investors and their readers, seeing annual growth in the double digits while publishing stories both serious and amusing. Needless to say, this was before the advent of the Internet, a development that has both broadened the reach of print publications and threatened their existence. Today the newspaper industry is in a parlous state, a fact that anyone committed to democratic values cannot afford to ignore.
The problem can be traced in part to Wall Street, where an appetite for ever-increasing returns has driven executives at publicly traded media companies to trim costs. As a result, veteran reporters have been laid off, foreign and national bureaus closed and arts and literary coverage scaled back. Major newspapers like The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal still produce outstanding journalism, but papers in smaller cities are suffering, and their dimming light has left their home towns much diminished. Without a robust and vigilant press, local governments do not receive the scrutiny they require, and the public lacks the information it needs to make prudent political choices.
The impact of the Internet on the press cannot be overstated. By itself Craigslist, a free online classified service, has put a huge dent in the industry’s advertising revenue. The Web is also luring more readers online, where most of the content is free. A 2004 survey from the Carnegie Corporation reported that a paltry 8 percent of readers under 35 said they would rely on a newspaper for their news. The Internet has also changed the newspaper industry in many positive ways, principally by transforming what was once a print product into a multimedia vehicle. On a newspaper’s Web site, one can now find audio and video features, as well as participatory blogging communities. It remains to be seen, however, whether these new formats can turn a profit for their parent companies. Web sites have yet to draw the advertising dollars of their print counterparts, and whether they will be able to support the kind of sustained, and expensive, reporting that is the hallmark of good journalism is an open question.
Much will be lost if newspaper companies continue their steady decline. The newsroom has nurtured the careers of influential writers like Seymour M. Hersh, Mark Bowden and Robert Caro. Even in their debilitated state, newspapers still break most major stories and serve as a prime source of information for their radio and television counterparts, not to mention blogs. It is difficult to imagine a blogger or cable news station devoting resources to the sort of investigative reporting The New York Times has just done to uncover a shadowy military contractor selling defective Chinese munitions to the U.S. government for use by the Afghan army. Of course newspapers can be overzealous, even reckless, in pursuit of a story, but they serve as a crucial check on private industry and government, especially during an administration known for secrecy. Editors work to ensure that all stories are properly vetted and sourced, a strict standard that does not always apply to the freewheeling world of online journalism. Along with news and opinion magazines, newspapers provide depth and analysis that is simply unavailable elsewhere.
What can be done? Initiatives are already underway. Paul Steiger, former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, heads a nonprofit group that offers investigative resources to newspapers that cannot afford this pricey form of journalism. Global News Enterprises, a new online venture co-founded by the former Boston Globe reporter Charles Sennott, will bring a similar approach to international reporting. Another field worthy of funding is religion journalism, a beat that is too often neglected and will need financial support as the Christian press continues to struggle.
Adopting these models will require a change of approach from industry executives, who are traditionally wary of using outside resources save The Associated Press. Small newspapers may have to scale back their ambitions, focusing on what they can do best: solid local reporting. The days when midsize American papers could maintain bureaus in London and Paris seem to be over. In time local newspapers may come to resemble smaller niche magazines, like America , nonprofit institutions that rely on the generosity of supporters to survive. Wall Street will also have to adjust its expectations. Moderate growth is possible provided there is not pressure to achieve unrealistic financial goals.
Like the medical industry, the newspaper industry can no longer survive by following the free-market model. Nor should it be forced to, if we value the national conversation that a good newspaper helps to foster.