As newspapers struggle with financial problems, I keep hearing crazy ideas that would supposedly save the industry, but most of them — especially the ones that involved government bailouts — will be the death knell for those companies that print the news and deliver it to your doorstep every morning. Conservative writer William F. Buckley famously declared his intention to stand athwart history yelling stop, but history and market forces have a way of moving forward and trampling over those who rather stand pat than adapt to the change.
Growing up, I recall my uncle losing his job as a linotypist after that form of hot-metal typesetting — a trend-setting printing innovation in the 1880s — gave way to phototypesetting methods. My uncle became a successful cantor and the world went on. Indeed, the new printing methods were far superior to the old ones, and by the time I got into the newspaper business, the Ohio newspaper I worked for used a desktop pagination system that itself quickly became outdated.
Nothing ever stays the same, especially in a vibrant marketplace.
These days, one of my colleagues specializes in reading out loud the most depressing newspaper news of the day. As I write this, he just announced that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is cutting 30 percent of its newsroom jobs. When I started at the Register, we were fighting tooth and nail with the Los Angeles Times for control of the Orange County market, and the Times was creating new editions for the Inland Empire and beyond. Well, these days the Times' parent company is bankrupt and — like every other paper — the Times is contracting editions and reducing pages. I am not gloating. My editor just asked me when I plan on taking that unpaid one-week furlough — the latest cost-saving device at a newspaper that has already endured its share of layoffs.
But we've got it good. The Rocky Mountain News, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Baltimore Examiner have shut down their operations (the P.I. went Web-only), and good money has it that the San Francisco Chronicle will follow suit.
There is something so much fun and arguably necessary about this ink-stained business, even though it is based on a century-old business model that seems as relevant to the information business today as a Linotype is to the printing business. I write daily about the wonderful creative destruction known as capitalism, and at the futility of using government to prop up businesses that no longer seem to work. It's different writing about such things when they affect my career and my beloved industry, but, alas, the same principles I write about with regard to the auto and banking industries, apply in equal measure to the newspaper industry.
Proposals to subsidize newspapers are outrageous. A subsidized newspaper will be nothing more than a mouthpiece for its master, the government. Once we take government cash, then we will have to live with government rules. And the government doesn't like criticism. Newspapers are insufficiently critical of the government as it is. Can you imagine what happens if they go on the dole? The European newspapers that have followed this route are also failing, according to a recent Reason magazine report, and they, of course, tend to follow the government line.
New legislation by Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., is equally loathsome. It has a highfalutin name, "The Newspaper Revitalization Act," but it would accomplish the same sort of neutering as direct subsidy. The legislation would grant newspapers nonprofit status (hey, most of them already seem to be operating without profits!) and turn them into print versions of National Public Radio (I call it state-run radio, even though I participate in a local NPR show). They would be free to report the news, but not to make political endorsements.
His solution is a bad one. It scares me for another reason. Whenever government seeks to do something, the opposite is the usual result. I expect a newspaper revitalization bill to be, perhaps, the end for the industry. The truth is that newspapers have been fitfully slow to respond to market trends. They've allowed Internet innovators such as Craigslist to take away lucrative advertising and serve the customers better. Newspapers still provide the bulk of online news content, but while newsrooms were involved in navel-gazing and bean-counting, innovators were developing blogs and online information sites. We were followers online, which is no surprise. Only one buggy manufacturer went on to become a successful carmaker.
I'm a great lover of and believer in newspapers. We still provide the investigative journalism that's necessary to keep officials on their toes. That's especially true at the local level, where few other institutions offer necessary oversight. But the news industry needs to adapt and change as the market demands.