Sorry, Senators: No Newspaper Is Worth Saving in its Entirety

As Pols (Belatedly) Contemplate Nonprofit Papers, Let's Be Honest About the 'News' We Can Afford to Lose

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Hope bubbles inflated by irrational exuberance used to steadily grow for years, but now they last a couple of days at most. On Monday, May 4, when word spread across the land that Amazon was going to unveil a big-screen Kindle, some newsy types allowed themselves a moment of optimism: Maybe this will be the gadget that saves newspapers! Then, of course, by Wednesday, when Amazon chief Jeff Bezos pulled it out of his hat, the magic instantly evaporated. Oh, thanks, Jeff -- $489? Nice try. Though New York Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. strode on stage to help Bezos crack the champagne bottle on the hull of the new Kindle Klunk-o-matic, it wasn't long before one of his paper's own technology writers was offering a lukewarm review of its same-thing-but-bigger-ness: "The larger screen," wrote Damon Darlin, "should have been able to offer a different experience than the one on the first two versions of the Kindle."

'GROUNDHOG DAY': Will newspaper execs stop recycling 'new' ideas to save themselves?
'GROUNDHOG DAY': Will newspaper execs stop recycling 'new' ideas to save themselves?
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Not-Entirely-Reality-Based Media Community, news was spreading that wage-concession agreements with The Boston Globe's unions had "saved" the paper. (Uh, that was more like a stay of execution; anybody familiar with the paper's financials knows that it's still on death row.) And the famously cash-hemorrhaging New York Post was gushing about how its parent company was going to save journalism: "In one of the most ambitious online undertakings by a media outfit," wrote Post business reporter Peter Lauria, "News Corp. has assembled a team of executives to devise a system to charge for content on the web." Anybody who felt a tingle of hope probably started gritting their teeth by the third paragraph, which began, "Fanned out across New York, London and Sydney, the global team includes Murdoch himself; his son, James; longtime News Corp. executive and Dow Jones CEO Les Hinton; and Jonathan Miller, the former AOL boss who now oversees all of News Corp.'s digital operations." Right, then. Just what we needed. Overpriced, jet-setting executives fanning all over the place as they fawn over their heroic exertions. Gah! (A few weeks earlier, once-fearsome media mogul Steve Brill announced the formation of a similar brain trust of aging media types keen to charge all us freeloaders for the news. But at least he didn't try to make his team sound like the X-Men.)

So, hell, let's switch back to the previous hopeful save-the-newspapers meme. Newspapers will simply become nonprofits! The notion came up again last Wednesday during a U.S. Senate hearing on "The Future of Journalism," in which Maryland Sen. Benjamin Cardin elaborated on the bill he introduced in March that would facilitate newspapers reorganizing as nonprofits. Basically, he was just continuing the newspapers-as-charities discussion from January, when the Times ran an op-ed, "News You Can Endow." That prompted a flood of additional opinions, pro and con, with the ground zero of discussion being Jim Romenesko's media blog, as usual. I confess that I abstained from joining the recent fray because it's just felt like "Groundhog Day" (the movie) to me. Because back in November 2006 in this very space I published a column titled "Don't Buy Newspapers, Donate Them to Charity," in which I suggested that we needed to overhaul tax laws (hello, Sen. Cardin!) to encourage the formation of nonprofit papers. Not that that was a new idea even then. In fact, I specifically cited the model of "the The Scott Trust -- the charitable foundation that props up one of the world's greatest newspapers, The Guardian of Britain, and keeps it, by charter, editorially independent." (The Times, stuck in its own bubble of sui generis self-importance, didn't mention this obvious example in its op-ed.)

The tragedy here is that back in 2006, rich people still felt rich -- and sometimes even charitable. Like, Ron Lauder had just shelled out $135 million for a Gustav Klimt painting for his pet tax write-off, the Neue Galerie, a tiny New York museum of German and Austrian art and design. And believe it or not (God, this seems so long ago now!), Jack Welch was making noise about maybe wanting to buy The Boston Globe, and David Geffen was kicking the tires at the Los Angeles Times. (My argument was that if rich guys like them are truly feeling civic-minded, we should be encouraging them to endow papers, not buy them.)

And now here we are in ... 2009. I feel like my life (as a columnist) is flashing before my eyes. Really, it's as if the management at every major media company has Alzheimer's -- forgetting and remembering and re-forgetting and re-remembering how to tie their own shoes. Switch to Velcro slip-ons already, people!

I have only a few things to add to this re-debate. For one thing, major American nonprofit newspapers are now an inevitability. The efforts of Cardin and other suddenly panicky politicians, like last week's "Future of Journalism" hearing chair John Kerry, will gain momentum. Meanwhile, for-profit newspapers will not, as some have speculated in the past weeks, become subject to a Detroit- or Wall Street-style bailout.

Because they absolutely shouldn't be -- and not just because of the thorny separation-of-church-and-state issues. What's worth preserving at newspapers is, let's face it, actually rather limited. I'm talking about the obvious stuff, of course. The serious reporting (international, local-civic, etc.) stays, while the lifestyle fluff goes. If public dollars do end up getting (indirectly) deployed in the form of tax relief to papers reconfigured as nonprofits, they absolutely shouldn't be keeping home sections or horoscopes or even sports sections afloat. (There are plenty of other media operations, such as ESPN.com, that know perfectly well how to make money in those realms.)

In other words -- let me just state the harsh truth here -- there is no American newspaper that is worth preserving in its entirely, in its current configuration, as a nonprofit.

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Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco

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