From Baseball to Congress, Everyone Worries About Newspapers

Last Updated Jul 27, 2009 8:52 PM EDT

The crisis sweeping through the U.S. newspaper industry seems to be on everybody's minds these days. The broadcasters of yesterday's A's-Yankees game, for example, were riffing for a while on how few sports reporters travel with their teams any longer, when they turned to the biggest baseball story of the day -- legendary base-stealer Rickey Henderson being among the latest inductees into baseball's Hall of Fame.

They predicted that before long, there will no longer be enough sports writers still employed for the annual election by the Baseball Writers Association of America to continue to make any sense. So, they suggested, bloggers and other "electronic journalists" may have to be admitted to the voting pool!

Well, you know your industry is in trouble when it's all the chatter in the broadcaster's booth at Yankee Stadium. But just in case anyone needed more evidence of what's going on in the business, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) has issued a report titled "The Newspaper Industry in Transition."

After noting that the industry is "suffering through what could be its worst financial crisis since the Great Depression," the CRS report cites "growing concerns that the rapid decline of the newspaper industry will impact civic and social life" in negative ways.

According to the CRS, only 23 states have newspapers that are covering Congress full-time, down from a high of 35 in 1985. The report then turns to possible public policy implications and the debate on Capitol Hill whether to intervene on behalf of struggling "major" newspapers -- perhaps those deemed, in another context, "too big to fail?"

Here are some of the options outlined by CRS:

  • Tax breaks.
  • Relaxing antitrust policies.
  • Tightening copyright law.
  • Increasing funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).
  • Allowing newspapers to re-organize as non-profits.
  • Finally, "some sort of measures (that) could ease the combination of social and technological transition and the recession-related financial distress of the industry."
It should come as no surprise to any of our regular Bnet visitors that I oppose all of these suggestions, with the possible exception of a little additional aid for the CPB -- although, since the non-profit's appropriations are always set two years in advance (to insulate it from short-term political whims), that would probably have negligible effects on its current operations anyway.

The traditional newspaper industry is not a victim of a natural disaster but of the disruptive challenge of new technologies and business models. Politicians who seek to intervene rather than allow the market to sort this transition out would only retard the emergence of creative new ways of gathering, publishing, and distributing the news.

In addition, any kind of government bailout would simply reward the bad decision-making inside the fifteen or so huge corporations that control the modern newspaper industry and that have reaped monster profits for decades.

This is no Mom and Pop industry we are talking about. By contrast, the tiny operations emerging to fill the void as the behemoths stagger are indeed often one or two person companies seeking to provide a better way.

So my message to all of my Congressional representatives, including the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, is simple: Just Say No!
(Thanks to Robert J. Rosenthal for alerting me to the CRS report.)

  • David Weir

    David Weir is a veteran journalist who has worked at Rolling Stone, California, Mother Jones, Business 2.0, SunDance, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, MyWire, 7x7, and the Center for Investigative Reporting, which he cofounded in 1977. He’s also been a content executive at KQED, Wired Digital, Salon.com, and Excite@Home. David has published hundreds of articles and three books,including "Raising Hell: How the Center for Investigative Reporting Gets Its Story," and has been teaching journalism for more than 20 years at U.C. Berkeley, San Francisco State University, and Stanford.