Silver Lining

It’s an ill wind, they say, that blows no good. Even the coronavirus can produce a heartwarming story or two. The Guardian reports on the dire state of the U.S. newspaper industry:

Media outlets across the US have already responded to a huge drop in advertising triggered by the economic shutdown by sacking scores of employees. Some newspapers, just as demand is at its highest, have stopped printing – reverting to a digital-only operation that is just as vulnerable to the whims of advertisers.

The decrease in advertising was swift, as businesses tightened spending due to the economic impact of Covid-19. For a journalism industry already barely scraping by, the impact was almost immediate.
Penny Abernathy, the Knight chair in journalism and digital media economics at the University of North Carolina, predicts a swath of newspapers and websites will close.

“I think there’ll be hundreds, not dozens,” Abernathy said.

Of course, the American newspaper industry was on the ropes before the current advertising slump. This is a striking fact:

Gannett, the largest local newspaper owner in the US, has lost a scarcely believable 94% of its value since August 2019, much of that loss coming since mid-February.

It would be easier to feel sorry for journalists and their employers if they hadn’t brought the crisis on themselves. For years, polls have shown that the press is one of the least trusted institutions, if not the least trusted, in the U.S. This is because everyone knows that biased, agenda-driven journalism has become the rule, not the exception, while reliable investigative reporting has become virtually a lost art, outside of a few independent operators like Sharyl Attkisson.

What to do about the failing newspaper industry? Professor Abernathy of UNC, quoted above, has some ideas:

“We can hope that it raises awareness and a willingness to pay for news,” Abernathy said. “And a willingness to think through new ways of paying for that news – whether it’s through your tax dollars that publicly fund things, or whether it’s actually understanding that newspapers need to charge you more than what they’ve charged you in the past. Because the for-profit model that supported local news for 200 years has collapsed.”

Government-funded and -controlled newspapers? Why not? That would end the pretense that reporters and editors have any kind of independence or objectivity. A more honest idea, though, would be for them to be funded by the Democratic National Committee. They’re not fooling anyone, anyway.