Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Let Us Die

Maryland Senator Benjamin Cardin proposed a bill to make newspapers nonprofits for educational purposes under the U.S. tax code, like public television. Newspapers could report the news and cover politics, but they would not be able to endorse political candidates. Advertising and subscription revenue would be tax exempt under the bill.
Funny that a politician would want to put the kibosh on endorsements.
Cardin’s bill, which has yet failed to gain co-sponsors, is the Newspaper Revitalization Act, and is geared to helping small, local newspapers.
Subscription and advertising revenues plummeted within the last few years, as readers head online for their news. Giants like The Rocky Mountain News, Seattle-Post Intelligencer and San Francisco Chronicle folded. The Tribune Company, owners of The Philadelphia Inquirer and Los Angeles Times filed for bankruptcy protection.
The Seattle-Post Intelligencer now produces an online version only, operating with a staff of only 20 reporters.
“We are losing our newspaper industry,” Cardin told Reuters. “The economy has caused an immediate problem, but the business model for newspapers, based on circulation and advertising revenue, is broken and that is a real tragedy for communities across the nation and for our democracy.”
Pardon me while I vomit.
I don’t know if Cardin means well, if he really believes that turning local papers into charity cases will help us create a better product, or he’s just a whore playing to his base.
My call to Cardin is: let us die.
The newspaper industry has been in a slow, gradual death spiral for years. The reasons are manifold: a crappy economy means advertising revenue is down, the plethora of online news outlets mean people aren’t subscribing to a dead tree product, and the quality of journalism leaves a lot to be desired.
The backlash against the media, especially journalism, has grown, with animosity directed at the “liberal secular media” by pundits who view reporters as brimstone-reeking scions of Satan.
I’ll be the first to defend the profession of reporter, but the more journalists I meet, the more I think the Rush Limbaughs and Sean Hannities of the world may have a point.
The news is ridiculous, especially during elections, when objectivity takes a holiday, along with intelligence.
People don’t want objectivity anymore. They want commentary. They want bullshit. They want a validation of their worldview no matter how warped or narrow. Reporters can’t deliver that. Pundits can.
Again, I repeat: let us die.
The generational divide between young and old consumer reveals that people in their 40s, 50s and 60s who grew up with newspapers respect the product. Young people who were raised by computers and machines worship technology as the plugged in source for their media. They’re much more likely to get their news and information electronically than stain their hands with ink printed on paper.
Producing a newspaper is expensive. Printing operations alone caused my newspaper to shut down their in-house printing press years ago and have the paper printed through a company an hour away from our facility. In addition to production, you have editorial salaries, advertising salaries and day-to-day operation costs. With shrinking revenues from circulation and advertising, how will papers stay in business?
Let us die.
Let us roll over and expire and mutate into something else, something better. Cardin’s ridiculous bill would transform independent voices into slaves, muzzled by law. His persistence that the newspaper industry deserves a bailout like the automobile or financial sectors is laughable. Keeping this industry alive is like failing to pull the plug on a terminally ill patient, an empty gesture not helping anyone and certainly not advancing journalism’s cause of reporting the news.
The government did pass a law to save the news industry before. Congress passed and President Nixon signed, the Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970, which exempted competing daily newspapers in the same market from antitrust laws in the wake of declining circulation. This was largely because two daily papers could be produced in the same printing facility but maintain two competing news organizations.
Cardin’s bill is different and would smack of favoritism to the tinfoil hat brigade who say the Democratic Party is in bed with the media.
The bill is a disingenuous attempt to resurrect an industry that doesn’t need saving. People don’t weep when a newspaper goes out of business. They just don’t care.
This industry needs to die. The presses need to stop. We need to develop good reporting, solid writing and a better way of reaching our readers. If this is online distribution with advertising catered to particular users, if it’s content that can be viewed on handheld devices like mobile phones, so be it.
The dwindling number of newspapers reveals a sea change in the Information Age. We’re living to see the old newspaper’s swansong, a lyrical death scene played out with crashing finality, where the physical paper read on porches on Sunday mornings, is a relic of a leisurely past.
For those who believe the reduction in the number of newspapers means we’re a less free society, that’s total bullshit. Look online, where you see debates raging in a hideous display of misspellings, capitalizations and emoticons that resemble a million dyslexic chimpanzees with computer access. The Internet’s denizens include partisan hacks, nutjobs, conspiracy theorists, wanna-bes, publicity whores and teenagers with nothing better to do. But they’re more American than your average editorial board. Sure, they’re botched sociopaths, but that’s the price you pay with the Internet in a free society. All points of view, some more cognizant than others. Just like America.
If this cesspool of fiber optic cables and tubes is where American journalism will have to roost for the next 200 years, then it’s made the last 200 years seem like a comforting chapter in our profession’s history. This is another chapter. Bring it on.
Improving a newspaper’s quality, writing and image in the community is old school stuff. Pound the pavement shoe leather reporting. Investigative reporting by people who know how to write, who can play with words and keep readers coming back. That’s what we should develop, and it should be done online with video advertising customers can click and discover ways to reduce their mortgages, how to win the Liberian National Lottery and satisfy their lovers with Cealis.
So let us die, Senator Cardin.
Let us die for the good of our industry, for the good of America. We’ll be reborn bigger and better online where we can reach the entire planet and use Micromedia Flash animations. Maybe create a few clever memes.
I’d rather see newspapers online endorsing candidates than a dead tree product legally forbidden from doing so.

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