Former CBS anchor Dan Rather, a man with more than 40 years in the news biz, would like President Obama to convene a blue-ribbon panel to study the industry's current problems and recommend solutions. He made that call in a speech last month, and then repeated it in a column in Sunday's Washington Post.
Rather notes the increasing financial problems faced by newspapers and major television networks. Newspapers face dropping circulation and ad revenues. Network newscast viewership shrinks along with overall network audience losses. He's pretty persuasive that a big share of the problems of what he calls "the news infrastructure" can be traced to the collapse of the newspaper industry. Classified ads have almost disappeared, and other local ads also have migrated to the internet in large numbers. That's a revenue stream newspapers have to have in order to survive; subscriptions have never come close to paying for running a paper.
I think he's also accurate that most of the other news sources that are replacing newspapers in people's lives still depend on newspapers for a lot of the newsgathering they do. For example, the bloggers that people read are often commenting on or passing on information they picked up from a paper (like now, f'rinstance). Newspapers are often the only outfits assigning reporters to things like city councils, county commissions or school boards every time they meet, not just when a video-friendly confrontation breaks out.
Of course, Rather's call for help is a little ironic, given that his journalism career was spent mostly in television. The ad revenue-driven profit motive he complains about invaded news gathering through the TV screen and then began affecting other areas. The tiny attention spans of many folks and their disinterest in stories that don't directly affect them right now stems from television news.
And the call for some sort of panel of experts to diagnose the problem and recommend treatment brings a chuckle. For one, that kind of plan is also dinosaur thinking. By the time such a commission met, hashed out the problems and came up with solutions, the situation they addressed would be over. For another, we already have a panel in place that's identifying problems and offering solutions and new ways of doing things: The public.
Let's take classified advertising, for example. Does the current model of "junk for sale," arranged in eye-blurring echelons of tiny type work? I don't know what a commission of experts would say, but the fact that people aren't buying those kinds of ads suggests that it doesn't. What does work? Things like Craigslist and appearances in search engines, which people use to get the word out about businesses or individual things they may have to sell. Could newspapers set up a new Craigslist that did the same thing but which paid them a profit? Probably not, but they might be able to work with the people established in the field to find arrangements that helped them out as well.
How about the way newspapers present information -- does that work? Well, since people don't buy or read them as much as they have in the past, I'd guess no. What does seem to work? Well, people will read information online when it's free, so maybe there's a way to promote reading the news for free but somehow link it to page views and create an attraction for sponsors that would cover costs of producing news.
I used to be a journalist, and one of the things I remember about my attitudes of that time is reflected in Rather's suggestion of a panel of experts to study the issue, supported by the President. Despite our well-developed and eternally cultivated skepticism, we trust institutions and systems. Maybe not the way they're working now, but we imagine them the way we think they're supposed to work. In fact, we might see our work of reporting on them as a help towards that ideal. If there's a panel of experts involved, they will develop a new system that will solve the problems, or at least tell us how to solve them.
But institutions and systems can't react with the speed necessary to work in a digital world. Right now, it looks like the arena we call the free market is the only one that can process information fast enough to monitor the changes that are happening and the responses they require. Newspapers, for example, used to base their share of the news game on the twin pillars of speed and accuracy. A newspaper got information out quickly and got it right, or else it didn't survive. The internet means papers are rarely quick enough for people any more. Their own websites will update stories that the paper itself published, and do so often enough that the story in print might be out of date by noon.
As for accuracy, demagogues on left and right have spent enough time assailing media bias that most folks take what they read with several grains of salt and we all know we're supposed to reduce our salt intake. Media people themselves have done plenty to help that image -- when the New York Times has to run seven corrections to the Walter Cronkite obit, then who knows what other kinds of boo-boos slip through?
I love reading a paper. I love sitting down with one, unfolding it, scanning headlines, digging into a story, taking some time to process it along with a sip of beverage, flipping the pages and wrestling with them to fold right again, setting it aside knowing I can pick it up later any time I want, learning stuff I didn't know about places or people I'd never heard of, comics, the rattling sound paper makes when you move it or turn pages, the way I learned when I was young to use one finger as a fulcrum to fold it in half and tuck under my arm, the image I get of Al Bundy doing exactly that with a smile on his face as he heads upstairs to reclaim his bathroom...
And I love how they provide a depth of information and context that TV can't match (and which anchor personalities Chip Cappedteeth and Brenda Botox most likely wouldn't understand anyway). Time has changed, the calendar pages have turned and some of those things I love about newspapers are probably going to become part of the past. Rather's right that this situation can be seen as a crisis. There are important dimensions of news we won't get if newspapers leave. But he's also wrong, because they're far too important to leave up to a panel of experts picked by the same kind of people who run the Post Office or Department of Motor Vehicles.