Journalism bailout

We have bailed-out banks and the automobile industry. Now journalism wants its bailout through some form of public support.

A recent report co-authored by a former executive editor of the Washington Post and by a professor at the Columbia Journalism School recommends the public funding of journalism. They even suggest that the FCC create some form of fund to support journalism.

Although many newspapers in the U.S. are in the midst of a financial crisis, public support is not the answer.

In the 1980s a few newspapers investigated the prospects for electronic news through trials and limited service offerings of videotex. But the technology was wrong and so too was the concept of a single electronic database of information-organized and maintained by the newspaper. The trials and services were closed, and newspapers then smugly ignored the coming new medium that ultimately would become today's Internet. And so today many newspapers are in serious financial trouble, with some even declaring bankruptcy and others waiting to do so.

It is strange that many newspapers offer today's news for free at their website but charge for archival articles. They do not seem to understand their own business. Classified ads used to be a large source of income for newspapers. But this business was mostly lost to the Internet, through services such as e-Bay and Craigslist. Again, newspapers were arrogant and shortsighted.

It is all too easy to blame new media--radio, television, and now the Internet--for the decline in readership of newspapers. But newspaper readership worldwide is up over 1 percent while it is down nearly 4 percent in North America. Perhaps newspaper journalism in the U.S. simply has become bad--many articles I read are loaded with factual errors or are simply reprinting press releases. Many U.S. newspapers have responded to their financial crises by greatly increasing prices, thereby driving down readership even more. If this weird strategy continues, soon the very last copy will be sold to just one reader for a few tens of millions dollars!

Arrogance and shortsightedness should never be rewarded through public support. It is time for this industry to wake up and become innovative in embracing new media and in responding to the needs of the public. No industry should consider itself either too big or too special to fail.

A. Michael Noll is Professor Emeritus of Communications and former dean at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.