Third, we lost some 140 daily newspapers in 2009 and many of those that remain are hollowed-out lifeless versions of what existed two or three decades ago. In their present state it seems likely that some, perhaps many, existing dailies will die, too, in the coming years, probably with the next economic downturn. We cannot afford to lose these institutions, their current state notwithstanding. Let’s have the Small Business Administration have the funds necessary to facilitate the transition of existing corporate newspapers that are going under to a post-corporate future. Let the SBA help locate local independent owners or non-profit owners of any number of types to take over the control of the local newspaper. If the program works, let’s eventually use funds to establish competing dailies in larger communities.
In my view, it is imperative that the principle of the daily newspaper – an institution that serves everyone in the community—remain, even if it going to be primarily digital if not entirely digital down the road. We need news media in our communities where the buck stops, where we can expect important stories to be covered and if they are not we have a right to demand an answer from the editor. We need news media that do not segment us into bite-sized demographic categories, but that link us, educate us about parts of our community we would be unaware of otherwise, and find that which unites us. The market, left to its own devises, increasingly finds this democratic institution an unprofitable undertaking.
Fourth, it is imperative that we keep alive the journals of opinion, weekly news magazines, and political magazines that play an outsized role in our political culture. From the dawn of the Republic to this day, these magazines have depended upon postal subsidies to survive. As PRC Chair Ruth Goldway just chronicled, the situation for periodicals in the United States is dire. There is the distinct possibility the Postal Service will have enormous rate hikes next year that will possibly drive many publications out of business and require those that survive to make drastic cuts. Today many hundreds, even thousands, of small publications ranging from The Nation, The Progressive, In These Times, and Harper’s on the left to Reason, Human Events, National Review, and The American Conservative on the right, and many more in between, depend upon lower postal rates. They are all in jeopardy, and with them the breadth and depth of our discourse.
Ironically, the emergence of the Internet makes the survival of these publications even more important. As a forthcoming Columbia Journalism Review research report of the web activities of 665 publications demonstrates, significant amount of the original journalism and political material posted online comes from the websites associated with print publications. It provides much of the gist for the blogosphere. When these publications go down or cut back, the amount of original material online is reduced, to all our detriments. Consider my co-author John Nichols, who posts hundreds of original pieces on the Internet annually as part of his job as a staff writer for The Nation. These pieces are available for free to all comers, get reposted on numerous other large websites and get ample commentary. If The Nation ever closes its “old media” doors, Nichols will be out of a job and his blogging output will be cut back dramatically. There are thousands of similar stories online, and they all depend to some extent of the solvency of the “old media” that employ them. It is serendipitous but no less sublime that Washington’s, Madison’s and Jefferson’s beloved postal subsidies are generating so much valuable free material in the digital realm.
It is imperative that we craft lower postal rates –and soon— for small circulation publications with limited amounts of advertising. It is nonnegotiable that these publications, and American political culture, have this lifeline to make a healthy transition from the analog world to our digital future.