Oh, God, Journalism Just Coded On My Laptop Again

There’s so much wrong with this story I’m resorting to a bleg.Help me out, here:

Missing from the nonprofit debate is any mention of why enough paying
customers can’t be found to support these news-gathering institutions
if they are so vital to our “democratic constitutional system” (Coll)
and “our democracy” (Swensen and Schmidt). The implication seems to be
that political coverage, foreign dispatches, and investigative work are
inherently noncommercial. If that’s the case, has the publication of
thousands of foreign, political, and investigative news stories
(“quality coverage,” to put it in shorthand) over the decades been an
act of philanthropy by newspapers?

Basically yes. See, you know, all of history ever.

Next question?

To be sure, some newspapers exercised greater commitment to quality
than others, and some continued to pay for quality longer after the big
advertising wave receded. But many of our notions of what a quality
newspaper ought to contain are based on memories of recent decades,
when many newspapers were printing money and had no trouble saying yes
to proposals for new foreign bureaus, new national bureaus, new
suburban bureaus, and new sections.

So it was an act of charity? Or a decision to use money based on something other than a radical vending machine notion of the newspaper: this much money goes in, this much “quality” comes out? I’m confused.

Also, can anyone name for me when the golden age of journalism supposedly was? People have always been bitching that there aren’t enough resources. Businesses have always expanded when there was enough money or room to grow. If there’s one thing I want to get across to the assholes who are our press financial decision-makers these days, it’s that by running around acting like the sky is presently falling in a way it’s never fallen before they are making themselves look ridiculous.

For more on this, just read theNewsosaur’s excellent series on print vs. online advertising dollars, which reinforce the entirely correct notion that just as with supposedly bankrupt Social Security, there is no crisis beyond a bunch of whiny, lying assholes laying good people off to preseve their fat dividend checks, lying assholes about whose financial problems you could not pay me in solid gold covered in chocolate to care. So go read that, would you? Then come back so we can talk about Shafer’s bullshit some more:

There is something arbitrary about the endowment brigade’s wish to
freeze newspaper newsroom size at its high watermark. There’s also
something disconcerting about wanting to divorce the newspaper from
market pressures. (If I wanted that sort of news product, I’d watchThe NewsHour.)
Without some market discipline, how will a newspaper know whether it is
succeeding or not, an idea Jonathan Weber explored yesterday inThe Big Money. And it’s not as though endowments are “insulation against hard economic times,” either, asTimesExecutive EditorBill Keller put it yesterday. “Just ask universities,” Keller continued. BloggerHoward Weaver calls foundation fans people “who wish some billionaire would endow newsrooms so they don’t have to change.”

Speaking only for myself, as a “foundation fan” whose newsroom benefited from the nonprofit model immensely, I’d like someone to point out the utter idiocy of conflating “stability of income and absence of people cutting where no cuts need to be made” with “no change NEVER NEVER NEVER NEVER.” Is theSt. Pete Times the same size, covering the same things, as it was last year or the year before or the year before that? Are any number of college newspapers working under this model? No? Why, then, kindly shut up until you find something to talk about you can support with actual facts.

Even if someone did establish a foundation-funded, nonprofit newsroom as large as theTimes‘ or thePost‘s,
I’d still have misgivings about it. Who would appoint the directors of
the foundation? To whom would the foundation be accountable? To whom
would the editors and reporters ultimately report—the foundation
directors or the readers? Under the current arrangement, you can blame
the Graham family if you dislike thePost, the Ochs-Sulzbergers if you’re peeved about theTimes, Sam Zell if you hate theLos Angeles Timesor theChicago Tribune, orgenocidal tyrantRupert Murdoch if theWall Street Journallets you down.

But if theFoundation TimesorFoundation Postirks you, whom do you yell at?

You see what I mean about there being too much fail here for one small girl to handle?

This is the problem? That you don’t know who to yell at? Well, okay, let’s see if I can break that down for you. Nonprofit organizations still have presidents. And CEOs. They may have boards of directors but those boards are, you know, made up of people. One of whom will certainly be appointed as or appoint an editor, at whom you can direct your instructions on how best to present the crossword puzzle, or what syndicated columns to purchase. Problem solved. I truly do not understand the bogeyman he’s attempting to invoke here. Can someone fluent in horseshit step in?

The stupid has made me so tired. Can’t I just lay down now?

No?

The impulse to preserve the best of the American daily newspaper is a
laudable one, and it’s almost sensible if you can do it with other
people’s money. But the foundation ploy ignores the reasons why
big-city dailies have been dying a slow and profitable death since the
advent of AM radio:
wave after wave of new competition (TV, FM, cable,
the Internet, smartphones, et al.), changes in commuting habits,
changes in reader habits, changes in advertising strategies, changes in
entertainment habits, the decline of the department store (an
advertising mainstay), and the erosion of the classified market. As if
that isn’t bad enough, in the current downturn many car dealers, car
makers, members of the real estate/finance complex, and
banks—advertising pillars all—have stopped buying column inches.

Emphasis mine. A profitable death? What is that? By Shafer’s glorious free-market standards, profit is life. Profit means you don’t need to “stroke billionaires” (I refuse to quote that portion on the presumption that someone, somewhere, is stupidly letting his kid read this blog) for “their” money.

And not for nothing, but if a charitable foundation comes up with the scratch to buy a paper then that foundation becomes like every other newspaper owner on the planet: the owner of a newspaper. What Shafer’s really afraid of is a wave of publicly traded newspaper companies being taken private and subject to more realistic standards of profitability and he’s conflating ownership with management. As I’ve said a number of times, I’m not so much convinced this is the right way to go as leaning that way because a) what we got now ain’t exactly tearing up the NASDAQ and b) anything that causes this many sheltered, oblivious idiots to wank this much can’t be that bad.

Also when did this conversation become just about the Post and the Times? Last I checked there were more than two newspapers in this country. Maybe some of them have thoughts they’d like to share on the topic. Maybe we should be worried about them, instead of just about the newspapers academia’s finer morons can name off the tops of their heads.

Please have at the rest of it, commenters. I need to go make myself a STIFF drink.

A.

10 thoughts on “Oh, God, Journalism Just Coded On My Laptop Again

  1. Granted it’s not a newspaper, but my favorite print publication EVER is Orion Magazine…NFP always has been. It’s impeccable. And there are No Ads.
    But it’s in Great Barrington so commie and doesn’t count I guess.

  2. I though you were above blegging, A. Oh well bleggar’s can’t be choosers at the bleggar’s banquet. I could do this all night but I shant.

  3. While not foundation-owned, I did work on a web-only, nonprofit newspaper for a while just a few years ago, The NewStandard (newstandardnews.net–the website appears not to be working at the moment, but the founders of the paper plan to have the content online somewhere for posterity’s sake). It was run by a collective under a parecon model and we published some excellent, award-winning news for a few years before the the pressures of trying to publish every day and pay people while remaining entirely reader-funded proved too much for the small group of us involved (the content itself was free, but we did ask for donations and actually received enough to keep going for a few years).
    I loved writing for the paper and am proud of the work I and my colleagues there did. As we realized that the model we were operating under was not quite working, we had a whole bunch of discussions over how to keep the thing alive but foundation money was out of the question because of concerns about being, or appearing to be, beholden to any particular agenda. (We never considered taking ads either for similar reasons.)
    In retrospect, I think that if we had been willing to consider seeking foundation support, well The NewStandard would still be around and I’d still be a reporter. I don’t see why a daily can’t function well along similar lines as The Nation, taking financial support from a foundation, reader contributions and subscriptions, and advertising. I mean, The Nation’s grown in readership and stature while most other newsweeklies are struggling as they kowtow to the free market gods.

  4. Govt support of the newspapers as a non-profit. Can’t help but remember Tass and Pravda.

  5. Escariot, if you like The Onion, also have a look at the “Journal of Irreproducable Results” aka “The Worm Runners Digest”. Its only something like $50 a year.

  6. Maple, government support is different from foundation support. That’s the other problem with a lot of the reporting on this, that they confuse the two. I wouldn’t be okay with any kind of government-funded news media but there’s no reason private foundations have to receive government funds.
    A.

  7. Aren’t there major successful non-profit venues in each of venues that Shafer says is killing newspapers. PBS was one of 4 channels I got as a kid and the BBC seems, you know, kind of OK. C-Span is a non-profit endowed by the cable industry, right? Wikipedia is non-profit. Craigslist is for-profit but in a user focused “we only give the user what they want and they never asked for ads” model. I used to ask my local FL paper for more local political coverage and to stop throwing the paper under the car but they didn’t listen. Craig Newmark listens. Can I get the full GFE from Pinch Sulzberger? I think not.
    I don’t know the figures today but here’s Slate founder Michael Kinsley on how the online magazine was divorced from “market pressures”.
    Kinsley:“People say that the only reason you’re still around…is that you’re bankrolled by Microsoft. Certainly it’s been very good to work for Microsoft. They are a fantastic, really perfect owner of this media property. (But) if we hadlost as much as some of these other content sites, Microsoft would have shut us down years ago. On the other hand, if these places had beenlosing as little as us, they’d still have most of their venture-capital nest eggs left.”
    Has Slate made dollar one yet? And I don’t mean in a given year, I mean paid back the money it lost to start. Shouldn’t you pay off your mortgage before you start talking smack the renters down the street? Lots of people open little tea shops or comic book stores and lose money for years and finally call it a success when the enterprise (which they value) finally learns to tread water. Isn’t that being tested by some kind of force more powerful than the market? Conjuring something into existence and making it REAL, regardless of number tax code you file, is quite a test. Is Jack Shafer and Slate somehow more tested because it was Microsoft footing the bill for all those years instead of a non-profit board? Shafer is saying ‘Show me the money!’ and A is saying ‘Show me the paper!’. Market forces put a half-naked 16 year old Britney Spears in school girl outfit singing ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’. It’s done far worse to the news business.

  8. Hi Athenae. Just to tackle one part of your epic rant, Shafer seems to miss – or won’t acknowledge – that for-profits answer just as strictly to patrons, except theirs are called advertisers.
    Two points, both from memory so no links accompanying. A girl I briefly dated had worked for Stars & Stripes and told me that her paper wasn’t eligible for big journalism awards because they were government run and presumably tainted by the need to appease their masters. Around that same time a local car dealer who called himself Mr. Big Volume had a big blowout used car sale with an advertised price of $50 for some cars. One of the dealerships – since God has a great sense of humor it happened to be the one located in an insufferably snobbish upscale suburb – had a literal, full scale riot. It made CNN – helicopter footage. BREAKING! Riot at Mr. Big Volume! He was also a major advertiser in the Plain Dealer. Next day’s paper? Not. One. Word. Their reporters are eligible for Pulitzers, however.

  9. According to Carl Hiaasen, the St. Pete Times is among the top 3 best papers in the country the other 2, I suppose, being the NY Times and the WaPo). A surprise since he works (a little) at the Miami Geraldo.

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