Nationalize Newspapers. Or Bail Them Out. But We Can't Let Them Disappear

We can't have no-paper cities.

By + More

By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

The decline of journalism as a business has been long and well-documented, but it's now reaching a point where radical action is required, be it nationalizing them or bailing them out.

Today's New York Times reports that some major cities around the country could soon be without a daily newspaper. That cannot be allowed to happen.

From the Times:

No one knows which will be the first big city without a large paper, but there are candidates all across the country. The Hearst Corporation, which owns The Post-Intelligencer, has also threatened to close The San Francisco Chronicle, which lost more than $1 million a week last year, unless it can wring significant savings from the operation.

...

Advance Publications said last fall that it might shut down The Star-Ledger, the dominant paper in New Jersey, but a set of cutbacks and union concessions kept the paper alive in much-downsized form.

The top papers in many markets, like The Star Tribune in Minneapolis, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The New Haven Register, belong to companies that have gone into bankruptcy in the last three months.

The owners insist they have no intention of closing publications, but the management making those assurances may not be in charge when the companies emerge from reorganization.

Other publishers, like the Seattle Times Company and MediaNews Group, owner of The Denver Post, The San Jose Mercury News and The Detroit News, are seen as being at risk of bankruptcy. Many newspapers—from The Miami Herald to The Chicago Sun-Times—have been put up for sale, with no buyers on the horizon.

The disappearance of multi-paper cities is depressing and unfortunate, but not an emergency. But we are moving past questions of journalism as an industry and into larger issues regarding journalism as an institution in a free society. The media plays a key role not only on informing the citizenry in terms of literally reporting the day's events, but also in getting behind them and in watch-dogging the institutions and people who have huge power over our lives—be they public officials, corporate titans, other journalists and so forth.

Have the media done our job uniformly well? No. There are examples of great reporting and shoddy work every day. But the work is there. Letting newspapers in large communities simply disappear would create an unacceptable informational void. Local television news can't fill it, and neither can citizen reporting or amateur bloggers.

Would something come along to fill the void eventually? Undoubtedly—that's the nature of the market. Eventually something would fill that need. But at what cost in the mean time?

Maybe Connecticut lawmaker Frank Nicastro is right about a government bailout; maybe it's time for local governments to declare eminent domain and start making the local papers public property.

Honestly, I find both ideas fairly horrifying. But not as repugnant as one-paper towns becoming no-paper towns.

On Facebook? You can keep up with Thomas Jefferson Street blog postings through Facebook's Networked Blogs.