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John Colson: Hit and Run

John Colson
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado

I’ve been thinking about the crisis facing journalism, and I’ve concluded that what once was unthinkable must now be thought – government intervention may be the only thing that can save us.

The current crisis is different from previous ones, because it’s not just about radio, television or computers versus newspapers. The technology is not the problem, nor is it the answer to the problem.

No, the problem is that we continue to rely on a model for financing the news that is no longer reliable, and perhaps never really was.

Time was, newspapers were the equivalent of printing money. Returns of 20 percent or better were the norm, and there were enough hard-nosed money men who liked a good fight that news gathering held onto its status as the “fourth estate,” the venue through which people kept track of government, society, sports, etc.

But no more. Like a self-fulfilling prophesy, threats to a vibrant journalism-based newspaper industry have mounted over the decades. The twin curses of “infotainment” and instant gratification have watered down the core values of the newsrooms, and the corporate captains in charge of things have been no help at all.

To use a farming metaphor, the money men have milked every penny they could out of the old cash cow, and have for some time now been fleeing the milking shed in search of other, quicker ways to make money.

And the cow? She’s still standing, but in a severely weakened condition, and the remaining money-grubbers have switched their tactics – indeed, their very nature. They’re now acting like vampires, attaching themselves to the jugular vein of the poor beast and sucking every possible drop of lifeblood out her at an unsustainable rate. And when the carcass is sucked dry they’ll fly off to find a new victim.

Tens of thousands of reporters have been laid off by newspapers big and small, to the point where the halls of government, the back rooms of politics and the boardrooms of corporate America are not watched as closely as they once were. The last true bastion of independent print journalism is the small-town paper, and it, too, is in crisis.

Of course, it’s a common theme among various schools of thought (or perhaps that should be lack of thought) that the newspaper industry has killed itself by being too partisan, too arrogant, too one-thing-or-another, and it’s getting its just desserts.

The Internet, some believe, will provide the nation’s electorate with news, classified ads, product ads and the rest, all much more quickly than newspapers ever could, and more conveniently.

But the cold fact is that all those bloggers and e-news providers rely on newspaper reporters for their facts. Without paychecks, the reporters won’t supply those facts, and that will leave the Internet sucking wind for true, credible news content. In its place, opinion is all we’ll get, and opinion is not a reliable way to inform an electorate.

To be sure, reporters are human, we make mistakes, we get things wrong. I’m certainly not immune to this kind of foible, and I think any reporter worth the skin he or she occupies would say the same.

But we correct the mistakes we make, we try to not make them, ever, and we move on.

And in most cases, the mistakes we make are in the details, the small stuff, while the germ of what we’re trying to impart to our readers is true and credible. It’s what we do, and we’re obviously not in the business for the money.

An article in The Nation, a left-leaning weekly news magazine that’s been around for 290 years, recently posited the idea that we need to turn to government subsidies to keep journalism alive, since the business model seems to have failed.

I’ve long doubted the wisdom of such a course, fearing that the yo-yo of politics would never permit a truly free press to function. But I am no longer confident about the business model, either.

The writers, John Nichols and Robert McChesney, make a strong case for their belief that government support was crucial to the birth of journalism, in the form of “enormous printing and postal subsidies” and other aspects of the industry. Advertising did not become the main fiscal pillar of the news business for some time, and corporate depredations are a relatively recent phenomenon.

I’m not sure how this all could be structured to insure the “free press” would remain free, but it seems to me it’s worth a look, at least until a better alternative shows its face.

jcolson@aspentimes.com


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