Newspapers and Non-Profits: Rising from the Ashes?
Present perils and feasible futures for the newspaper industry were the subject of a sometimes-sobering session hosted by the McCormick Freedom Museum at Columbia College’s School of Journalism in Chicago. The panel was introduced by David Hiller, current CEO of the McCormick Foundation and former publisher of the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, and was moderated by Tim McNulty, veteran White House and international correspondent and current professor at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism and the University of Chicago. Participants included Suzanne McBride, associate chair of Columbia College journalism school; Stephen Franklin, director of the Community Media Workshop and former international correspondent and labor journalist at the Chicago Tribune; and Adrian Holovaty, a young journalist, computer programmer, and creator of EveryBlock.com, which aggregates news and information specific to local neighborhoods.
Calling the future of newspapers “an urgent topic,” McNulty put an immediate stake in the ground before passing the microphone to Hiller. Hiller began by quoting Thomas Jefferson: “If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government, I wouldn't hesitate to choose the latter." Hiller called for more civic engagement and more discerning consumers of the news. McNulty followed by stressing the value of the First Amendment for any American who wanted to speak up and express ideas and opinions in a respectful, non-violent way.
The panelists all emphasized that people remain hungry for news, in spite of the devastating consequences of the recession on newspaper companies. McBride lamented the fact that fewer journalists are reporting now, although she expressed some hope for journalism in the Chicago area because of the increase in enrollment in journalism schools. McNulty cited a sobering statistic: “26,000 reporters and photojournalists have lost their jobs in the last 18 months.”
Adrian Holovaty addressed the battle between newspapers and their online competitors, pointing out that he uses 200 RSS feeds as well as Google Reader every day. He believes that city dailies should focus on local news rather than national and international news, since world news appears on Internet sources that can be updated quickly. He also pointed out that the smaller newspapers, including those in rural areas, are doing much better than the bigger ones. He downplayed the authority that newspapers once had.
The panel actively debated the “Twitter Revolution” and its positive and negative effects on the news. McBride and Holovaty called Twitter a “public forum” and praised Twitter’s role in actively engaging people in events and encouraging them to use their First Amendment rights. Holovaty said, “People are smarter than one thinks,” calling Twitter “truly free news” that had a role to play alongside newspapers.
Stephen Franklin, however, was skeptical, even wary, of Twitter’s outreach to a mostly younger generation. For example, he pointed out that even before Twitter, potentially damaging viral rumors existed which might have been made much worse if Twitter had existed. One anecdote in particular involved the Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people. Franklin said an “Arab” was initially blamed for the bombing and he recalled that there were reports of some men subsequently being beaten just because they looked like Arabs. He asked the other panelists: “What if they had Twitter back then?”
His fellow panelists replied that that was a “self-correcting process.” Franklin shook his head and replied, “How many people have to be injured or even die for it to be self-corrected?”
“Do you really think people would go around beating up people,” Holovaty said. He said “people have skepticism.”
Franklin said it’s important that sources have authority. Trying to counter him, an audience member later asked Franklin how he could trust The New York Times after the Valerie Plame CIA leak scandal and former reporter Jayson Blair’s plagiarism scandal.
“Newspapers are imperfect, but I still trust The New York Times,” Franklin said.
Franklin also noted that more Latino and African-American newspapers have closed due to the recession than their mainstream media counterparts. He extolled the deep penetration of newspapers in the Latino (90% penetration) and African-American communities (84%) over the past four years, praising the socially driven ethnic- based newspapers that “cut to the bone” on news with no fluff. Franklin said he has hope for the future of ethnic newspapers because there are still many non-English speaking elderly immigrants who depend on receiving news in their native language. He felt that newspaper companies should focus more on them.
Finally, Franklin steered the discussion into a relatively new, yet very plausible route for ensuring the future of newspapers: a scenario where non-profit organizations or civic-minded individuals would bail them out. Reasons for taking such a route might vary, but they would likely all center on civic responsibility and engagement. For example, multi-billionaire David Geffen spent roughly $200 million in May of 2009 for the 19.9% stake in the New York Times Company. According to BusinessWeek, Geffen took this step because he was born to immigrants, lived in New York, and read—and still does— The New York Times as he grew up. Geffen also was one of the failed bidders for the LA Times, losing to Sam Zell, who—for the time being—owns and runs both the LA Times and the Chicago Tribune.
In prognosticating the future of newspapers over the next quarter century, pessimism and optimism clashed. McNulty amused the crowd by saying: “I can’t even imagine 2-5 years.” He stated that he believes the industry will be smaller and more specialized and that sooner or later they would become like magazines. Holovaty also quipped that the future will be bright for news, just not news companies.
In the end, no one knows what will happen to newspapers down the road. The future is hazy, but some options are beginning to take shape: bankruptcy or liquidation or the more promising potential of non-profit conversions. The most disturbing possibility remains the death of professional news due to creeping civic apathy.