Johann Hari: How we can save newspapers

Is it time governments got involved with supporting the world of news-gathering?

Friday 20 March 2009 01:00

The two best print newspapers in the United States – the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and the Christian Science Monitor – have just died. The New York Times is nearly bankrupt, and the Los Angeles Times is already there. In beds all around them in the Emergency Room, the world's newspapers are being fed ink on a drip, as ashen relatives stand and stare. How many of them will survive this depression? And what would a world with drastically fewer people gathering and sifting the news look like?

Newspapers are in a bizarre position. More people are reading the stories we write than ever before: via the web, we have a higher readership than in the most inky-fingered Golden Age. But we are withering. Why?

Since the mid-19th century, newspaper readers haven't had to pick up the full tab for putting the paper together and delivering it to your breakfast table. First they were subsidised by governments or political parties. Then they were paid for primarily by advertisers who want to sell you stuff. The price on the cover is only a small fraction of the money it takes to pay for gathering the news.

This model is ailing now because, as Professor Paul Starr of Princeton explains: "Until recently, the internet seemed primarily to be additive, vastly enlarging the opportunities for self-expression and public debate, while newspapers and other old media continued serving their old functions, such as financing the bulk of original reporting for the general public." You increasingly read it online, but the bill was picked up by print readers and print advertising.

But this could only ever last for a transitional decade. As more and more readers begin to click rather than flick, it is almost over. The problem is that an online reader is worth 10 per cent of a print reader to advertisers. So for every reader you lose on the page, you need to gain 10 on the screen. The sums don't add up – so the newspapers are sickening and shedding staff.

Does it matter? There are some reasons to scorn newspapers in the US, where the press is unusually pompous and proud and protective of the interests of the powerful while bragging about its "balance." Yes, advertising-funded newspapers are a fractured lens on the world, unconsciously under-reporting anything that threatens the interests of their paymasters. The recently reissued book Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky shows this brilliantly: it's why almost all newspapers failed on Iraq, on the disastrous effects of deregulation, and now on the climate crisis. But today, we are facing the possibility of replacing this fractured lens with no lens at all.

When I last wrote about the need to save newspapers, one reader snapped: "Why don't you launch a campaign to save CB radios too?" But CB radios don't play a crucial role in a democracy. It has been put best by Joe Matthews, a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times, who says: "With fewer watchdogs, you get less barking: corruption undiscovered, events not witnessed, tips about problems that never reach anyone's ears because those ears have left the newsroom. How can we know what we'll never know?"

A recent study in The Journal of Law, Economics and Organisation found that one of the biggest single factors in reducing corruption in a country is "the free circulation of daily newspapers per person." Go to any country, and you'll find that the lower the newspaper circulation, the higher the corruption. If nobody's watching, anything goes.

As inky news-gatherers vanish, there is a vacuum that online journalists are not able to fill. With less advertising cash and no upfront payments from the readers at all, they have far less money to send out foreign correspondents, assign people to tricky investigations, or do the long slog that journalism so often requires. Look at the best political site, the Huffington Post, for which – in the interests of full disclosure – I should point out I write. As they are the first to admit, HufPo pays nothing to its contributors, and it knows what is happening in the world only because newspapers send out correspondents. If they vanish, blogs will be left in an airless cabin, talking only about themselves.

This doesn't have to happen. Many people in the increasingly frantic newspaper industry whisper about potential techno-solutions. Some say an easy system of online micro-payments – an i-Tunes for the news – will save us. Others invest hope in the Kindle, the hand-held device on which you can buy a newspaper. But we can't afford to wait for them to go mainstream: journalism's accumulated structures, brands and wisdom could be lost forever by then.

There is a better way. In an age of bailouts, several European governments are experimenting with ways to support the world of news-gathering so it will survive for the 21st century. The best plan has come from French President Nicolas Sarkozy. He has launched a programme where every French citizen, on her 18th birthday, will be given a year's free subscription to a newspaper of her choice. The effects are subtle. Many young readers will develop a newspaper habit. In turn, newspapers will compete harder to capture this lucrative guaranteed market, and make their product accessible and fresh. A benevolent whirl replaces the current death-spiral.

Of course there is a terrible danger in making newspapers dependent on the government's actions. Nobody wants that. But there are ways to avoid this trap. In 1971, the Swedish government set up a system of subsidies to newspapers allocated by an independent body on the basis of circulation and revenue data. Intriguingly, the Swedish press became more adversarial and critical after it was introduced, not less.

As the thud of falling newspapers echoes across the Atlantic, we can't afford to dawdle. Good newspapers – for all their flaws and selective vision – are the sinews of representative government. In 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote: "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate to prefer the latter." Unless we act now, fast, we may be left with the opposite: a government, but no newspapers left to monitor them.

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