Friday, March 27, 2009

Newspaper Layoffs Reach 7,000 in 2009, but Government Bailouts Are Not the Answer

We're not done with the first quarter yet and more than 7,000 people have been laid off from positions at newspapers in the United States this year, as detailed in the right-hand column of this web site.

That's about half the number of people laid off from newspapers last year, according to Paper Cuts, the web site run by Erica Smith, who has been tracking newspaper layoffs since 2007. In 2007, a little more than 2,000 people were laid off from newspapers during the whole year.

[UPDATE, 9:14 a.m. Eastern, March 28, 2009]: Smith commented on the 2007 total on her web site: "But the 2007 numbers I have aren't for the whole year -- I didn't start keeping track until June, and I'm sure there were more than that."

While large metropolitan newspapers such as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Rocky Mountain News have ceased print operations, the most devastating effect will be felt in the small towns across America where weeklies and small dailies have been forced to shut their doors or greatly deduce their staffs.

These communities relied on their local paper for news about school boards, local zoning boards, city councils and area organizations. As regrettable it is that great newspapers in Denver and Seattle are gone, residents in those cities have alternative media sources to get information. People in places such as Mount Vernon, Wash.; Stamford, Conn.; Germantown, Pa.; and Newton, Mass., have seen deep cuts in their local papers or seen them disappear completely. That leaves a void in those communities and others that will be hard to be replace. There is nothing more important to residents than news about what local boards and councils are doing. Democracy itself takes a step backwards without that single watchdog reporter religiously attending meetings or pouring over records. In communities everywhere, government agencies are finding themselves free of the burden of accountability and transparency as newspapers disappear from the landscape.

John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney recently wrote a tremendous article in The Nation that explores this notion ("The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers," March 18).

So this is where we stand: much of local and state government, whole federal departments and agencies, American activities around the world, the world itself--vast areas of great public concern--are either neglected or on the verge of neglect. Politicians and administrators will work increasingly without independent scrutiny and without public accountability. We are entering historically uncharted territory in America, a country that from its founding has valued the press not merely as a watchdog but as the essential nurturer of an informed citizenry. The collapse of journalism and the democratic infrastructure it sustains is not a development that anyone, except perhaps corrupt politicians and the interests they serve, looks forward to. Such a crisis demands solutions equal to the task. So what are they?

Plans of newspapers joining the ranks of nonprofits and/or receiving Obama-bucks in a congressional bailout put the newspaper industry on uneasy footing. Nonprofits (501(c)3) are prohibited by IRS tax code to participate in politics. This could make voicing editorial opinions on politics (or even covering politics for that matter) questionable. It's also not hard to imagine that a news organization that receives federal or state financial assistance would not be as aggressive as a watchdog.

So, what is the answer? That's a $64 million question. The free market still has to play out. Journalism is not dying per se, just changing. As it did in the '50s and '60s when radio gave way to television, and in the '80s and '90s when over-the-air television gave way to cable, newspapers are now giving way to the Internet. Government handouts and tax status changes are not the answer. Entrepreneurs will have to find a way for local communities to get the news they need and deserve.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Layoffs at Northwoods Press in Nevis, MN and Cass Lake Times in Cass Lake, MN