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Black & White & Red All Over

In 1948, Ray Sprigle of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette pulled off a great, daring, and long-forgotten feat of newspaper journalism. Sprigle, a very white German-American of 61, disguised himself as a black man and traveled undercover through the South to experience what daily life was like for the 9 million blacks living under Jim Crow.

Thirteen years before the book Black Like Me, the Post-Gazette’s star reporter “lived, slept and ate like a Negro” for 30 days as he was guided from Savannah to the Mississippi Delta by a prominent black civic leader from Atlanta. Sprigle returned to Pittsburgh and wrote a 21-part series on his 3,000-mile road trip, blasting the South’s system of lawful segregation for what he said it was—iniquitous, immoral, and unconstitutional.

Sprigle’s powerfully written first-person series made no pretense of fairness, balance, or objectivity. It was syndicated by the Post-Gazette to only 15 papers—all north of the Mason-Dixon Line. But it was widely read and commented on by the chattering class and sparked one of the first national media debates about the need to dismantle the South’s shameful apartheid.

The authors of The Death and Life of American Journalism would have cheered every impassioned word of Sprigle’s work—even though Sprigle was a staunch small-government conservative and they are a pair of Big Government-hugging progressives. Robert McChesney, the cofounder of the liberal Free Press media reform group, and John Nichols, the Washington correspondent for The Nation, would also be the first to tell you that the chances of anyone at a daily newspaper today doing great journalism like Sprigle did are very close to zero.

The reason for that sad fact, McChesney and Nichols say, is that America’s newspapers are dying and they are taking the good journalism that America needs with them to their graves. Daily newspapers are “in free-fall collapse,” they argue in their new how-to guide to fixing what they say is the country’s “crisis in journalism.” “The entire commercial news-media system is disintegrating,” they write. “Wall Street and Madison Avenue are abandoning the production of journalism en masse. Our nation faces the absurd and untenable prospect of attempting what James Madison characterized as impossible: to be a self-governing constitutional republic without a functioning news media.”

McChesney and Nichols aren’t the only ones who see a coming newspaper apocalypse. Perhaps you’ve let your subscription to the Daily Blat lapse and haven’t seen the headlines, but lots of people who aren’t hanging out at the Left end of the political spectrum agree. Long before the recession and the Wall Street meltdown, newspapers were already weak from years of steadily shrinking circulations, falling advertising revenues, social changes, and failure to understand/appreciate/embrace the Internet and adapt.

The newspaper industry is now in what some say is a death spiral. The old business model—the one that used to rake in obscene annual net profits in big cities and small towns alike—has been destroyed by the digital hurricane. Hardly anyone under 30 touches newsprint. Classified ads have fled to Craigslist and Monster.com. Display advertising revenue has crashed because of department store consolidation, direct marketing, and now the economic downturn. Once powerful, ad-fat, rich papers like the Los Angeles Times, Minneapolis Tribune,and Philadelphia Inquirer are bankrupt. Some of the gloomiest industry watchers foresee a major city soon finding itself without a daily newspaper.

Print journalism is caught in a vicious circle, McChesney and Nichols say. Everyone agrees that the only hope for the long-term survival of newspapers is online. But even if editors and managers miraculously figure out how to master the Internet, papers won’t be able to make enough money from Web ads to pay for the workforce they need to produce the kind of strong journalism everyone from Thomas Jefferson to Rupert Murdoch agrees is vital to keeping the Republic free, informed, and self-governing. To save and preserve good journalism and democracy from extinction, the authors have come up with the only solution progressive journalists of their high caliber could—calling in the feds.

Their impeccable left-wing logic goes like this: America’s commercial newspapers—advertising-driven, profit-seeking, increasingly corporate-owned, and inherently evil private enterprises that have always been more concerned about padding bottom lines and keeping advertisers happy than serving communities—are on the road to oblivion. If newspapers disappear, so will most quality journalism. Therefore, combining metaphorical support from Tom Paine with the hottest new Big Government idea since Medicare, the authors conclude we must begin the media world anew by bailing out the journalism sector with billions in federal subsidies.

McChesney and Nichols shamelessly play the journalism “crisis” card to justify the need for their grand plan. These are extraordinary times. We need extraordinary measures. The government must salvage journalism and immediately do what the authors repeatedly sneer the “free market” cannot or will not do. To get “a vastly superior news media that dramatically enhances the constitutional system and representative democracy,” they say, “Americans must face the hard and cold truth: journalism is a public good that is no longer commercially viable. If we want journalism, it will require public subsidies and enlightened policies.”

Before McChesney and Nichols float their specific ideas, they establish that government subsidies to journalism are part of America’s founding DNA. They show that the infant U.S. government made it a point to help newspapers grow and prosper by subsidizing their out-of-town postal rates—an idea supported by such saints of limited government as Jefferson and Madison. Jumping merrily down the slippery slope of that unfortunate precedent—and pointing at Holland and Norway as proof that enlightened governments can be trusted to subsidize good journalism without censoring or controlling it (except of course when a war or crisis comes along)—McChesney and Nichols justify the subsidies that they say are needed to keep great journalism alive.

To forestall immediate financial ruin for some publications and keep as many journalists on the job as possible, the authors offer several ideas. One suggestion, long sought by publishers of nonprofit opinion magazines of all ideological hues, is to lower postal rates for all periodicals with less than 25 percent of their content devoted to advertising, which in today’s old-media crisis might qualify Time or Newsweek. Instead of 30 or 35 cents, the current cost of mailing a copy of The Nation or The American Conservative, the charge would be 5 cents. That idea would only cost the government first-class postal monopoly $200 million or so—they’re not quite sure—but they are just priming the federal pump.

One of McChesney and Nichols’s more ambitious goals is to create a reserve army of trained young Americans for the Golden Age of Journalism they hope to unleash. To accomplish that, they want to use federal money to subsidize a student paper and radio station at every public high school in the country. They also want the federal government to make sure there is at least one newspaper alive in every community that has traditionally had one. And they want to create a “journalism” division of AmeriCorps, the federal program that trains young people to work at nonprofits. They think it would be nice if at least 2,500 young people who yearn to become journalists were paid $35,000 a year by the federal government for two years. It would cost $180 million.

The authors’ ideas to keep “post-corporate” newspapers alive include what appear to be some perfectly fine new or time-tested ownership models—501(c)(3) set-ups, newspapers run by workers or community cooperatives, and the newfangled L3C Low-profit Limited Liability Company, their favorite, described as a “for-profit entity with a non-profit soul.” The St. Petersburg Times, run by the Poynter Institute, a journalism school, is a newspaper success story and a model of community service they want to see copied.

The details of implementing and regulating their schemes will sound to the most casual conservative or libertarian like a Monty Python sketch about the silliness of social engineering. The potential for massive fraud, waste, corruption, misspending, and ideological tomfoolery are obvious—to everyone except McChesney and Nichols, who seem unfamiliar with the idiocies and scandals that occur when outfits like ACORN or the Department of Homeland Security get their mitts on free federal money.

Anyone who doesn’t already have a lifetime subscription to The Nation will lose his mind long before making it through the authors’ carefully explained plans and policy dreams, which extend to expanding existing public-radio stations and public-television stations so they will all have well-stocked, world-class newsrooms. But even Katrina vanden Heuvel might not make it to page 168, where—burying their lede, as we say in the journalism biz—McChesney and Nichols introduce the centerpiece of their policy recommendations, the “Citizenship News Voucher.”

If you think a “Citizenship News Voucher” is a sign that the Left is so desperate for new ideas that it’s beginning to borrow from Milton Friedman, don’t get your hopes up. McChesney and Nichols’s signature policy proposal is for a $200 annual news voucher for every adult. It can be given to any noncommercial, public, community, nonprofit, post-corporate news medium of your choice (as long as it meets certain requirements, conditions, stipulations, and provisos). The authors figure that if it catches on, their Orwellian-sounding “Citizenship News Voucher” plan could cost around $20 billion a year.

McChesney and Nichols estimate that the public’s total tab for creating a “satisfactory level of journalism” is $35 billion—federal pocket change, they say. Unfortunately, in the age of $3 trillion wars in the Middle East and trillion-dollar federal budget deficits as far as the eye can see, they are right. About $25 billion of the $35 billion will come from the battery of low-percentage “good journalism” taxes they say would be levied on the broadcast spectrum, consumer electronics, advertising, and monthly cellphone and Internet-service fees—none of which will ever happen in the real world.

No conservative or libertarian will be able to last four pages into this belabored op-ed piece, which has interesting pockets of information among the relentless argumentation and tedious policy-wonk stuff. McChesney and Nichols can’t help themselves, though. With few exceptions, they are textbook lefties, and they prove it on nearly every page. They love all the predictable liberal/progressive people and places—Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, the BBC, PBS, NPR, the Guardian, Huffington Post and, of course, the poor, the rural, the people of color, and the working class who are so inadequately served by our profit-grubbing commercial media. They hate Bill O’Reilly, profits, private enterprise, warmongering neocons, and economists who worship the (always so-called) “free market,” which they don’t understand, appreciate, or distinguish from our current economic system of crony capitalism—or is it now better described as crony socialism?

The authors say some nice things about National Review’s honorable conservatism and The American Conservative’s anti-interventionism. And most of the time they try to restrain their rhetoric and be fair to their ideological enemies. It’s near the end of the book—when they probably figured anyone still reading would be either Rachel Maddow or a tortured journalism student—that they really flash their leftist fangs.

Without naming names, they rail about the evil capitalist forces of reaction that will try to block their reform ideas. The best examples are the “dogmatic ‘free-market’ economist types who have for decades been telling us that government can’t do anything right, except, perhaps, organize wars, lock people up and manage prisons” and the peddlers of “deregulation” and those “fabulists” who talk about “the infallible genius of free enterprise and the despicable nature of government.”

Though they would never think of putting it this way, what McChesney and Nichols would create with their generous rain of federal subsidies is a future journalism bubble inflated with taxpayer money. Their ultimate mad dream is 160,000 full-time working journalists by 2020—about double the number now. That would cost $7.2 billion, roughly. Still federal pocket change but an absurd price to pay for artificially growing a new generation of disproportionately liberal reporters and editors who will most likely see nothing wrong or dangerous with government subsidizing journalism.

McChesney and Nichols open their book with a grim list of bankruptcies, newsroom layoffs, closed Washington bureaus, cuts in state capital reporters, and axed science sections. By the time they’re done, the authors have you thinking there must be about six daily newspapers and 300 working print journalists left in all of America.

In fact, despite all the headlines and hysteria, exactly 10 of the country’s 1,437 daily newspapers have stopped publishing since 2007—and that includes papers that were barely breathing, like the Albuquerque Tribune, circulation 10,000, and the South Idaho Press, weekday-only circulation 3,850. As for all those lost journalism jobs, nobody seems to know the exact number, but it’s probably about 15,000 in the last 23 months. The American Society of Newspaper Editors says newsroom employment in the U.S. dropped to about 47,000 in 2008. Journalism jobs are especially precious because they protect our freedoms, as McChesney and Nichols never tire of reminding us. But to put the newspaper industry’s losses in perspective, in September alone the construction industry shed 64,000 jobs.

Bankruptcy, job cuts, closed newspapers like the Rocky Mountain News—these are dismal events today, but in the long run they should turn out to be beneficial. The industry is going through a long delayed and necessary period of deindustrialization and contraction that will force it to dramatically change its business and journalism models. Newspapers as we know them—living relics of the 19th century—will evolve into new and unpredictable multimedia beings of different sizes, shapes, and ownership models that blend print, TV, radio, and the Internet—or die.

McChesney and Nichols don’t buy any of this trust-the-free-market, embrace-the-creative-destruction-of-capitalism stuff for one second, but Jeff Jarvis does. A former newsman who’s become a guru of digital journalism, Jarvis has been a sharp and brutal critic of newspapers for failing to adapt to the Internet 15 years ago. Unlike McChesney and Nichols, who quote the creator of BuzzMachine.com in passing, Jarvis is not afraid of the radical changes that are coming in the news media. Although he is a liberal, he has no urge to control or shape them with government subsidies or bailouts.

Jarvis thinks the production of journalism in the mostly digital future might end up looking like the decentralized Hollywood movie-making companies that replaced the old studio system: multi-skilled journalists will become freelancing entrepreneurs who are hired for short periods to work on stories and projects the way producers temporarily hire cameramen and set directors to make a movie. As for good journalism, he sees no crisis on the horizon. In fact, he told me, he thinks journalism is going to get better. “It’s going to reinvent itself” and “even improve itself and grow and become more targeted and deeper in the community. It’s going to be very different.” Neither Jarvis nor anyone else can predict the ways in which the digital revolution is going to “begin the world again” for journalism and the news media, but it’s inevitable that big changes will come. Based on a reading of The Death and Life of American Journalism, it’s also inevitable—and encouraging—that McChesney and Nichols will hate most of them.  

Bill Steigerwald worked at the Los Angeles Times, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Pittsburgh Tribune-Reviewfrom 1979 to 2009, when he quit the newspaper business.

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