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An economic slowdown is no time to shrink the news

COMMENTARY | November 13, 2008

Cranberg and Bezanson write that “the need for information doesn’t contract in step with the economy. The reverse is true; troubled times demand more skilled journalism, more interviews, more probing, bigger newsholes.” Possibly, they suggest, foundations that aren’t ordinarily interested in the press will reconsider their priorities.

By Gilbert Cranberg and Randall Bezanson

These days, banks, insurance companies, home owners, perhaps automakers and others are all candidates for financial help from the government. No mention as yet of newspaper companies, although many of their bottom lines are shaky. It would be inappropriate for Uncle Sam to offer aid, even if any press organizations would accept it; after all, pocketing financial favors from somebody you cover is the very definition of a conflict of interest. Come to think of it, though, that’s done every day of the week with advertisers.

Set that aside for a moment and focus on the nature of the news business. Information (news) is a commodity as essential as any produced by the businesses on which billions are being lavished. The government itself is a major customer. Diminish the flow of news and the formation of public policy would be devastated. A small but telling example: Iowa Senator Charles Grassley’s recent crusade against the misleading sale of inadequate health insurance policies was triggered by a story in the Wall Street Journal about the experience of a Texas leukemia patient. All over the country, problems large and small are called to the attention daily of the public and government.

Some press woes are self-inflicted. A major misstep was the decision by newspaper companies to go public. That subjected them to the moods of analysts and the swings of the stock market. It produced a fixation on stock price, short-term thinking and unsustainable profit margins.

Another more basic misstep was the decision by virtually all newspapers to remain stuck in the outmoded paradigm of centralized printing of papers and an expensive delivery system. Why not give subscribers an outsized, dedicated printer, along with paper and ink, and send the paper over the internet to their home, where it could be printed out automatically at, say, 5 A.M. and ready to read with the first cup of coffee? Over a couple of years of a subscription for home delivery, this would probably save money, perhaps a great deal of it, and allow the journalism to be improved again, at last.

The point is that there has been a dearth of new out-of-the-box ideas in an industry that has plenty of smart people. Instead of thinking ahead, news organizations almost everywhere now are lowering their sights and shrinking staff and sacrificing their product – news. In the economic downturn we face, lots of people may conclude that they really don't need a paper that delivers journalistic disappointment. In many cases they may be right.

The need for information does not contract in step with the economy. The reverse is true; troubled times demand more skilled journalism, more interviews, more probing, bigger newsholes. Instead, newsroom buyouts and layoffs are the order of the day.

If government is not the answer, and if the newspapers themselves have no answer, then other sources must be tapped. News organizations should lead the way by paring profits to the bone to invest in newsgathering. Foundations, even those not ordinarily interested in the press, should reconsider their priorities and plow resources into keeping Americans informed.

By all accounts, there are very trying times ahead. It will be a test for all institutions, not least the press. It will need all the help it can get.

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