Wednesday, March 25, 2009

It's Like Deciding When To Pull The Plug On Granny!

Maryland Senator Ben Cardin has come up with a plan to keep America's newspapers from folding - He would change the US tax code, and allow newspapers to operate as non-profit entities. The papers would still be allowed to sell ads, which would become tax exempt. Any revenue from circulation or contributions from readers would be tax exempt as well.

I want to congratulate Senator Cardin for his efforts, but I fear his proposal will come up short.

Speaking in medical jargon, I am all in favor of keeping community news alive, but I worry that some of the side effects of this treatment may be worse than the disease, and that it may ultimately serve to prolong what is already a terminal illness.

Cardin says under his plan, newspapers would be free to report what they like, but would be prohibited from making political endorsements. Well - that's one strike against the first amendment right there. And please forgive me if I'm skeptical. I believe Senator Cardin's intentions are noble, but I highly doubt that down the line, some lawmaker would not try to use a newspaper's tax-exempt status as leverage to try and sway the coverage of a story. I don't have a whole lot of faith in the intelligence or integrity of your average lawmaker.

I also do not believe the American people as a whole have much respect for the media, or a clear handle on the importance of having a free and independent press. They've been trained over the years - by lawmakers and pundits - to distrust the media. And increasingly, they seem willing to sell the Fourth Estate down the river without giving a thought as to how that would impact their lives. I'm not sure there would be much of a groundswell of support to keep papers alive.

From a more pragmatic point-of-view, why are we specifically trying to save newspapers? Is it to preserve a medium that is largely used by people who are 50 years old and older? And if that is the case, why are we trying to save it? Do you really think by giving newspapers a non-profit status that younger Americans will suddenly start changing their reading habits?

Newspapers are - like TV, radio and the internet - a delivery system for the transmission of information. However, compared to the other systems, they are slow, archaic, cost-inefficient and environmentally unfriendly. When you look at newspapers dispassionately, it is difficult to imagine why they WOULD be worth saving.

Think about it... News stories are blocked out, printed in huge factories on large sheets of paper, distributed by truck to various locations all over the region, then further distributed by smaller trucks and cars, wrapped in non-biodegradable plastic bags and thrown on people's lawns. The customer then glances through the paper and throws it away. IF we're lucky, the customer will leave the paper for recycling. It all sounds so damn inefficient compared to grabbing the mouse and clicking away, doesn't it?

I still love reading dead-tree newspapers, and I do subscribe to the Washington Post. But I also know I'm a dinosaur.. and when the paper goes extinct (which will likely happen sooner rather than later), I will adapt to reading it exclusively online instead. If everyone had come to the realization that this was actually going to happen a few years ago, we might all have been better prepared for the current collapse in media, and I'd have a safer job someplace else. But you know what they say about 20/20 hindsight.

I remember having a conversation with my old News Director in 1992 about personal computers. I had owned my first computer for more than a year, and I remember telling him all about the dawn of the internet, and how cool it was to find information on Prodigy and America On-Line. This was a man who had ripped wire copy and written newscasts on manual typewriters for more than 30 years, so when I encouraged him to get his own computer, he looked at me and said, "Why would I ever want a computer?" He could not fathom the end of the way things used to be. But he adapted.

My mother-in-law is 73 years old. She has been reading the New York Times her entire life, and she cannot begin to comprehend NOT having it at her doorstep each morning. But that day is coming. And she'll adapt, too.

I do hope something can be done to preserve local community news. It's a vital part of our lives, even if most consumers don't appreciate what they have. But saving newspapers is not the answer. It's merely prolonging the inevitable.

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