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Daily Democracy

Ryan Blethen discusses the press, media and democracy. Daily Democracy is part of the Democracy Papers, a series of articles, essays and editorial opinion examining threats to our freedoms of speech and the press.

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June 7, 2008 1:56 PM

Newspapers: Not dead yet?

Posted by Ryan Blethen

MINNEAPOLIS - That is title of a panel I am speaking on today at the National Conference for Media Reform. Any casual reader of this blog or my column can guess as to how I would answer that question. I addressed it in my last column.

The panel includes Linda Foley of the newspaper Guild, Nick Coleman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Joel Kramer from MinnPost.com and Hazel Trice Edney of the National Newspaper Publishers Association. The panel is moderated by John Nichols of the Nation and Madison Capital Times. Nichols sent us five questions to think about and which he will probably use to start the discussion.

I do not have a clear vision of how I will answer these questions because a live discussion can have different results than sitting down and writing out the answers, which is what I am doing here.

Q: Is there a future for newspapers?

A: Yes. As tempting as it is to stop with that simple three letter word, I won't. The rumors of our demise are greatly exaggerated. The Seattle Times has grown circulation for two years in a row. In fact, we are up 1 percent from 2000. The Times reaches 72 percent of its market in King and Snohomish counties when circulation and our online networks are tallied together. I have great faith that a company with that kind of reach will figure out a way to make enough money to keep the doors open. What newspapers are going to have to realize is the days of 30 percent profit margins are gone. Independent newspapers should have no problem hitting profit margins in the single digits. The single digit newspapers will go through some shrinking pains while bringing expenses in line with expenditures. Once that balance is achieved I expect to see these newspapers flourish. I worry that the publicly traded corporations in the newspaper business will have a tougher time lowering expectations and pleasing Wall Street at the same time. This will result in more cuts in space and people.

Q: If no, or if they are vulnerable, is there a future for journalism?

A: I will address the second half of this question. There is a future for journalism as long as the United States remains a democracy. Journalism is a pillar of any free society. A democracy is not a democracy with out a free press.

Q: What can unions/journalism groups do to protect-preserve-enhance journalism?

A: Unions and groups like the minority journalist groups have done a good job speaking out against media concentration. They need to keep this up. Many journalists feel it is against their ethical code to speak out on this issue. I disagree. Fighting media consolidation is fighting for journalism. Who better to wage that battle than journalists. I do not advocate journalists who cover the media becoming active. Why not sports reporters? Fashion writers? Restaurant critics? Journalists who are uncomfortable advocating for their profession should push their unions and other organizations to push for good media policy.

Q: What can/should be done fro a policy standpoint?

A: Great question. Politicians should consider legislation that promotes and protects independent ownership of the press. The federal government spends ridiculous amounts of money supporting certain sectors of the farming industry. Why not spend a bit on the salaries of journalists? What about tax breaks for news-outlets that are serious about covering their local communities? A discussion worth having.

Q: What's the best scenario/idea for going forward?

A: An Obama presidency would help. He has spoken in great detail on issues of media consolidation and net neutrality on the campaign trail. If his actions in the White House are consistent with his campaign speak then the Federal Communications Commission will be dominated by commissioners who would address media consolidation. If anybody knows of a great idea please contact me! Seriously, there is probably no one great idea that is going to get newspapers back to profitability. It will be situational, and a series of small efforts that add up to newspapers finding their footing. It will happen.

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