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March 17, 2009 4:41 PM

Civil disagreements: Should Uncle Sam rescue struggling newspapers?

Posted by Lynne Varner

Civil disagreements with Lynne Varner and Bruce Ramsey of the Seattle Times editorial board is a weekly feature of the Ed Cetera blog. Bruce and Lynne often disagree on major issues, Bruce tending more conservative and Lynne more liberal. Here they spar over the idea of public aid to newspapers.

Lynne Varner

Lynne Varner: Bruce, the demise of the Seattle Post-Intellingencer reveals a rare similarity between you and I. We both sharpened our journalistic chops at that fine paper, in my case three years as an education and general assignment reporter. The P-I was my introduction to Seattle and as an East Coast transplant, it was quite the initiation. But I digress.

The P-I is gone. Our paper, The Seattle Times, remains. But that doesn't hide the troubling predicament of our industry where newspapers nationwide are awash in debt and outdated business models. Most would love to reinvent themselves but don't have the capital. Pundits who predict a future without newspapers don't mention the damage that would do to our democracy, or our literacy rate. (Ask any educator: reading online text is not the same as reading the printed word.)

I see a role for federal and local government intervention.

An industry many refer to as moribund could be revived by any number of initiatives as long as they were well-resourced and backed by a strong arm. We're not talking an AIG-sized bailout. But public policy ought to tilt in favor of maintaining a printed version of the Fourth Estate.

On The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, panelists discussed survival plans, including help from philanthropists, but it all seemed too experimental to rest one's mortgage payments upon. Interestingly, the folks behind this blog think we can recover the old fashioned way, by earning a profit.

Government has a role in saving the things we as a society value. Our industry should not turn into Amtrak, but it ought to receive special protection in order to continue performing the watchdog role specifically outlined in the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court is your specialty, Bruce--and haven't justices tended to honor the words of our founding fathers?

According to a new Pew poll, three-quarters of Americans believe their communities would be damaged if there wasn't a local newspaper.

Other industries have adapted to changing economic environments. We can also, but we'll need help. That's nothing to apologize for. The public hasn't outgrown newspapers, it just wants to get the news in additional ways. As Thomas Jefferson said, "the man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers."

Bruce Ramsey

Bruce Ramsey: Lynne, I know public aid to newspapers might put butter on my toast, but I don't want it. Our publisher, Frank Blethen, has been in Olympia asking for state taxes to be reduced on newspapers, and I don't begrudge our company and our industry that, but not government investment or banking arrangements. It is addictive. It is corrupting. I don't want it.

We see the effect of government influence on American International Group (AIG). Government has invested public funds in AIG stock, has become the 80 percent owner, and now wants to tell the company to break its promises to pay bonuses to employees. It may be outrageous to pay bonuses to the geniuses who steered that company over a cliff, but nonetheless, the AIG flap shows how power follows money. "We give you public money, so we get to tell you what to do." I don't want that. I don't want anything I write, or any decisions my editors make, or that my publisher makes, under the review of elected officials. Or unelected officials. Any officials.

I'm not speaking for the Seattle Times Co., on this blog, but for myself only. In my view, I would rather see newspapers fold than become another government program. You don't bite the hand that feeds you. And when you should bite, not biting is corruption. There has always been a risk of that in the commercial business model newspapers have. We could be corrupted by our reliance on department stores or tobacco ads. Almost 20 years ago the Seattle Times showed that it was not corrupted that way by running some stores on Nordstrom that the company didn't like. It pulled its ads and we ran the stories anyway. Our publisher decided years ago not to accept tobacco ads.

The problem of corruption by commercial advertisers is tiny compared with the problem of corruption by governments. A merchant has a deep, personal and direct interest in very few stories in a big-city daily newspaper--maybe none in a whole year. Not so the politician. He wants his proposals covered. He wants his activities covered. At election time he wants our endorsement. A politician cannot be our banker or a major investor. It is tempting, but it is just not worth it.

Lynne Varner: Bruce, I don't think the industry would allow the government a caretaker role. The politician would not be our personal banker, he would be the author of public policy that helped an industry. What you and I do as individual journalists would still be subject to our ethics and sense of journalistic mission.

Today, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray eulogized the P-I on the floor of the Senate and made a good case for why newspapers should be preserved. “At the end of the day, newspapers aren’t just another business. And if more close - and there’s nothing to replace them - our democracy will be weaker as a result.”

I agree with Sen. Murray. I think you agree with her sentiments also, but since you rained all over my parade what solutions do you propose for preserving newsprint?

Bruce Ramsey: You've got me, there, Lynne. I don't know. Short-term, I'd say cut costs, cut costs, cut costs--and we have--and focus on local, local, local. Fill the paper with stuff nobody else has. Sell display ads wherever our customers want to buy them. Make more of paid obits. And maybe we should have some things in the printed paper we don't post here on the web page.

Longer-term, I don't know. Newspapers will try different things, like Hearst is now doing with an online-only P-I. See what works, and do more of it, and what doesn't work, and do less of it.

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