There’s no reason to rule out a government bailout of local journalism

Photo (cc) 2014 by MIKI Yoshihito

I’m sure I’ll be writing a lot in the weeks and months ahead about whether and how government should provide a boost to local journalism — in crisis before the COVID-19 pandemic, and now on its knees.

Recently I reviewed Victor Pickard’s new book, “Democracy without Journalism?,” which is, among other things, a call for public assistance. Pickard’s argument for fundamental media reform and increased public investment in journalism was relevant before the pandemic, and is even more so now.

Today I want to touch briefly on a back-and-forth between Politico media columnist Jack Shafer and Mike Blinder, publisher of Editor & Publisher, a leading trade magazine for the newspaper business. Shafer is against a government bailout, arguing that newspapers have been in decline for decades, and that the pandemic is merely speeding up the end game. Blinder, naturally, is for public assistance. First, a bit of Shafer:

It might make sense for the government to assist otherwise healthy companies — such as the airlines — that need a couple of months of breathing space from the viral shock to recover and are in a theoretical position to repay government loans sometime soon. But it’s quite another thing to fling a life buoy to a drowning swimmer who doesn’t have the strength to hold on. Newspapers are such a drowning industry.

Now Blinder:

Perhaps the problem with Shafer is that he still thinks a newspaper is a singular paper product as he lives in a binary world where you either work for a newspaper or a “pure play” digital product like Politico or Slate, where he previously worked. Come on, Jack, you know better. Just because news publishers proudly keep the word “paper” in their branding does not mean that the end product must be printed on pulp.

Although I disagree with some of what Shafer says, he does make one good point — that it would be outrageous to reward chain newspaper owners that have been hollowing out their coverage for years so they could squeeze out a few drops of profit for their hedge-fund owners and corporate shareholders. At the very least, I wouldn’t want to see any money go to Alden Global Capital’s MediaNews Group or to Gannett unless it is matched by investments in journalism that those companies have, up to this point, shown no inclination to make.

We should also acknowledge that indirect government funding is already propping up a lot of the local and regional news infrastructure. Nonprofit media such as public broadcasters and local digital news organizations like the New Haven Independent, Voice of San Diego, MinnPost and Texas Tribune thrive in part because of tax advantages that amount to a government subsidy. (Public broadcasters receive some direct government funding, too.) Major newspapers may take the same route in the years ahead, with The Salt Lake Tribune leading the way.

My own view is that local news organizations, including newspapers, should be eligible for government bailout money just as other businesses are. As Shafer notes, there is always the problem of journalistic independence when the government gets involved. But structures can be set up that insulate news organizations from interference.

Former NPR chief executive Vivian Schiller tells Shafer that the current governing structure for NPR has created an “untenable structure for supporting independent journalism.” But even though NPR often strikes me as overly cautious and deferential to power, it is also our leading source of free, high-quality journalism.

We need a variety of different business models for local news — for-profit, nonprofit, cooperative and even volunteer. At the moment, most local news is based on the for-profit model, and that’s what’s in danger of being destroyed by the pandemic.

Right now, newspapers — print and digital — need a bailout. We can worry about what sort of relationship the government should have with the news business once the crisis has abated.

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Turmoil at NPR finally reaches the top (II)

I’ve expanded on my earlier thoughts regarding Vivian Schiller’s forced resignation from NPR in a piece for the Guardian.

Turmoil at NPR finally reaches the top

NPR chief executive Vivian Schiller has resigned following the latest controversy to dog one of our three or four most vital news organizations. Yesterday we learned that NPR fundraiser Ron Schiller — no relation — was secretly recorded by right-wing prankster James O’Keefe. Among other things, Ron Schiller was heard trashing the Tea Party and generally coming off as a liberal.

I’m writing this up for the Guardian later today, and at the moment we don’t know much. My snap reaction, though, is good riddance. NPR handled the long-overdue departure of Juan Williams ineptly and over the wrong issue. Vivian Schiller threw her top news executive Ellen Weiss, over the side of the boat when it was all over.

Then, yesterday, Vivian Schiller publicly humiliated Ron Schiller despite O’Keefe’s flagrant history of doctoring videos of his other targets — principally ACORN.

My fear, though, is that NPR got rid of Vivian Schiller because she didn’t pander to the right hard enough at a time when its funding is in jeopardy. We’ll see.

NPR goes into damage-control mode over Williams

Juan Williams

After NPR chief executive Vivian Schiller said Juan Williams should keep his feelings about Muslims between himself and “his psychiatrist or his publicist,” I thought perhaps it was Schiller who ought to schedule some couch time. She apologized, and today she’s in damage-control mode.

NPR media reporter David Folkenflik did something very smart (which I learned about through Jack Shafer’s Twitter feed): he refused to attend an off-the-record staff meeting about Williams’ firing following offensive comments he made on Fox News. Instead, Folkenflik pieced together what happened by interviewing some of those who did attend. Based on Folkenflik’s tweets, Schiller seems to have hit the right notes. (I’m running them in chronological order rather than the usual reverse chrono:

The all-staff meeting was off the record, so I did not attend. However, staffers who did told me the following:

Schiller said decision to give Wms notice was not because of slip of the tongue, but latest in a series of violations of NPR ethics policy

Schiller said it had been raised several times but that he continued to inject personal opinon in his analysis in settings outside NPR.

Schiller said at some point, you have to draw the line. (more)

Though she called it the right decision, Schiller also said NPR did not handle Wms’ ouster well. She promised staffers a “full post-mortem.”

Schiller also said she was ambushed leaving her home by a two-person camera crew identifying itself as being from Fox News.

Over and out.

I feel a little better about this than I did yesterday. Schiller did the right thing for the wrong reason at the wrong time. What’s important is that she knows she blew the handling of it. No way she can undo it — not after Fox News rewarded Williams with a three-year, $2 million deal. But at least she seems determined to make the best of a bad situation. It sounds like she’s adopted the views of NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard, who writes that “a more deliberative approach might have enabled NPR to avoid what has turned into a public relations nightmare.”

Here is our discussion of the Williams matter on tonight’s “Beat the Press.” I’m also quoted in a Christian Science Monitor story on the hazards of straddling the reporter/analyst/commentator divide.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.