why is there no ABC newspaper?

In response to the ongoing collapse of the newspaper industry in the US – and the signs that something similar will soon take place here – the case for a public-funded newspaper seems at least as strong as that for a public TV or radio broadcaster. Here’s the current state of play in America.

Even before the recession hit, the newspaper industry was facing a mortal threat from the rise of the Internet, falling circulation and advertising revenue, and a long-term decline in readership, as the habit of buying a daily paper dwindled from one generation to the next. The recession has intensified these difficulties, plunging newspapers into a tailspin from which some may not recover and others will emerge only as a shadow of their former selves. The devastation is already substantial. At the Los Angeles Times, the cumulative effect of cutbacks has been to reduce its newsroom by one-half–and that was before its parent company, Tribune, declared bankruptcy. Another company weighed down by debt, the McClatchy chain, which includes The Sacramento Bee, The Miami Herald, and twenty-eight other dailies, has laid off one-quarter of its workforce in the past year; according to one executive, the editorial downsizing is under 20 percent but is now cutting “close to the bone.” And highly leveraged media companies are not the only ones that are retrenching. At the largest daily in New Jersey, The Star-Ledger, 45 percent of the editorial staff took buyouts in October when the owner, Advance Publications, threatened to sell the paper if its targets for cuts were not met.

Newspapers are also shrinking in numbers of pages, breadth of news coverage, features of various kinds, and home delivery of print editions. All over America, as newspaper revenues plummet–by the end of 2008, ad sales were down about 25 percent from three years earlier–publishers cannot seem to shed editors, reporters, and sections of their papers fast enough. And there is more pain to come. According to a December forecast by Barclays Capital, advertising revenue will drop another 17 percent in 2009 and 7.5 percent more the year after. Even The New York Times, which has seen its cash reserves fall and its debt downgraded, is unlikely to escape the massive contraction now accelerating throughout the industry.

Why does this matter? The New Republic article continues:

Drawing on studies conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, Tom Rosenstiel, the project’s director, says that as of 2006 a typical metropolitan paper ran seventy stories a day, counting the national, local, and business sections (adding in the sports and style sections would bring the total closer to a hundred), whereas a half-hour of television news included only ten to twelve. And while local TV news typically emphasizes crime, fires, and traffic tie-ups, newspapers provide most of the original coverage of public affairs. Studies of newspaper and broadcast journalism have repeatedly shown that broadcast news follows the agenda set by newspapers, often repeating the same items, albeit with less depth.

Online there is certainly a great profusion of opinion, but there is little reporting, and still less of it subject to any rigorous fact-checking or editorial scrutiny. Other than news aggregators such as Google News–which link to articles from publications that still derive most of their revenue from print–the most successful news sites are oriented to specialized audiences. No online enterprise has yet generated a stream of revenue to support original reporting for the general public comparable to the revenue stream that newspapers have generated in print.

Salon has a similar piece, also stressing the social function that newspapers play. Blogs give good opinion but they rest, for the most apart, upon facts gathered elsewhere – and that elsewhere is overwhelmingly the press. Besides, the difference between old-school newspapers and the online publications that have supplanted them is qualitative as much as quantitative. Consider this leaked internal memo from the ballyhooed  e-mag Politico. Politico is supposed to hold the machinations of America’s rulers up to the light yet its proprietors tell employees:


Stories need to be both interesting and illuminating–we don’t have the luxury of running stories folks won’t click on or spend several minutes with in the paper.

a) Would this be a “most e-mailed” story?

b) Would I read this story if I hadn’t written it?

c) Would my mother read this story?

d) Will a blogger be inspired to post on this story?

e) Might an investor buy or sell a stock based on this story?

f) Would a specialist learn something from this story?

g) Will my competitors be forced to follow this?

IN MOST CASES, THE ANSWER WILL BE “YES” TO SEVERAL OF THESE QUESTIONS IF THIS IS A STRONG POLITICO STORY. If you are not certain that several of these are “yes,” you can reframe your reporting and analysis so people will say, “POLITICO is reporting…” or “The way POLITICO put it is…”

If your friends or source are buzzing about something related in any way to public affairs, don’t ask yourself WHETHER it’s a Politico story. Ask yourself HOW you can make it a Politico story, to capture built-in traffic and mindshare.

That’s a recipe for gossip and scandal rather than in-depth news.

Anyway, all that’s by way of intro to the Crikey piece I wrote a couple of days back. The more I think about it, the more obvious it seems. The collapse of newspapers is not the result of technological change. It’s a market failure — and we need a planned response.

In a recent Salon piece, Gary Kamiya starkly presents the dire state of the traditional newspaper. As he says, 2008 was an unprecedently awful year for the publishers of newspapers, whose shares fell, on average, 83%. The market value of newspapers fell a dizzying $64.5 billion.

Though newspaper proprietors are, by and large, an unlovely lot, the dire state of their businesses should still concern the rest of us. Why? Because, to date, no one has stepped forward with a digital alternative to old-fashioned newspapers. As Kamiya says, despite the proliferation of online media, the vast majority of stories still originate with the press. Despite some notable exceptions, the majority of bloggers and web publications offer commentary more than reporting. There’s no obvious online model to fund newshounds pounding a beat: it’s much cheaper to aggregate existing content and pay freelancers to opinionate.

In Australia, the death of the press might still seem largely hypothetical. But you can already see the early symptoms of the fatal disease, not least in the massive job cuts taking place in both Murdoch and Fairfax.

What to do? In passing, Kamiya mentions David Swensen and Michael Schmidt’s recent proposal that newspapers become non-profit, endowed organisations which philanthropists could fund in the same fashion they do US colleges and universities. It’s an intriguing idea. The reason we care about the state of newspapers is that we see them as possessing, in all the ways Kamiya explains, a social function extending beyond the revenue they earn for their proprietors. Hospitals can be run for profit, too, but, because we think a health service matters, we don’t leave our sick to the market’s tender mercies.

As soon as you make that comparison, the conclusion leaps out. American-style philanthropy is all very well but, if, here in Australia, the state supports a TV and radio network, why shouldn’t it also fund a newspaper?

All the arguments that justify state funded electronic media apply even more so to the press. If, without a taxpayer funded television channel, there’d be no quality drama, news or current affairs on TV, it’s increasingly clear that, without some new model, the in-depth reporting that once came from the broadsheets will vanish. ABC television and ABC radio are no longer enough, since the written word can do things that images or sound can not, conveying ideas of far greater complexity or subtlety.

A state-run newspaper might conjure up visions of Pravda, but it shouldn’t. We’re all accustomed to government funded TV, and there’s no reason why editorial independence in print should entail any different challenges.

So how might a government paper happen?

You wouldn’t need to forcibly nationalise the Australian and send its commentators to mine salt (as satisfying as that might be). The process could be as simple as building on ABC radio’s websites. Because a government-run newspaper would not need advertising revenue, the new publication could function without a dead-tree version: it could, in other words, support salaried reporters in a way that other online ventures simply can’t. Unencumbered by the costs of print and distribution, it wouldn’t necessarily even be tremendously expensive.

What’s more, though serious news journalism would be its main charter, a government funded publication could also provide a forum for other services once provided by the press. For instance, across the US, newspaper book reviewing is utterly collapsing. That’s going to happen here, too — indeed, rumours suggest that the Fairfax book pages might get the chop sooner rather than later. If, as a society, we think that a literary culture matters, why not hang a review magazine off the back of a government newspaper?

You could make the same argument for other sections, too.

Of course, all of this runs into the sand as soon as you actually think about the Rudd government and the likelihood of it adopting a proposal requiring a modicum of boldness. But that doesn’t mean the idea itself doesn’t warrant consideration.


Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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  1. Yes, great idea.

    I suppose one problem is that it might politicize the ABC even more. Papers usually have at least a loose political stance, and the independent status of the ABC (if it is that these days – I remember vaguely from ‘Silencing Dissent’ that the ABC neutrality has sometimes been contentious) would have a further political element to heat up matters. The 7:30 Report and Lateline work well enough, anyhow. Still, I’d enjoy it seeing it happen.

    You should make some noise about this idea – I think it’s worthwhile.

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