Times Editorial = Downright Stupid
Posted by Allison Fine on January 29, 2009
Lately I’ve felt a little sorry for the New York Times. I know that probably doesn’t mean much to them, but they just seem so sad and lost. I read about their lost advertising dollars and watch the paper shrink to about half the size it was five years ago, and so feel doubly determined to march out into the snow, dig the paper out and read it every morning. It feels almost patriotic to sit at the kitchen table and flip through the pages that make my fingers dirty, even as angst filled as they are.
Then this morning there was an editorial, News You Can Endow, and it’s so stupid and misguided that I want to throw the whole paper back out onto the driveway into the snow. So, newspapers are a sacred trust that now require tax exempt status to survive according to the authors, David Swensen and Michael Schmidt, neither of whom are journalists or nonprofit professionals. Instead one manages the financial portfolio at Yale that lost nearly 30% of it’s value last year and the other is a “financial analyst” whatever that means. But they are fully qualified, according to the Times to pontificate about the future of journalism and the appropriateness of providing tax exempt status for newspapers. More than a whiff of desperation drifts upward from my paper and I can only imagine what Jeff Jarvis and Jay Rosen must be thinking!
I am not a journalist or an expert on that subject, although it does seem odd to me that panicked debate about the future of newspapers seems to be centered on its form – whether it will survive in hardcopy or not – and not on the more fundamental question of whether people will pay for quality news, which is yes. Maybe not as many as before, but there are still a fundamental core of newspaper readers, like me, who would like to flip through the pages while eating their oatmeal.
But the question that I am qualified to answer is whether endowing newspapers and conveying upon them nonprofit status is a good idea. And it isn’t, it’s a stupid idea.
The stupidity begins with these sentences, “the Internet has the potential to be, in the words of the chief executive of Google, Eric Schmidt, “a cesspool” of false information. If Jefferson was right that a well-informed citizenry is the foundation of our democracy, then newspapers must be saved.”
So, the fundamental premise of the need to endow newspapers and preserve them at public expense is that false information exists on the Internet? Of course it does, as it does on TV, on the radio (should we also consider endowing Rush?) in magazines, and in many, many newspapers. Which media would the authors like to choose as being least likely to contain false information? And which medium do they think did the best job of bringing the lies and corruption of the Bush Administration to light — hint, don’t look at newspapers, Josh Micah Marshall and his Talking Points Memo website would be a much better bet.
So, the fundamental premise that only newspapers can hold government accountable is specious. But that isn’t my biggest issue with the article. It is the naive assumption from those outside of the nonprofit sphere that 1) nonprofit status is intended for companies that don’t have a viable business model, and 2) raising billions of dollars in endowment funds is doable, particularly in today’s economy.
The very best outcome for this scenario would be that a national icon of quality journalism (although I didn’t feel that way over breakfast today!) might be able to raise endowment funds, but that the rest of those poor suckers out there would be lost. Not exactly a prescription for saving and rewewing an important resource.
Often times when groups are in panick they spend far too much time having the wrong conversation. This is the wrong one. Newspapers need to reinvent themselves as part of their communities, as a focal point for conversations about issues that are important to their readers (or more accurately, their users) and they need to form partnerships with local bloggers who can supplement their reporting rather than disdaining their efforts.
Hey, Times, stop the panic, start the conversation!
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