Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Future of Newspapers

The industry that was once my career intention (reporter) seems to be fading quick. Growing up I wanted to be a journalist. I loved to write, loved to learn, and yearned (unintentional rhyme, I promise) to expose and uncover shading dealings, break earth-shattering stories in the world, and investigate my pants off. Yet I realized I liked to write more when it came to creative writing, as opposed to investigative reporting, and I found I enjoyed more the process of teaching others to investigate and write, than I did doing it myself or learning it from others. It took a few years, but I realized that my passions are writing and teaching, and not necessarily reporting. But in this current economic environment, I'm left wondering where I would be if I had stuck with my original intention and became a newspaper reporter.

Not only is the industry hard-pressed to find truly 'talented' people, but they have a surplus of 'talent' coming through their doors every year. Before the bust, newspaper journalism had three times as many reporters as they needed, and had well over three hundred people apply for every opening, which, as a standard earning amount, is at a job that earns far less than most others.

I had a friend who squeaked by on his $23,000 year reporting gig while he substitute taught on his days off and held down some early morning work (which was actually late-night work since he worked 3-11 p.m. for the paper usually) as a server at a breakfast joint. He complained of little free time, little money, and tons and tons of stress. Yet he stuck with it because it was his passion and like me, he yearned to find that story that would expose this catastrophe and he would be exulted and praised for years to come. That story never came and he was laid off last year and is currently working as a 30-hour-week administrative assistant at lawn and gardening supply center, which, as I can imagine, is pretty slow work during the colder months and in this economy can't be very prosperous during the warmer months.

Warren Buffet recently said that he would not invest in the newspaper industry because he doesn't know where their end will finally stop. He sees many others going out of business and more than that switching to totally online formats or filing for tax exemption and non-profit status (which is something I have long blogged about as the answer to newspapers' woes). If the world's greatest investor (and as I stated yesterday, an intelligent, leading liberal in the capitalist world) sees no bottom in sight for newspapers, but does for housing and unemployment, it's time for a radical shift.

Which brings me to a quick sidenote. Did you know that if a newspaper does file to be a non-profit, advertisers can still advertise in the paper, and for a fraction of the cost? They simply make a donation to the paper instead of pay them to run their ad. Seems a no-brainer considering the advertising company can write off their tax-deductible donation and the paper receives the additional funds at no penalty and can only expand and grow from there.

The main problem though is funding. To make every newspaper in the US a non-profit would be equal to the cost of the war in Iraq, although roughly only the cost of 45 days there.

End the war; improve literacy! That should be our nation's mantra at the moment, but there's still plenty of work to be done, lots of criminals to persecute, and a world still brittle because of strained relations and old disputes.

In addition, the amount of funding for a newspaper only allows it to remain at half of its current size, and may not provide the funding to maintain an online presence. Each newspaper would then be forced to generate enough donations to keep its online presence strong or choose between print or online publishing a few days per week. Plus, no newspaper would be able to charge subscription fees for online usage, nor could they place classifieds inside their pages. As a non-profit, that becomes a conflict of interest. The only loophole I see is to link on a published edition to an outsourced classifieds webpage still operated by the newspaper, but external from its non-profit operations. A loophole yes, but one that I doubt few people would get up-in-arms about.

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