Thursday, December 4, 2008

Newspapers and Public Goods

On Monday, I received my Oregonian with the notice that, starting with that edition, the Metro section would be cease to exist and would become part of the A section. On Blue Oregon, Paul Gronke see it as a sign that it is time to abandon the paper. This is just another indication of the sad trend of dying dailies. Some see this as the inevitable result of market realities and we should let the market decide how and where people get their news. This is wrong.

Markets only 'decide' efficiently if they are complete and this means, among other things, that all costs and benefits of a product are private. But there are clear public goods aspects to newspapers: they provide oversight of government (the 4th estate); they inform the population which, especially in a democracy, leads to better policy; and they enhance community through their coverage of local events.

So why then don't we offer public funding for such a public good just as we do things like parks and schools? I fear for a state that has virtually no professional reporters covering the government, the community, etc. For such a vital role that we assign newspapers we should be much less indifferent to their decline. And, no, blogs are not a good substitute. Nor are the electronic versions of the papers, because without reporters, the web-sites won't have much news.

It is hard to imagine public subsidies to newspapers given the long tradition of leaving it to private market forces (and vast fortunes were once made in the newspaper business when there were few other ways to advertise widely), but I am beginning to worry that the health of our democracy will suffer if we don't start thinking creatively about how to preserve the papers. Look what cable news has done to public discourse and our democracy...

Perhaps we need an on-line national public newspaper similar to NPR. Partly funded by taxpayers, this would ensure that 'print' journalism would continue and could include, as a big part of its mission statement, local state-by-state coverage. I don't know the answer, but I am worried.

1 comment:

Oliver said...

Even if this were a good idea, it's politically unfeasible. And I have to disagree with your assertion that blogs are inferior to newspapers. Talking Points Memo, for example, has done some great investigative journalism. And throughout the writers strike in Hollywood, Nikki Finke's blog deadlinhollywooddaily handily beat the L.A. Times (let alone the industry trades). The demise of print newspapers won't kill investigative journalism any more than the collapse of the record labels has killed music. The methods of distribution are simply going to change. And if you think the public discourse has gotten ugly with the advent of cable news, go and read The Oregonian and The Statesmen circa 1900. Brutal stuff.