Desperate battle to save America's struggling newspapers

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AMERICA:The print media is in real trouble and nobody can agree on a way to keep the presses rolling, writes DENIS STAUNTON

IRISH TIMESreaders are not the only ones to receive a commemorative issue this weekend. Yesterday’s Christian Science Monitoris a collector’s item too, its final print edition as a daily paper.

After more than a century of publication, the paper is going weekly – although a slimmed-down daily version will be available online.

Readers of Denver’s 150-year-old Rocky Mountain Newsare less fortunate – the paper has shut down completely, along with more than 120 other US newspapers in the past year.

The Seattle Post-Intelligenceris now available online only, while a number of major regional newspapers – including the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Inquirerand Minneapolis Star-Tribune– have filed for bankruptcy.

National papers are suffering too; the New York Timescould be bankrupt by now without a recent bailout of hundreds of millions of dollars from Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim.

Other papers are shedding staff to stay afloat; 16,000 American reporters lost their jobs last year and a greater number are expected to join them on the dole in 2009.

With advertising revenue collapsing and readers migrating to free news sources on the internet, US newspapers are in such a perilous state that Maryland’s Ben Cardin this week introduced legislation in the Senate aimed at saving what’s left.

“We are losing our newspaper industry. The economy has caused an immediate problem, but the business model for newspapers, based on circulation and advertising revenue, is broken, and that is a real tragedy for communities across the nation and for our democracy,” he said.

“While we have lots of news sources, we rely on newspapers for in-depth reporting that follows important issues, records events and exposes misdeeds. In fact, most if not all sources of journalistic information – from radio to television to the internet – gathers their news from newspaper reporters who cover the news on a daily basis and know their communities. It is in the interest of our nation and good governance that we ensure they survive.”

Cardin’s Bill would allow newspapers to become non-profit organisations, so that advertising and subscription revenue would be tax exempt and private contributions to support reporting or operations could be tax deductible. Newspapers that avail of the tax break would not be allowed to make political endorsements but they would be free to report on politics.

The proposal has received no support in Congress so far and some US media critics are horrified at the prospect of any government role in support of newspapers. The trouble is that, while everyone agrees on the seriousness of the problem facing the industry, nobody can agree on a remedy.

Although the number of websites producing original reporting has grown recently, none devotes the resources to reporting found in traditional US city and regional papers.

As the newspapers disappear and TV news becomes more trivial, many cities have no reporters left to cover city hall, the state house or the courts.

In Washington, newsroom cutbacks mean that fewer organisations have specialist reporters focusing on individual federal agencies or policy areas.

Newspapers that try to charge for content on the web lose out on the relatively meagre revenue that comes from internet advertising and find themselves shut out of the conversation happening online. Other proposals for making money on the web, such as micropayments, are not only difficult to administer but threaten to undermine the internet’s appeal as an intellectual commons accessible to all.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy recently announced a €600 million bailout of his country’s newspapers and John Nichols and Robert McChesney suggested in the Nation this week that the US government should spend $60 billion over the next three years to save US journalism. Their proposals include a $200 (€150) annual tax credit for individuals who subscribe to a newspaper, more funding for public and community broadcasting, and free postage for publications that earn less than 20 per cent of their revenue from advertising.

“Only a nihilist would consider it sufficient to rely on profit- seeking commercial interests or philanthropy to educate our youth or defend the nation from attack. With the collapse of the commercial news system, the same logic applies,” they write.

“Just as there came a moment when policymakers recognised the necessity of investing tax dollars to create a public education system to teach our children, so a moment has arrived at which we must recognise the need to invest tax dollars to create and maintain news gathering, reporting and writing with the purpose of informing all our citizens.”

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