Democracy is Worth a Subscription
March 25, 2009 5:18 PM
I had a terrible dream last night. In the absence of my daily printed newspaper, I went online to find this:
The Wisconsin State Journal passed away today very much expectedly after a long and courageous battle with the free market. Signs of the end came in mid March when the venerable old publication, which had grown thinner by the month, was reduced to a shopper sized hint of its former self. The Journal's loss was mourned by friends and foes alike, who now say they miss its presence on their doorstep every morning. The Journal is survived by its child, Madison.com, and by two grandchildren, the State Journal and Cap Times websites. It had a good, long run. May it rest in peace.
After waking from my nightmare, I opened the downsized version of Madison's only remaining daily print newspaper. It's just the latest indication of an accelerating trend in journalism. Daily newspapers are starting to fall fast, with papers in Denver and Seattle going out of print in the last few weeks while dozens of others teeter on the doorstep of death.
It's time for me and others who love them to face the fact that the daily print newspaper is going extinct. As sad as that is this should not mean the death of good journalism. After all, good reporting and editing doesn't depend on the medium through which it is delivered. In the end, what difference does it make if a well reported and edited news story is presented in ink and paper or electronically?
The problem is that the retrenchment in newspapers is coming not just at the expense of the presses but also at the expense of the editorial staffs. That is the real disaster, but it's understandable given the dramatic loss in revenues newspapers are experiencing.
So, here's a modest proposal. Charge me. Please charge me. Why is it that I should expect to pay for news delivered on paper, but not expect to pay for the same story I read online? It costs something to hire reporters and editors and why shouldn't I, as a consumer of the news, pay for some of that cost?
So first and foremost, charge me. Second, charge me twice. Competition is a good thing. The blending of our two daily newspapers into one is not a healthy thing. When I see a Cap Times byline in the State Journal I wonder what that means. I know who wrote it, but who edited it? And what does it mean for competition between the papers? Are reporters tripping over one another to break a story or are they sleepily cooperating?
I'd rather not have just one daily news outlet. It would be better for democracy if there were a bunch. So, I'll pay to subscribe to both "papers" as long as both are hiring good reporters and competing against each other. I'm betting that for all the scrutiny and tough questions and pure aggravation that professional journalists present me with, in the long-run I'm better off with a well-informed constituency. And whether or not I am personally better off as a mayor, I know democracy itself depends on it.