An open letter to President Obama – Stay out of the newspaper business

Steven Hodson

See that slippery slope over there?

That's the slope you will slide down President if you even consider any legislation to "rescue" the newspaper industry. It is a never ending slope that will morph into a bigger albatross around your neck than even the healthcare debate and the war in Afghanistan. With each of those two things there is a definite end point that will be reached.

The healthcare issue will either be solved or it will disappear into Congressional and Presidential history as yet another attempt as it did with Clinton. The war in Afghanistan will end at some point with either the total removal of troops due to political and public pressure or because of some type of victory – limited or otherwise.

With newspapers there is no endpoint other than withering on the vine. The industry is in a battle of Darwinian evolutionary change and no amount of ‘government' intervention can change that. Even now predictions still suggest that the money drain isn't slowing as the industry looks to an additional drop in advertising revenue by 25% in the third quarter.

In an interview with the editors of the Toledo Blade you said

"Journalistic integrity, you know, fact-based reporting, serious investigative reporting, how to retain those ethics in all these different new media and how to make sure that it's paid for, is really a challenge," Mr. Obama said. "But it's something that I think is absolutely critical to the health of our democracy."

"Journalistic integrity, you know, fact-based reporting, serious investigative reporting, how to retain those ethics in all these different new media and how to make sure that it's paid for, is really a challenge," Mr. Obama said. "But it's something that I think is absolutely critical to the health of our democracy."

It is not the responsibility of the government President Obama to codify into law that journalistic integrity, fact-based reporting be supported by an increasingly outmoded method of delivery. Because that is all newspapers are Mr. President – they are delivery system for something we have been doing for hundreds of years. From the Town Crier to the first newspapers printed to the revolution of the Internet we have had a basic need to share the events of the day – except now we can do it as it is actually happening.

If you are concerned about what is critical to the health of your democracy don't look to businesses that are resistant to change to the point that they are willing to doom their profit machines to the trash heap. Instead look to those companies that want to find new economic models that will support them as we grow into a new world of information distribution. Democracy is only as strong as the people and companies that flourish under it. When democracy relies on support from business that are dying from internal rot it can become just as infected.

Part of that innovation that strengthens your democracy are the cornerstones of the new media: blogs, Twitter, Facebook and news organizations that are truly trying to come to grips with the news ways of distributing news. Yet as Michael O'Brien quotes you in a post you seem to think those things are less important than ‘traditional news'

"I am concerned that if the direction of the news is all blogosphere, all opinions, with no serious fact-checking, no serious attempts to put stories in context, that what you will end up getting is people shouting at each other across the void but not a lot of mutual understanding," he said.

"I am concerned that if the direction of the news is all blogosphere, all opinions, with no serious fact-checking, no serious attempts to put stories in context, that what you will end up getting is people shouting at each other across the void but not a lot of mutual understanding," he said.

I find this dichotomy of thinking hard to understand given that it was your use of these very tools and services that helped propel you into the White House. Yet you would have us believe that blogs aren't capable of doing the same, or better, jabs as newspapers do. Michael Masnick from Techdirt eloquently provides a counter argument:

First, it seems odd to lump the medium in with a certain type of reporting. There are plenty of "real reporters" who do plenty of "serious fact-checking" within the blog world too. Blogs are just a publishing medium. Yes, because there's a lower barrier to entry, you do end up with a much larger absolute number of bloggers, many of whom are just giving opinion. But the idea that there aren't blogging reporters is pure folly. In fact, I'd argue that the serious blogs on certain subjects to a lot more to "put stories in context" than your average newspaper reporter, who writes up a quick take and moves on to the next big thing. Topic-specific blogs are often much more accurate, much more detailed, and much more willing to focus on context than newspaper reporting.

First, it seems odd to lump the medium in with a certain type of reporting. There are plenty of "real reporters" who do plenty of "serious fact-checking" within the blog world too. Blogs are just a publishing medium. Yes, because there's a lower barrier to entry, you do end up with a much larger absolute number of bloggers, many of whom are just giving opinion. But the idea that there aren't blogging reporters is pure folly. In fact, I'd argue that the serious blogs on certain subjects to a lot more to "put stories in context" than your average newspaper reporter, who writes up a quick take and moves on to the next big thing. Topic-specific blogs are often much more accurate, much more detailed, and much more willing to focus on context than newspaper reporting.

The idea that newspapers are some sort of paragon of virtue and independence is ridiculous as we have seen with major organizations being hit by plagiarism and increasing polarization. To suggest that just because a single individual who devotes their time and energy in a particular news niche is of any less value or brings less to the table than any news organization is wrong. Blogs and even services like Twitter are the beginnings of a new news distribution and a re-alignment of the economics surrounding the reporting and delivery of the news.

For too long now ‘traditional' news media have behaved as if they have some iron grip on the news when in fact their head in the sand approach to new technology has only hastened their demise that as Jack Shafer suggests started happening before the "new media" of the Internet began hitting its stride.

Remember, the decline of newspapers is multifactorial, and it didn't start yesterday. As early as 1992, Warren Buffett was counseling investors against newspapers, saying they had already lost their economic advantage. This was a full three or four years before the commercial World Wide Web took off.

Remember, the decline of newspapers is multifactorial, and it didn't start yesterday. As early as 1992, Warren Buffett was counseling investors against newspapers, saying they had already lost their economic advantage. This was a full three or four years before the commercial World Wide Web took off.

Just as you campaign on the idea of "a coming change" so to must the news industry finally realize that no amount of government help, non-profit classification, or instituting paywalls is going to stop the coming change that will sweep them up as well. Just as there is suppose to be a separation between church and state there also needs to be a separation between government and journalism.

Journalism will always survive and will continue to a cornerstone of democracy as you phrase it. It will survive because it is an integral part of our DNA – the desire to collect and share information – to let our fellow citizens know what is happening in our world. That desire has nothing to do with archaic delivery methods and no amount of intervention will change that.

So Mr. President do yourself, us, and the industry a favor – stay out of the newspaper business.

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