Opinion: Daily Journal

Newspapers, in some form, must be saved, but how?

Newspapers refuse to die. On a superficial level, that’s a good thing.

For as long as I can remember, newspaper publishers, editors, and the large corporations that pull the proverbial strings have made innumerable and mostly ill-fated attempts to revive an industry and business plan that began cracking around the edges some 30 years ago.

Now it’s crumbling in chunks.

Newspapers, as we know, were once the gatekeepers that ejected corrupt and vile public officials. They exposed graft and theft. They told us who died and how. They were — and still must be — crucial in maintaining the ideals of individual freedom and liberty and in upholding the tenets of our Constitution.

Newspapers are necessary and indispensable.

But they are failing badly. I shudder to think what local governments and officials are getting away with as major dailies in our own state end city hall and school board beats. As they lay off reporters and not replace them.

Still, newspapers must be saved, but the “how” isn’t close to clear, as opinions about resuscitating this long-suffering patient are as numerous and as disparate as were newspapers in 1920s New York City.

The business model hasn’t changed much since then, really. Newspapers will ultimately become news sites, online-only outlets that make only a fraction of the once-staggering profits produced by the now long-dead print advertising cash cow.

Any and all life-saving strategies must be fluent and sustainable.

A program announced at the Google News Lab Summit, writes Gracy Olmstead of The Federalist, “aims to place 1,000 enterprising young journalists in local newsrooms around the country.”

Report for America, projects architects Charles Sennott and Steven Waldman call it.

Here’s how it would work, Olmstead writes: Emerging journalists will apply to be part of RFA, and newsrooms will apply for help. “RFA will pay 50 percent of that journalist’s salary, with the newsroom paying 25 percent and local donors paying the other 25 percent. That reporter will work in the local newsroom for a year, with the opportunity to renew.

“After the first year, the local news organization will have to pay a larger share of the journalists’ income. But ‘corps members’ in the RFA program will receive continued mentorship and support from the organization after their placements.”

Support comes from the GroundTruth Project and the Google News Lab, The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, Knight Foundation, Galloway Family Foundation, Center for Investigative Reporting, and Solutions Journalism Network.

As Olmstead rightly points out, local journalism is painstaking and oftentimes mind-numbing work, sometimes requiring preternatural tenacity and patience. It’s about covering drawn-out meetings and rec league soccer matches. It’s about covering horrific crimes and accidents at 2 a.m. before falling out of bed a few hours later for a hollow and obligatory speech or an innocuous community parade.

It’s about navigating petty office politics and corporate rules and mandates. It’s about working 14-hour days with the promise of comp time that never comes. It’s about watching capable colleagues leave for no reason other than a corporate demand to streamline and “rightsize.”

And doing all of this for $25,000 a year.

RFA has a ‘service requirement for corps members. “’We think much journalism is public service but we also want RFA corps members to go the extra mile and do service projects in the community,” Olmstead writes, quoting the group’s website. “’In particular, we’re looking to have them work in high schools and middle schools to help start or strengthen student-run news websites, feeds, TV shows, or newspapers.’”

Here’s my worry: The idea flies in the face of the free market. Newspapers are dying because classifieds, real estate ads, etc., have gone online, and they aren’t coming back to print. Dropping nascent reporters in to do a job few want isn’t a long-term strategy, because the core problems with newspapers will continue.

What will happen when the papers come to depend on this newsy Peace Corps? Will publishers turn to government grants and outright appropriations, and, as a consequence, will liberal opinions and bias become unquestioned byproducts of the news-gathering process?

RFA may be a serviceable lifeline, as Olmstead says. But how long will it be before that rope frays and unravels, too?