Investigating the Journalism Crisis

Wednesday’s Senate hearing on the future of newspapers felt more like an autopsy. Call it CSI: Newspapers.

At a time when we need to step back and take a holistic approach to examine the crisis facing journalism, the participants in yesterday’s hearing seemed all too ready to hone in on one culprit: the Internet.In doing so, they were ignoring a vast crime scene, with a slew of villains and victims on every side.

As it unfolded, the hearing began to resemble an interrogation room where the police – or in this case, the Senators – gathered evidence from their key witnesses. The witnesses took sides early on, and an old dichotomy emerged: print versus Web. The Dallas Morning News and the Baltimore Sun versus Google and the Huffington Post. Fingers were pointed, and accusations were made that the Internet has killed print journalism.

Meanwhile, the majority in the room ignored the incriminating evidence that the current challenges facing the newspaper industry are self-inflicted, mostly due to greed and media consolidation. Most large newspaper companies are publicly traded. For decades, Wall Street has demanded these companies return unrealistic profit margins. And thanks to bad policymaking, newspapers have consolidated and slashed staff to maximize profit over the last few decades. Thus, our policymakers and regulators should have also been in the witness chair as accomplices to this crime.

A Case of Bad Behavior

With lax policies encouraging their bad behavior, newspaper companies rushed to buy up more media outlets and took on greater debt, which is why they find themselves overleveraged and having a hard time paying off their debt. Even still, the newspaper industry continues to make an average annual profit margin of 12 to 15 percent. The newspaper properties at companies like McClatchy and Gannett made 21 percent and 18 percent profit margins last year, respectively.

You won’t see newspapers reporting on the bad business decisions made by their own industry. Instead, most newspapers report on their declining ad revenues, giving you the impression they bare no responsibility for their current predicament.

Mounting Evidence

A remarkable thing happened nearly two hours into Wednesday’s hearing. James M. Moroney, publisher and CEO of the Dallas Morning News, gave the senators the evidence they needed to understand what’s really happened to newspapers. He said that newspapers were struggling due to the debt they took on as a result of consolidation.

Sen. Kerry, chairman of the subcommittee, initially picked up on the admission and pressed Moroney on how bad business decisions may have created the crisis in journalism we see today. But quickly thereafter, the blame was shifted back to the Internet and those pesky bloggers.

Case Unclosed

The journalism industry faces short-term and long-term problems. The short-term issue is what will happen to all the closing local newspapers and the journalists who work there. But more critical to this debate is how to create policies that support the production of quality journalism, regardless of platform, by funding the experimentation of emerging media companies.

Wednesday’s hearing spent too much time trying to track down fingerprints on the old, broken model of journalism, when it should have focused on seeking out how to move forward. We need to explore how government policy can help stop the bleeding and help ensure such a crime never happens again. This means searching out long-term solutions that don’t prop up old business models, but instead invest in new ideas.

The most intriguing discussion about the future of news in America came from the two people in the room advocating for new nonprofit news models: Alberto Ibargüen, president of the John S. And James L. Knight Foundation and former publisher of the Miami Herald, and Steve Coll, president of the New America Foundation and former managing editor of The Washington Post. They both made an important case about the need to invest in  experimentation, innovation, and noncommercial media to save journalism.

Pointing fingers aside, it’s key to remember that while newspapers may be threatened, the news is far from dying. There is still much left to discuss and investigate before we draw the chalk outlines on the sidewalk and close the book on this case.