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All Options on the Table for News in the Net Age

Online news business

WASHINGTON -- For all the nervous talk these days about the future of news, newspapers and quality journalism in the digital age, the old pearl about throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks seems to get at the heart of it.

At panel discussions like the one the Brookings Institution held today, smart people with deep ties to the news business hash over their conceptions of old media transitioning to new, concerns about what might be lost in the process, and what -- if anything -- should be done about it.

But unlike some other corners of the debate, none of today's speakers claimed his idea was the panacea for the news business.

The basic concern is familiar by now. The Internet, for all it does so well, has yet to produce a business model capable of sustaining the in-depth and investigative reporting produced by the best of newspapers. With newsrooms thinning out and some papers going all-digital or folding entirely, people like Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., are concerned that there won't be anyone left to hold business and local governments across the country accountable, a role that has traditionally fallen to local newspapers.

"What I'm interested in doing is preserving local journalism," Cardin said. "And I think we've got to get a different economic model if it's going to work."

Cardin has introduced the Newspaper Revitalization Act, which would amend the tax code to clarify newspapers' eligibility for nonprofit status. Newspapers run under the aegis of nonprofits exist today, such as the Poynter Institute's St. Petersburg Times and the Christian Science Monitor, which is published by the First Church of Christ, Scientist, and is now exists in print only as a weekly. According to Cardin, creating a separate designation in the 501(c)(3) section of the tax code would eliminate the ambiguity that has scared some potential contributors away.

"There are newsrooms today that operate under nonprofit rules but it's difficult to attract community support under the current laws, because the IRS is likely to challenge," he said. Cardin admitted that the nonprofit model would not be a good fit for all newspapers, describing it as one of a menu of options that could be available for beleaguered publishers.

He was also was quick to assure the audience that his bill, which some in the anti-newspaper camp have characterized as a bailout, is anything but.

"I don't want to see government interfere with our press, that's why I oppose any direct bailout," he said. "A direct bailout would be wrong."

The term "bailout," now pejoratively linked to the banking and auto industries deemed too big to fail, is emotionally charged and very likely politically untenable, particularly for an industry that employs as small a percentage of the workforce as journalism.

So, in the spirit of spaghetti on the wall, that one might not stick.

[cob:Special_Report]Another prong of the debate centers around free vs. paid content. Walter Isaacson, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute and the former editor of Time and CEO of CNN, has been one of many prominent media figures to float the idea of a micropayments system. Such a regime could entail users paying a token amount to read news on a per-article basis, or it could be some form of universal, subscription-based news pass.

Like Cardin, Isaacson made it clear that micropayments are not a universal solution to the newspaper publishers' woes. For the glut of commodity reporting newspapers now produce, where slight variations of the same story show up in many different papers, he readily admits that it wouldn't work. According to Isaacson, the idea of paid content -- whether online or off -- is rooted in a fundamental value proposition.

"If you're creating something that people are not willing to pay for, then you're not creating something of value," he said. "If you are creating something of value, then people are willing to pay for it. That's the basic rules of the marketplace."

Page 2: No great loss?