Newspaper endowments wishful thinking?

The news for the newspaper industry isn’t getting any better. The latest in the gloomy parade of layoffs, closures and content reductions come from the New York Times, which has grudgingly terminated 100 employees from the business side of the company’s operations, and is cutting newsroom salaries by 5 percent.

This comes after the [much-bemoaned loss]( of the printed version of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (and almost 90 percent of its staff), the demise of the Rocky Mountain News, the Tucson Citizen and endless anxiety of the many still to come.

We all know the story by now. People today get their information from the Internet, where they have come to expect it to be free. Print products aren’t nearly as relevant in the digital age. Online advertising yields just a fraction of the revenue publishers enjoyed from the print version. Craigslist and other free sites have decimated classified revenue.

The Newspaper Association of America said yesterday that newspaper ad sales dropped nearly $7.5 billion last year.

So newspapers are sick, even dying. But what if they didn’t have to compete by the same rules?

Benjamin Cardin, a Democratic senator from Maryland, earlier this week introduced the Newspaper Revitalization Act, which would make some newspapers eligible for nonprofit status.

“We are losing our newspaper industry,” Cardin said in a statement introducing the bill. “The economy has caused an immediate problem, but the business model for newspapers, based on circulation and advertising revenue, is broken, and that is a real tragedy for communities across the nation and for our democracy.”

Under Cardin’s bill, newspapers would still be able to sell ads, provided the ad space sold does not exceed the space allotted to fulfilling the [paper’s] educational purpose,” which is what would entitle it to nonprofit status.

“Thanks but no thanks,” Alan Mutter writes in his Newsosaur blog. The St. Petersburg Times and the Christian Science monitor, each owned by a nonprofit, are facing the same dire straits as the rest of them, he points out.

With papers like the San Francisco Chronicle and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution losing an estimated $1 million a week (or more), the problem is too deep to be solved by tinkering with the ownership model.

“Non-profit ownership will not save a newspaper — or any other business — if it is consistently losing heavy amounts of money,” Mutter writes.

Cardin’s bill is no panacea, no silver bullet, as policy types like to say. It is a nice gesture. And it could even help some papers stay afloat, if only for a little longer until their benefactors decide, as the Church of Christ, Scientist, did, that the annual loss of millions of dollars was too great to bear. Next month, the Christian Science Monitor is slated to go to an all-digital publication format, the first national newspaper to take that step.

Still, Cardin makes the point that so many who criticize newsrooms as bloated and wasteful operations miss.

“While we have lots of news sources, we rely on newspapers for in-depth reporting that follows important issues, records events and exposes misdeeds,” he said. It’s easy to throw mud in their eyes for plumping up their product with softball features and bogus trend stories, but what makes the good newspapers unique and strong is in jeopardy when you start making deep newsroom cuts.

Cardin may go a little overboard when he goes on to say that “most if not all sources of journalistic information — from radio to television to the Internet — gathers their news from newspaper reporters who cover the news on a daily basis and know their communities.”

But his overall point is well taken: “It is in the interest of our nation and good governance that we ensure they survive.”

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