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?

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Michael Kinsley, the founder of Slate magazine, one of the earliest online journalism success stories, said that most newspapers are producing so little of value these days that micropayments as an industry-wide model is a pipedream.

“What nobody wants to say is that most newspapers are terrible, and there’s no great loss. I come from Seattle, and I’ll just leave it at that,” he said in a not-so-subtle reference to the now-online-only Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Kinsley’s vision of the future of news hinges largely on advertising, as the Internet model does today, only what he describes is a model of “disaggregation,” where two or three sites might serve the information needs of a community by taking over different areas of the news market. So if you wanted news on local sports you might go to a different site than you would for coverage of city hall.

Newspapers are also up against an image problem, driven in part by the short-sighted pursuit of corporate profit in the years before the Internet became a major threat, but perhaps more seriously by some of the recent high-profile stories the media is widely perceived as having blown, most notably the faulty intelligence used to justify the invasion of Iraq.

“The media has lost the public trust,” said Darrell West, vice president of the Brookings Institution.

West, a new-media enthusiast, has few concerns about in-depth local coverage surviving in the digital age, because everyone’s doing it. News is simply a more participatory process these days, and consumers of news don’t like to be told by an editor in Washington or New York what the most important story is or how it should be told.

“They don’t like top-down journalism. It’s a bottom-up era,” West said. “News reporting now has become democratized.”

He admitted that that doesn’t solve the riddle of funding investigative journalism, the type that can require a team of reporters months and sometimes years to produce.

West said he liked the idea of a universal press pass, where newspapers and magazines could band together to put their the high-quality investigative work that is beyond the scope of the typical blogger behind some kind of pay wall. To facilitate that kind of cooperation, he said, would only require the federal government to “suspend the antitrust rules for a day.”

Some newspaper representatives floated that idea of a limited antitrust exemption at a Senate subcommittee hearing earlier this month, but that spaghetti might not stick, either.

“I’ll just make a political observation,” Cardin said in response to West’s idea of an antitrust holiday. “It’s going to be difficult to pass my bill, impossible to pass what you’re saying.”

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