As has already been established and repeated ad nauseum by every hand-wringing sympathy whore in the wood-paneled halls of the fourth estate, the contours of the professional journalism business are changing rapidly.
Young people don’t read print newspapers. Classified ads are no longer the exclusive domain of local rags. Increased digital revenue is not enough to subsidize the losses. Advertisers are pulling out. Companies are buying out “experienced” reporters and editors to save a few duckets.
Yadda. Yadda. Yadda. We get it.
Among many elders of the journalism tribe, this confluence of events means only one thing:
And instead of focusing on the obvious, though tricky, solution to the business problem (hint: information won’t cost as much to produce when you don’t have to buy paper, ink, trucks, gasoline, printing presses, and the services of dozens or hundreds of people to cart a piece of paper to the front door of a 30-something who wonders why he keeps re-subscribing to a print edition he never reads), these champions of the status quo go searching for ways to keep the old ways alive.
In this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education, retired Fortune journalist Lee Smith says the way to save newspapers is to convince each of the seven richest universities in America — Harvard University, Yale University, Stanford University, Princeton University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Columbia University, and the University of Pennsylvania — to pony up 3% of their endowments to buy the New York Times.
Why? He’s glad you asked:
Why should colleges assume responsibility, or even care about the plight of newspapers? A higher-education institution’s primary obligation is to its particular constituencies, of course, especially to its students. Consider student needs. How would students be able to think about the world beyond the institution’s walls without the constant flow of timely information collected by journalists?
Did you see that? That. Right there. You may have missed it. It went by in a flash. It’s the central misunderstanding of the mass media doomsday cult — that in the absence of the old guard of traditional journalism producers, people will become less curious. As if Linda Greenhouse was collecting those $200,000 a year checks* throughout the 90s as a fucking charity service to get my wheels a-spinnin’. And that without the New York Times and all its trucks, executive travel budgets, print ad salespeople, human resources departments, and ink barrel storage sheds, ol’ Pax Arcana would have jes’ packed up ma things and hitched my way to Californee to pick oranges with the other Okies…
Shorter version: Regardless of the degree of enmity you harbor toward our nation’s young people, the only way Smith’s argument makes sense is if you assume they want to think about “the world beyond the institution’s walls.” And if they want to think about such things, well then there must be a market for it.
To be fair, Smith doesn’t advocate the academic purchase of the New York Times in order to keep the print edition alive. He says it’s the newsgathering backbone of the institution that needs preservation.
But still his idea is ludicrous because it rests on the false assumption that the outdated model of newsgathering-as-part-of-mulitmillion-dollar-corporation is the only one that serves the market or the public.
Newspapers rose to dominance in an era when information typically took days, if not weeks, to advance. They were the fleetest, most agile mass delivery system on the planet for a very, very long time. Now that blue ribbon is pinned on the Internet’s chest. That alone means nothing but opportunity for news gatherers and consumers alike.
We now conclude our lecture. Thank you for listening.
The Wealthiest Colleges Should Acquire ‘The New York Times’ [Chronicle of Higher Education]
*Ed note: I have no idea what Linda Greenhouse made in the 90s. But it was a lot more than I ever sniffed in my newspaper days.