Just when bought-out and laid-off American journalists are prepping their fast-food pitch, “Would you like Freedom Fries with that Recession-Priced Burger?” French President Nicholas Sarkozy is throwing journalists a lifeline. Surely, Sarkozy’s power starts and stops within his country’s borders, but his stunning action may stir fresh thinking here in the US, and speed the pace of initiatives already well into action.
Sarkozy laid out these plans, given good context in the Guardian:
• A subsidy of $775 million dollars (600M Euros) over three years;
• Free one-year newspaper subscription to every 18-year-old in France. (Let them eat newsprint!?!)
• An extension of tax breaks for investors in online journalism;
• Doubling of government advertising in print and online news media;
• Non-French investors will be able to increase their stakes in French newspapers;
• The number of print distribution points, constrained by law, wll be expanded.
• With printing the most expensive proposition for French newspapers, Sarkozy has pledged to support negotiations with printers' unions that might lowere costs by 30-40%.
Already, the French press has seen about 10% of its revenues coming from the government, so the initiative ups the ante, but doesn’t necessarily break major new ground philosophically.
Yes, the form of the subsidy does seem strange to those of us who watch news consumption trends. We know that young people – especially those in their 20s -- take in lots of news, but they do it online. They understand intuitively that’s where the latest news lives. Online is their preference. They have nothing against newsprint; it just seems so yesterday.
For a moment, though, let’s look beyond the ways Sarkozy is fashioning his lifeline. The idea of government support of the press is itself anathema to Americans. Sure, legal/public records advertising has long been a nice little support of the local press. And public radio’s been able to get a few public funds for news production, through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. But: government dollars to the profit-making daily press. Unthinkable.
The world, though, is changing. Talk to daily publishers and their dark humor extends to the transition from profitable to "profit-seeking” companies, as papers like the Boston Globe lose as much as a $1 million a week and others have crossed the line into the red. So while the Global Posts and MinnPosts are plainly asking for voluntary public support of their journalism, it’s kind of unthinkable for your daily newspaper to do the same. Yes, it has seemed unthinkable, just as unthinkable as the closures of newspapers, the cessation of home delivery, the massive staff cuts and the offering of subpar products to readers.
So I expect that much that’s been unthinkable is becoming thinkable, and Sarkozy’s high-profile move may capture some imagination here.
As we think the about the growing gap between the journalism we need and the journalism that traditional revenues is making possible, I think there are four areas to consider, for now:
• Foundation Funding: Community foundations have been instrumental in the starting and feeding of such sites as MinnPost and Voice of San Diego. For these foundations, it’s a simple proposition. One of the essentials of community life is good public information, so they are helping found these start-ups. Foundations are of course private money, but they can receive government money. So, as we speak, there are activists at the national level in talks to see if some of that federal government stimulus money could be funneled to community foundations and then to local news-producing start-ups.
• Taxes on News-Related Technology: So if the news so badly wants to be free, we’re still dependent on paying lots of money to get to the “free” news. We pay for our desktops, laptops, iPhones and Blackberries. Similarly, we pay big monthly bills for high-speed Internet service. How about a tax on some of those news conduits, with allocation formulas (traffic?) to be decided. The French aren't the old ones diverting tax dollars to the press; the BBC has long derived its major funding from a tax on UK TV sets.
• The Wealthy Write a Few Big Checks: The Seattle P-I lost $14 million in 2008 and the Rocky Mountain News about $20 million. Both may well close soon. Couldn’t Bill Gates and a few of his friends just write a check for $28 million and buy two years for the P-I, understanding that two years keeps the enterprise alive as the society figures out exactly what the value of news media is and how to pay for it? Even with the super-recession, there are thousands of people who could provide such “emergency” funding. Does anyone have any doubt that this is now a press emergency?
• Members Replace Subscribers: Clearly, many readers value their newspapers and those papers’ online sites. As we see with NPR, MinnPost, and I think we will see with Global Post, people will voluntarily pay for news. But first you have to ask them. If it’s historically thinkable for some media, it may well become more thinkable for more media. Sure, pricing up print subscriptions and single newspaper copies may make good economic sense in the short-term, but doesn’t answer long-term dilemmas. The point: news media need to make their cases and rethink their relationships with readers. Advertisers – in print and online – are fine, but they shouldn’t determine what we all do – or don’t – get the opportunity to read and know.