Overton: The plight of the news media

BY JON OVERTON | MARCH 12, 2014 5:00 AM

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Some days, it seems as if the news media have a sign around their neck saying “step right up and give this poor, wretched soul a good, firm kick right in the gut as it mourns its bygone golden age and upcoming demise.”

As the last of the once bountiful advertising revenue dries up, the number of reporters continues to fall down, down, down into the bottomless pit of the deep, dark, depressing news hole. This has basically been the not-so-cheery song and dance routine the press has been going through ever since the Great Recession, as recounted Monday night by Robert McChesney, a renowned media analyst and professor at the University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the media’s recent trouble is news to you. A survey by the Pew Research Center found that about two-thirds of the country is effectively oblivious to the media’s budgetary woes. And — oh look — more terrible news for the press: Around one-third of Americans have ditched specific media groups that “no longer serve their needs.”

McChesney pointed to uncertainty facing London’s Guardian newspaper as a sign of the immense trouble the media face. As of October 2012, The Guardian ranked third in the number of unique visitors to its website (36 million) compared with the rest of the world’s newspaper sites. And yet, its editorial staff doesn’t know if it can survive with the diminishing ad revenue it gets from the print edition. Sure, there are online ads, but what little revenue they garner is paltry at best.

Even News Corp gave up after it tried to challenge Google News with a new content aggregator for mobile devices that would include a user fee, but it failed to gain traction with publishers.

All of this is problematic because if even the big boys can’t find a new model to fund investigative and hard-news reporting that a well-functioning republic needs, the public’s ability to make informed decisions is much weaker.

And sure, the paywall at the New York Times seems to be bringing in decent revenue and the critically acclaimed investigative online news site ProPublica is swimming in oodles of money from grants and wealthy donors.

But for a lot of local newspapers serving various sizable metro areas, the news is not good.

The newspaper chain Gannett, which owns the Press-Citizen and Des Moines Register, slashed 226 positions at papers around the country in the late summer of 2013. The Chicago Sun Times scrapped all of its professional photographers and consolidated its suburban reporting staff. The bloodletting isn’t as bad as it used to be, but newspapers, the original source of most reporting remain in a precarious position.

McChesney’s proposed solution is to have the federal government provide every American with a $200 voucher that can be given to any news outlet that puts all content online for free and doesn’t have ads.

Can McChesney’s crazy scheme work? Even though a voucher should get around censorship problems that direct government funding may pose, it’s still going to face an uphill political battle.

It falls to journalists to explain their plight to the public. Without proper funding, the news media cannot afford the expensive projects that hold the powerful accountable and make democracy work. If we want a truly democratic society, somebody has to foot that bill, and without substantial ad revenue, the media need a new source of funding.

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