Washington is paying attention to the newspaper crisis. The president has even weighed in. But some worry that any government help would create a conflict of interest. Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), sponsor of The Newspaper Revitalization Act, and Jim Moroney, publisher of The Dallas Morning News discuss what role, if any, the government should play in saving newspapers.
SwellArtist: Common Market
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. In a recent interview with The Toledo Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, President Obama said that today’s media is filled with too much blogosphere, too much opinion and too few facts. Many in the blogosphere were none too thrilled to read that. Obama said he’d be, quote, “happy to look at legislation that would aid newspapers.” Sounds noncommittal, but it got a lot of attention. Everyone wondered are newspapers going to get a bailout? CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and Jack Cafferty perfectly captured the reaction from the newspaper industry.
WOLF BLITZER: None of us who are journalists want to see the government get involved and become the publisher of newspapers.
JACK CAFFERTY: No, that would be a no.
WOLF BLITZER: Yeah.
[LAUGHTER] [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On Thursday, the Congressional Joint Economic Committee held hearings on the future of print. Representative Kevin Brady, Republican from Texas, expressed concern about the watchdogs of government relying on help from government.
REPRESENTATIVE KEVIN BRADY: When you feel like you’re drowning, every lifeline looks good.
REPRESENTATIVE BRADY: But you have to be careful whose boat you’re being pulled into, and if it’s the government’s boat, you know, there’s real repercussions to that from your standpoint, as well. I think we all recognize that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Newspaper Revitalization Act, introduced last March in the Senate, would give newspapers that regularly published local, national and international news the option of becoming tax-exempt nonprofits. Senator Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, sponsored the bill. He says that the many problems at his local paper, The Baltimore Sun, inspired him.
SENATOR BEN CARDIN: Clearly The Baltimore Sun, its parent company is in serious trouble. The local bureaus have been reduced dramatically. You look at the number of articles and it’s dramatically reduced. You look at oversight that you would like to see, not just on your elected officials but on your business leaders, or what’s happening in the commercial centers or what’s happening in our schools or what’s happening in our health centers, all that has been very much reduced, not just in Baltimore but around our country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Some people have called your legislation a bailout for newspapers.
SENATOR CARDIN: I would very much oppose any government bailout of newspapers. Newspapers need to maintain their independence. This is no different than allowing a newspaper to use the same type of a nonprofit status as a church can use or a school can use. I might just point out that most newspapers today are not making a profit, so in reality they are nonprofit.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] In your list of nonprofit organizations you left out public broadcasting. Slate’s media correspondent Jack Shafer recently wrote, quote, “The last thing newspapers need is the sort of help from the government that turns them into NPR, endlessly begging for contributions -
SENATOR BEN CARDIN: [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - pursuing wealthy philanthropists and standing in line for government handouts.”
SENATOR CARDIN: NPR has a very important, valuable role in our community, and we're very fortunate to have the quality of programming that we have by NPR. I am not -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
SENATOR CARDIN: [LAUGHS] I am not trying to duplicate that model. I'm not trying to develop a public newspaper. I'm trying to develop a private newspaper that can have the type of revenue flow to maintain that independence. Quite frankly, I think a community should be able to contribute to their newspaper. It is a public service that’s being provided by papers. They shouldn't have to look to a bottom-line profit.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well Senator Cardin, here’s the thing. We've talked to publishers and editors, we've read lots of editorials about your bill, and I think we can sum up the general response with a headline from The Delaware County Daily Times: “Thanks but no thanks.”
SENATOR CARDIN: If they don't want it, they won't use it. This will not be for all papers. Let me make that clear. This is voluntary. You don't have to use this model. The interesting thing, as I explain what I'm trying to do, many of the people who initially had a knee-jerk reaction against the bill, thinking it was some form of government bailout, say, gee, this makes sense, that this – if a community wants to contribute, why shouldn't they be able to?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Here’s where the rubber hits the road for most editors. Even those who can see a potential in nonprofit status, they can't swallow the fact that under your bill, their editorial pages would no longer be able to make political endorsements. Any newspaper would generally look at their elected representatives and evaluate their performances in advance of elections.
SENATOR CARDIN: They can get involved, as far as evaluating candidates. They can editorialize. The one thing they can't do, in that a nonprofit can't do this, is directly endorse a candidate. And quite frankly, I think that’s a relatively minor role considering the importance of our newspapers today.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It is true that when it comes to national elections, endorsements don't matter so much, but when it comes to local elections, state elections, newspaper endorsements are a huge source of guidance for voters.
SENATOR CARDIN: Well, we might want to test that theory. I'm, I’m not sure that’s totally accurate. But I wanted to make it clear it does not prevent them from editorializing. The only thing they cannot do is make a political endorsement.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Senator, thank you very much.
SENATOR BEN CARDIN: You’re quite welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Senator Ben Cardin is a Democrat from Maryland. Jim Moroney is the publisher of The Dallas Morning News. Jim welcome back to the show.
JIM MORONEY: Thank you. Thanks for having me back.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how important are political endorsements for your paper?
JIM MORONEY: I think they're very important, particularly when you get into state and then local races. For instance, we wrote recommendations in the general election for over 40 different candidates, most of whom, of course, were local. And I talk to people all the time who tell me that I take what you published and it becomes my voting guide.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the endorsement clause is the killer issue for you in Cardin’s Newspaper Revitalization Act?
JIM MORONEY: That to me would be an unacceptable element if for any reason I thought the best thing for this company to do would be to become nonprofit.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So if people could contribute to you and get a tax deduction thereby, but your ability to endorse would be unaffected, that would be fine.
JIM MORONEY: That would be fine. I think we've got to at least explore these things and be sure that we take every opportunity to preserve the scale of journalism that newspaper companies are providing to our country today.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How’s The Dallas Morning News doing?
JIM MORONEY: We are profitable, have remained profitable and basically have no debts, so we're in great shape.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what makes you so great?
JIM MORONEY: [LAUGHS] We have continued to protect as much of our scale of journalists and journalistic resources in this market, adding pages to the paper instead of taking them out. One of the things that we have done is we have gone to our customers and said, look, we need to ask you to pay a greater proportion of the cost of publishing and distributing a newspaper to your home. In so doing, we've reduced our dependency on advertising. The typical model for newspapers has been 80 percent advertising and 20 percent revenue from the people who buy the paper. By this time next year, we'll be something closer to 60/40, maybe even 55/45. To date, we're about 80 percent through all of our renewals, and 92 percent of our subscribers have agreed to pay a higher price, and I'm very proud of that. And I don't think we could have done it had we continued to cut our newsroom or continued to cut pages out of the paper.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, there’s something that I forgot to do when we have conversations like this.
CHORUS SINGING JINGLE: Present and future business models for monetizing the newspaper industry.
JIM MORONEY: [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jim, thank you very much.
JIM MORONEY: And thank you very much. I really enjoyed it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jim Moroney is the publisher of The Dallas Morning News.