Journalism students spend little time in school before encountering the 1787 quotation from Thomas Jefferson to the effect that he “should not hesitate to prefer the latter” if confronted with the option of a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government.
Actually, it’s in reporters’ DNA.
Yet, two financial experts from Yale University posit in a January 28 New York Times op-ed, “Today, we are dangerously close to having a government without newspapers” as the newspaper industry continues to shrivel in light of sagging profit margins, disappearing audiences, and fierce competition from online sources.
A satisfactory solution to newspaper malaise? “Turn them into nonprofit, endowed institutions – like colleges and universities,” David Swensen and Michael Schmidt argue in “News You Can Endow.” No more reliance simply on advertising and circulation revenues and classified ads, all of which are pulling a disappearing act.
The academics say newspapers’ efforts to stem the flow by refinancing debt, issuing equity, and disposing of nonessential assets [Editor's note: like reporting staffs?] amount to “short-term solutions to a systemic problem, Band-Aids for a gaping wound.”
Warning of “grave consequences” from continued newspaper down-sizing, they caution that “as long as newspapers remain for-profit enterprises, they will find no refuge from their financial problems.” Going digital is no panacea, they say.
They recommend endowing newspapers as we do colleges and universities, making them “unshakable fixtures of American life, with greater stability and enhanced independence that would allow them to serve the public good more effectively.”
Like libraries and others charged with promoting social welfare, they would be exempt from taxes on income, and those making contributions would get tax deductions.
Small cost, they argue, that such endowed newspapers would have to give up endorsing candidates for public office. They still would be free to engage in debate on important policy issues.
Swensen and Schmidt also write that such endowments could “promote journalistic independence,” freeing them from the need to “produce profits or placate advertisers” … and with no pressures from stockholders.
“Many newspapers will not weather the digital storm on their own,” they conclude. They ask “enlightened philanthropists” to act soon to endow “our nation’s premier news-gathering organizations” … or else “watch a vital component of American democracy fade into irrelevance.”
The authors don’t specifically address that such an endowed newspaper industry inevitably would be “less free” than the range of freedom specified in the First Amendment. On the other hand, one might argue, a dead newspaper is even less free than an endowed one no longer able to endorse political candidates.