The resignation of the LA Times’ publisher in a spat with the paper’s new owner, Tribune Corporation, over how profitable a newspaper should be and to what degree that profit should be attained by cutting its news staff, is probably too bad for the paper at the moment, but it’s a symptom of a very big problem for everyone. Everyone, because even people who don’t care to read the paper have to experience the government that a news-poor world entails.
The traditional business model of a paper newspaper, in which readers’ attention is sold to advertisers by placing the ads next to news on a physical page, is broken. One fracture is a very broad withdrawal of public attention from anything that takes very long or much effort to engage with, from music to books and news; another is the IT-driven transformation of text from a product that can be denied to anyone who doesn’t payfor a physical object to a practically non-excludible public good. Still another is a phenomenon not fully understood, which is the much greater difficulty advertisements have drawing attention on a computer screen than on a paper page, evidenced by the flashing ads that now pop up screaming for attention over content on newspaper web pages. And we may also be seeing an example of “Baumol’s cost disease”, the steady increase of the relative cost of products like expert, competent, writing (music performance, in his example) that can’t take advantage of productivity improvements through technology.
There have always been lousy newspapers and only a few good ones; many of the former are no great loss except for local issues. But the LA Times is a great newspaper, well written and probing, with a wonderful tradition of “print it once and print it all” that has generated long, interesting, expensive stories that can help you understand a complicated issue or situation in one sitting. The usual recipes for providing cultural capital in the face of market failure, like government provision, are non-starters in this case: no-one wants Villaraigosa in this business, nor even a California State Department of Public Information, at least not as a newspaper. Some sort of very mechanistic public subsidy program might help keep ‘papers’ alive, but it won’t make anyone read them.
This is not a problem that will be solved by twiddling some media outlet ownership legislation, nor by any other quick fix, and not solving it is simply not OK, as the last few years of public sector disasters indicate. I have no cheerful summary, nor clever policy recommendation to offer. We’re in a lot of trouble here, and without a map.
Feel free to enjoy the rest of your weekend.