So upon hearing news this week that the Austin-American Statesman will be put up for sale, my first reaction, posted as a comment on The Good Life blog, was that:
I think the City of Austin should purchase it and put it in trust with professioal management the way Green Bay, Wisconsin did with their football team. Nobody else who can afford to buy it will do anything but slash it to pieces.To me, daily newspapers are a national treasure as important to sustaining democracy and public life as water and air are to keeping us all upright and breathing. Certainly blogging would not exist as it does today if bloggers didn't have daily journalists' work to build upon. So-called "citizen journalism" is a good thing, but some projects only get done if you have a pro on the job. Despite the rise of disparate additional media that cut into ad revenues and shrunk the newshole drastically, the Statesman remains the central information source for the largest number of engaged citizens and opinion leaders in Central Texas and a critical spearpoint for public conversation .
I'd personally support a bond issue to purchase the paper and establish an independent trust with its own, dedicated board to manage the project. Public ownership would give the paper many options for distribution and synergy that are closed to a private entity. And a charter for the paper could be crafted that dedicated it to reporting in the public service, bucking the trend of treating news items as entertainment and giving the public better coverage all the way around. If the paper is sold, odds are both staff and the newshole will be further slashed and diminish overall reportage.
The main reason newspapers like the Statesman are losing money is people are accessing their content for free online. So by providing taxpayer support for journalism, purchasing the paper would overcome the "free rider problem" created for papers by web technology.
Besides convincing taxpayers it's a worthy investment, the hardest part of such a deal might be structuring the entity so it's editorially independent - boardmembers couldn't be appointed by the City Council, for example, and remain credibly separate from the city power structure. I don't have a clear idea how that might work, but I'll bet it could be done. The Green Bay City Council, after all, doesn't interfere with the Packers game plans or hiring decisions, and I'll bet there's a way a newspaper could be similarly distanced from outside interference.
Who knows how much Cox News wants for the Statesman or whether it might be possible for the city to purchase the paper? In any event it seems worth considering whether public ownership might be a viable option.
RELATED: See also "Who will buy the Statesman?" from Jeff Beckham, and the Lone Star Times has identified a prospective buyer.