Friday, August 15, 2008

If Green Bay can buy the Packers, why can't Austin purchase the Statesman?

When Green Bay, Wisconsin's beloved historic professional football team was about to be sold and moved to another locale, the local community decided they'd rather buy the team than see it auctioned off to the highest bidder. It was a smart move that's benefited the town tremendously, both economically and in terms of prestige and public satisfaction.

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.

6 comments:

Lane said...

A football team can return a profit. A newspaper not so much. Taxes should never be used to prop up a business. If there truly is a need for a print newspaper then someone will find a business model to make it work. Charity is best left to individuals not government.

d said...

I don't think it's the free-rider problem as much as it is that they've lost thier classifiend income to craig's list and ebay, a decline in readership because news is available from other sources (different from the free rider issue), and a resultant decline in general advertising.

Interesting idea but I'd hate to see the city try to manage a newspaper. It would be ugly no matter how the trust was set up.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

d - the free rider problem refers to folks getting their content online for free without paying a subscription.

Lane - if the city bought it, they wouldn't be propping up a business, it would be identifying information services as a public good and paying to provide it. I'm not talking about charity any more than it's charity to fill potholes in the roads.

I also disagree that "If there truly is a need for a print newspaper then someone will find a business model to make it work." Lots of things are necessary but don't have a business model to deliver them. We need roads but there's not business model to maintain them (and the toll roads couldn't exist without massive government subsidies).

One other quibble: My goal isn't just to keep a print newspaper afloat, in fact I don't care at all whether it's delivered online or via dead trees. I want to keep the information generators operating - reporters and editors - without whom there'd be even less public involvement and oversight in government and public life than is already the case.

FWIW, outside the US this model isn't so uncommon. The UK Guardian, which is a fine newspaper, is owned by an independent trust, and according to this academic source:

"Worldwide, newspaper ownership is nearly 60% private ownership by families, 3% publicly traded, and 4% employee owned. Most of the remainder is government owned (Djankov, McLiesh, Nenova & Shleifer, 2001)."

JWT (Blogger In Chief) said...

I have a major problem with any government controlling a newspaper or other media source. Blind trust or not, the input of tax dollars ensure that there will be at least an appearance of bias. Bad enough when the bias is toward big advertising dollars.

There will always be a market for professionally, competently done local news and information. The change will be in the business model of how news is delivered. Part of the problem is that many traditional news sources have lost credibility with their consumers. The rise of internet news is as much a search for "the rest of the story" as it is stinginess on the part of readers.

We need a free press. I can't see it staying free if the government pays the bills.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

JWT - is there no "appearance" of bias when 60% of the world's newspapers are just owned by rich families? And isn't there a decided corporate bias, much less just an appearance, at chain papers like Cox, etc.?

Indeed, the competing media models like Fox News, blogging, etc., have dispensed with avoiding bias altogether.

I do agree 100% with this statement, "The rise of internet news is as much a search for 'the rest of the story' as it is stinginess on the part of readers." However I disagree that this necessarily means there's a business model that will support telling "the rest of the story," certainly not outside an agenda-driven model like Fox News.

I don't think the Statesman will go under, but I can see its newshole shrinking and the number of reporters pared down, supplementing the difference with wire copy. More importantly, as the volume of news they deliver continues to decline, I don't see anybody with a viable business model waiting to step in and pay for that newsgathering service, which means democracy and the capacity for viable citizen participation suffers accordingly.

JWT (Blogger In Chief) said...

Grits,

There certainly is bias in the media. Some is because of the ownership. Probably more because of catering to advertisers.

I am concerned that you're plan will just make big money involvement less obvious. Advertising dollars have more impact on local news reporting than which conglomerate owns the paper. How many papers are going to risk multi page full color sunday ads? That pressure won't go away.

I fear that a government ran paper will be as credible and well managed as TYC.

If there is no viable business model to pay for this news gathering, it will not happen. Not all business models are solely profit based. What you are proposing is a business model, it's just one that involves the government. PBS and NPR are using the business model you propose. They do some good work, but their coverage is still incomplete, especially at the local level. I much prefer the CSPAN model.

The last point is that newspapers are in decline because they are losing the people that pay the bills. And the people that pay the bills are not the readers or subscribers but the advertisers. Subscriptions pay for the printing and delivery. Everything else, including reporter salaries and profit, is paid for by advertisers.