The recent sale of The Washington Post and The Boston Globe – two of this country’s most storied newspapers – got me thinking about the future of newspapers. While reading “This Town” by Mark Leibovich about the rise of Politico.com as the source of Washington political news, I wondered: Is there an even more fundamental change in the newspaper business model that needs to take place? Can newspapers continue to make a profit in a world increasingly dominated by digital sources of information, and by new online competitors that are grabbing larger shares of newspaper advertising revenue? And, some even more basic and scary questions: Is the pressure to turn a profit creating an even greater distraction to the editorial staff? Has the “high wall” between advertising and editorial been pierced? And, finally, can newspapers continue to serve their First Amendment purpose if all of these distractions are constantly looming in the background?
As I thought about these questions, I began to think how newspapers – print or digital – can remain true to their mission by continuing to serve the public as foreseen by the constitution. The answer that I reached was that a core change in the business model was necessary. Newspapers need to become non-profit institutions.
I do not make this point lightly. I had a front-row seat to many of these issues between 2006 and 2010, when we helped a group of local owners buy The Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and philly.com. These intentional owners paid more in 2008 ($515 million) than The Washington Post ($250 million) and The Boston Globe ($70 million) combined sold for in the last few weeks, but struggled against the strong headwinds of the recession and ultimately succumbed by filing for bankruptcy in 2009. Newspapering is a business that requires lots of labor – across the newsroom, printing press and delivery. It can’t be done on the cheap, but it still must be done.
Newspapers are truly vital to a strong democracy and are a public trust. They keep any eye on government and many other institutions, less the people behind those institutions surrender to the avarice and temptations of greed and unchecked power. Newspapers also serve a key role in advocating for those who can’t advocate for themselves, and in disseminating information that brings communities together. Without newspapers – particularly good, investigative ones – we put democracy up for grabs. Don’t get me wrong, I have lots of examples (and business) as a result of newspapers going too far, but for the most part, I believe that journalists are well intentioned and take their free press responsibilities and privileges very seriously.
Finally, with the growth of online institutions, advertising revenue is shifting away from newspapers and will never be back. Advertisers are scrambling to invest in online, digital and “owned” content. Ad revenue in 2012 is less than half of what it was in 2007, according to the Pew Research Center.
In considering all these factors, I’ve come to the conclusion that newspapers need to become non-profit organizations. They need to be freed from the constraints of profit and allowed to provide the best, most balanced and fair reporting available. And while I still love to read the newspaper in its printed form, I think that this new business model need apply to print or digital versions. It’s the quality of the product and the reporting that are most important. I believe that Jeff Bezos has a major opportunity with an august brand like The Washington Post to create a new business model for newspapers, and to lead us into the world of foundation- and public- supported newspapering.