Monday, December 8, 2008

now it begins?

Multiple sources are reporting this morning that the Tribune Co. -- which owns the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, two of the largest newspapers in the country -- is considering filing for bankruptcy. Read all abut it here, here and here.

Whether or not owner Sam Zell, a real estate magnate who also owns the Chicago Cubs, can pull his company through his current financial crisis is not as important in the big picture as what the impending Chapter 11 says about the future of daily journalism. If nothing else, it points to the urgency of coming up with a new financial model for supporting the daily press -- whether it comes to us on paper, the net or Blackberry.

Maybe the journalism industry needs a hit of that bail-out money. Seriously. At the very least, we could use a cash infusion to support some smart folks to think through a new way of doing business -- before the whole business implodes.

This quarter, I had my intro students come up with blueprints for the news organization of the future, based on the principles outlined in Kovach and Rosenstiel's Elements of Journalism. One group came up with an idealistic financial model: support the news organization through something similar to a university endowment, based on donations from the community itself, which has the most interest in a vital daily press, and keeping the funds in a blind trust so that the donors could not influence the news.

I was once asked by a student what it would take to encourage more students to go into journalism rather than, say, public relations -- given the disparities of starting salaries. Caught off-guard, I shot off my mouth, suggesting that maybe there should be some sort of government program that offers student loan forgiveness (similar to the Peace Corps) to those kids who are willing move to the the middle of the country to work for small papers for slave wages.

Mark I. Pinsky, writing in The New Republic, has this idea: Barack Obama should resurrect the Federal Writers Project (one of FDR's programs during the Great Depression) and bail out laid-off journalists, paying them to document, among other things, "the ground-level impact of the Great Recession; chronicling the transition to a green economy; or capturing the experiences of the thousands of immigrants who are changing the American complexion. Like the original FWP, the new version would focus in particular on those segments of society largely ignored by commercial and even public media. At the same time, the multimedia fruits of this research would be open-sourced to all media, as well as to academics."

He also writes: "Like Detroit's troubled Big Three automakers, federal intervention to save the newspaper and magazine industries are highly problematic, at best. Ink-on-paper periodicals are never coming back, and it may be some time before the web can provide well-paying jobs with health benefits--if it ever will. Until then, providing some way to provide young journalists a way to get started, or displaced media workers a way to transition to new occupations, or to retirement, might help--and serve the nation in the process."

More ideas later. (Maybe the first one ought to be to delete "newspaper" from the discussion and use "press" as a generic, rather than a specific, so the conversation can focus on journalism rather than modes of delivery.) Stay tuned. bk

P.S. More dismal news. According to the New York Times, McClatchy has put the Miami Herald, once Knight-Ridder's flagship paper, up for sale.

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