Transcript: Rescue Newspapers, Save Democracy

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Interview with Victor Pickard

For podcast release Monday, April 23, 2012

KENNEALLY: In early April, local businessmen acquired the Philadelphia Inquirer and related media properties for $55 million. Led by Lewis Katz and George Norcross, the investors purchased Philadelphia Media Network for a fraction of the $515 million paid in 2006 by a previous local investor group. The sale attracted national attention, not only for its emblematic status as poster child for the ailing American newspaper business, but also over unanswered questions on what the sale will mean to readers. They’ve, after all, relied on the Inquirer since the days of Andrew Jackson, when the then-owners pledged the paper would be devoted to the right of a minority to voice their opinion and the maintenance of the rights and liberties of the people equally against the abuses as the usurpation of power.

Welcome to Beyond the Book, Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series on the media and publishing industry. My name is Christopher Kenneally, and joining me from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania is Victor Pickard. Welcome, Victor.

PICKARD: Thank you for inviting me on, Chris.

KENNEALLY: Well, we’re delighted to have you join us. We should tell people that your research explores the intersections of US and global media activism and politics, media history, democratic theory, and communications policy. With Robert McChesney, you are the co-editor of the book, Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights, which came out last year from the New Press. And we’re here to talk to you today about an op-ed you wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer over that sale, and what you see as the implications of it. And it’s much more than simply the jobs in the newsroom or at the printing plant – indeed, nothing less than the future of democracy.

PICKARD: I couldn’t agree more.

KENNEALLY: Well, tell us about the argument. First of all, you make the point that despite the financial devaluation, the loss of value that newspapers have suffered across this country, they have another value – a value as a public good.

PICKARD: That is – that is correct. Oftentimes the plight of newspapers are treated as some sort of business tragedy, or perhaps technological progress. But in fact, as many of us learned in, perhaps, grade school, that we know journalism is absolutely vital to the prospects of democratic society. So whenever we’re seeing newspapers which happen to be one of, if not the last institutional bastion of professional, systematic journalism, when we see them suffering in the way that they are today, it’s easy to forget that this is also the loss of journalism.

KENNEALLY: Well, you know, with that loss – I mean, this is the loss of newspapers, but you’re making a distinction between newspapers as a business, and journalism as a profession, or as a sort of – as an element in the democracy, otherwise called the fourth estate.

PICKARD: That is correct. And it’s important to make that distinction, and yet, simultaneously understand the relationship between the two.

So, just to back up for a moment, the business model that has worked for about the last 125 years for our news institutions in the United States, is what we could call advertising supported, or advertising subsidized news. And that is where news organizations are making their profit. They are, first and foremost, profit driven institutions, in most cases, and they’re making their money from selling advertising to readers or listeners.

KENNEALLY: But something’s gone wrong with that model.

PICKARD: Yes. This model has absolutely fallen apart, or at least, we’re watching it fall apart in a kind of slow motion, as readers, and therefore advertisers, are migrating to the Internet. And the problem there is that digital advertising pays pennies to the dollar that advertisers had to pay for their dead-tree print advertisements in traditional newspapers.

And that’s just a – it’s a minor, but very important detail, and many people don’t understand what the problem is that now we’re just reading it online. And oftentimes, even in the media itself, this dilemma is kind of misframed. It’s oftentimes – it’s almost like the readers are at fault, which maybe, indirectly, they are, but the main problem is that advertising is just no longer paying news gathering – news providers in the way that it used to. So now we need to find a new kind of revenue stream, a new subsidy to support the journalism that democracy requires.

KENNEALLY: Well, that’s an important point and is the crux of your argument – you know, how are we going to pay for this news, after all? And everyone always says that, well, they made a mistake, those newspapers, 15 years ago. When they got on the Web, they didn’t charge. But they never had really charged in the past. As you point out, the advertising was what paid for the paper.

PICKARD: That’s right. I mean, news has never paid for itself. And advertisers – it was a very convenient relationship. I mean, they were happy with what they were getting, they were reaching broad audiences. Basically news organizations were delivering eyeballs and ears to the advertisers. And they were never really concerned about whether there were fewer foreign bureaus set up in places like Baghdad, or if state capitals were being covered, or things that were happening in local communities.

I’m not trying to paint advertisers are bad people, but it just wasn’t in their business model. They weren’t concerned about the news, per se. And once the news became less valuable for them, of course, they’re going to follow the readers. The readers are going online, into other digital platforms. That’s where the advertisers will go as well, and happily for them, they no longer have to pay as much to get their ads out there.

KENNEALLY: Right, but – you know, so if news isn’t going to pay for itself, who is going to pay for the news in the future? And you’ve got a pretty simple answer to that question.

PICKARD: Yeah, and I don’t want to oversimplify it. I mean, to go back to the op-ed that I wrote last week, I’m arguing that at least something that should be on the table should be public subsidies. And that I think the phrase is, journalism’s last, best hope.

Now, I wouldn’t want that to be the only tool in the toolbox, but I think if we look at all the other options before us, and two main ones – I guess there are three main ones that are often trotted out. One is the idea that some sort of subscription model will work, so that you hear references to paywalls. The New York Times, for example, just went to a paywall model, where people are meant to pay online for their news.

Another option, a lot of people believe that the blogosphere or social media will step in and take over, fill in the vacuum that’s being created by the loss of traditional journalists.

And then a third option is that, perhaps there’s a non-profit model out there that maybe foundations can support journalism. And when you look at the numbers, none of these – none of these three options really fill, really make up for the losses that are being created by the gradual, you could say, implosion of traditional news organizations. So if we’re serious about sustaining journalism, at least at levels that as a democratic society we require, we really are going to have to talk up public subsidies at some point.

KENNEALLY: Well, if the government becomes the funder of last resort, of course, we have to recognize that there’s not a lot of funding available from the government, at least these days. And in the United States, for some time now, the support for public broadcasting has been getting – it’s been declining, and it’s been given with a kind of begrudging way, certainly by some politicians.

So how likely is it that we might get some movement on this? And you are certainly qualified to talk about it. You served in the office of California Congresswoman Diane Watson, you worked on media policy as a telecommunications policy fellow. So you know what Congress is like from the inside.

How likely, then, are we to see some form of government subsidy, or some form of government support for newspapers like the Inquirer?

PICKARD: It’s certainly an uphill climb. I mean, we have to take into consideration the politics involved, as you’re suggesting. And it is very difficult, particularly in our current political landscape. I do think there was a brief window in 2008, 2009, especially around discussions about stimulus, and I think an argument could have been made at that point that, for example, public media or public broadcasting constituted a vital infrastructure that we should consider providing a stimulus for.

But even though this is a very difficult political argument to make, I think that we just don’t have the luxury of backing away from it. I think that gradually, as we see journalism disappear, this is only going to become a more important argument to make. And I’m not going to entirely give up hope on it.

I think at the very least, we’ll start recognizing that there’s more of a role for public media to play, and hopefully we’ll start providing more resources towards that system.

KENNEALLY: Well, you know, it’s important to point out, Victor, that the relationship between government and the news business is always evolving, and it’s hardly been the way it is today forever. And I believe you’ve written about the period right after the Second World War, when the American social contract, if you will, kind of reviewed its relationship there with the policymakers and the paper printers. And so there was some things like the Fairness Doctrine, and various other ways of regulating news, and in fact, requiring of news providers a kind of public activity that went beyond simply the business piece of it.

Remind us of all of that, and maybe explore further this hopeful notion that we might come back to that approach.

PICKARD: Absolutely. So, in period – in past periods of journalistic crisis, you had these national debates about what is the role of media in a democratic society, and what should we do to support media, and more specifically, what is the government’s role in supporting media? And this has always been a fraught question, but it was never quite as controversial as it is today, that is, where people have sort of knee-jerk reactions against this notion that the government should somehow get involved, should support journalism. In one way or another, the government has been supporting journalism since the dawn of the Republic, so you could go back that far and talk about postal subsidies, which were actually, in effect, supporting, subsidizing newspapers, basically creating heavily subsidized postal fees, or postal support for newspapers.

Now, in terms of what’s happened in the 1940s, even though this sounds like a very recent problem, you saw an explosion at that time of one newspaper towns and newspaper chains, and there was a lot of concern about the loss of community newspapers, a loss of competition in metropolitan areas.

And so you had a lot of people looking seriously at this question that perhaps we should be subsidizing competition. And for example, in one newspaper towns, perhaps we should be aiding new startups to provide a more diverse media system.

So that’s something I try to look at in my historical work, is to show that we’ve had these moments of crisis before, and it’s usually during those moments that we have suddenly serious discussion about new options, new experiments. And I guess that, more than anything, is why I’m still hopeful now, because we are in a state of crisis for journalism. I always thought the real game-changer would be when a major metropolitan newspaper goes dark, like – so that there is a major city that doesn’t have a single major paper in operation. We’re not quite at that point yet, but we’re getting closer and closer, and I think that’s what we saw here with the sale of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

KENNEALLY: Right, and in particular, with the arguments over the sale, leading up to the sale, just recently. What was raised was the specter not only of a city without a paper, or a city with a much diminished paper, but that those who purchased it might be able to wield influence in a fashion that most people think of as rather undesirable. Tell us about that, and about this relationship between declining newspaper business and growing political influence among the people who own it.

PICKARD: You’re absolutely right. So I mentioned those three options earlier, that people often embrace as possible salvations for the future of journalism, and I guess this would be a fourth. You might want to call it the benevolent billionaire model for saving journalism, whereas even as these news organizations are losing all their commercial value, they still have this kind of brand power, and increasingly, they might, especially as they become so cheap, the purchase, people who can afford them might see value, sort of an instrumentalist value, in acquiring these assets.

Now in some cases, we can hope that they truly are benevolent billionaires, and they’re really just doing it because they can afford to and they love their communities and they’re feeling patriotic. But of course, in many cases, and we know this from previous periods in our country’s history, that these kinds of – new kinds of press barons can exert undue influence over the editorial process. And that’s what happening – fears of this happening are very much in the air right now in Philadelphia, where you have a group of wealthy investors and political figures, who all have stakes – whether it’s political or economic agendas, in the area. So there’s a lot of concern about that.

Now, of course, in my op-ed, I am suggesting that even though these are legitimate concerns to have, this is still more a systemic problem for all of journalism, and that’s what we should be focusing on.

KENNEALLY: Well, you know, it’s interesting. We are talking, by the way, with Victor Pickard about his recent op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer, looking at the ways to save the newspaper industry. He’s a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

And Annenberg School – the Annenbergs were an owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer at one point, and the father wound up in jail for tax fraud, if I recall correctly, and Walter himself went on to become a much admired figure, and obviously, endowing the school there and so forth.

So, you know, we may look on some of these previous owners in a kind of golden light, but they were problematic characters themselves, weren’t they?

PICKARD: I believe they were, and I don’t know all of the history and specific to that. But I think what you’re getting at is this more general concern that when you have these owners who have such clear political agendas that they may somehow influence news. And we saw this in previous areas, like with the L.A. Times, you had the Chandlers, who were notoriously anti-union, they held very right-wing politics. And this definitely shined through their media coverage of local issues.

And on the other hand, you have people on the left who are celebrating that Warren Buffett bought the newspaper – I forget the name of it right now, but it – I think it’s in Omaha. But –

KENNEALLY: The Omaha World, I think it is.

PICKARD: I think – yeah, that’s it, you’re right. So, there is certainly – you see this from all sides of the political spectrum, that maybe – or they have different fears, different hopes about these people coming in and buying up suffering media institutions. But I think ideally, even though fears of a partisan press are often overblown, we see this working in many European and Latin American countries, I still would worry. And in fact, I think there’s an interesting contradiction here, that some people are – feel very concerned about government indirectly subsidizing media, and perhaps having undue influence on media. But they’re more comfortable with this idea of powerful, wealthy figures coming in and buying up media institutions.

So I just – I am simply arguing that this is something that we should consider, both in terms of concerns, but also, in terms of possibility about different types of funding for news, different types of structures for journalism.

KENNEALLY: Right. And I think your point in the op-ed is, it’s something we can’t take for granted, having a thriving journalism profession, and you know, reasonably viable newspapers as business isn’t something that’s going to happen just on its own, and we need to pay more attention to the implications for the future.

And indeed, I want to sort of wind things up here with Victor Pickard by asking you about this book you’re working on, which is loosely described as the history and future of news. So I guess the answer must be there. It’s some kind of a future for the news business. Can you tell us briefly what you think it might be?

PICKARD: Yes, I do believe that there is a future, and I do hold some optimism. But I would also want to make the point that when we’re talking about the future of news, it’s not necessarily newspapers. So I do think that at some point down the line, we are going to be consuming nearly all of our news through some sort of digital format. So unfortunately, the dead tree variety will, at some point, become more of a relic, I fear.

However, in terms of the future of journalism, writ large, I’d like to see a kind of two-pronged approach. One would be where we change tax laws to sort of ease these suffering news institutions into more of a kind of non-profit or low profit status, and then simultaneously funding an alternative infrastructure, which would be – it could be a kind of reinvented public media system, coming out of public broadcasting. So that would be my hope.

But the book I’m working on now is trying to draw lessons from our past, to try to lead us into the future around these new journalistic projects, and that’s what I’m working on now.

KENNEALLY: Well, I think as our own conversation has indicated, there is a lot to learn from the past, and what we’re going through today isn’t entirely new, as new as it may seem, because all of the devices are so futuristic. A lot of these problems are ones that the Republic has been through a couple of times before.

PICKARD: That is true.

KENNEALLY: We have been talking today with Victor Pickard. He is joining us from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches. He is also the co-editor, with Robert McChesney, of Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights, from the New Press.

Victor Pickard, thank you so much for joining us today.

PICKARD: I’ve enjoyed it, Chris. Thank you for inviting me.

KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights brokers for the world’s most sought-after materials, including millions of books and e-books, journals, newspapers, magazines and blogs, as well as, now, images, movies and television shows.

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Our engineer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. My name is Christopher Kenneally. For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to Beyond the Book.