Publisher’s Letter: Journalism in the Digital Age

In recent years, print media has seen its profitability plummet as more people look to the Internet for news and commentary. As a result, a number of venerable newspapers and magazines have ceased publication, while others have cut costs by trimming reporters from their staffs, especially in foreign bureaus, and relying increasingly on wire services and second-hand accounts. Some large media markets, such as Seattle, now find themselves with only a single major paper. Journalists are in the business of uncovering the truth, so it seems dangerous for a single newspaper, with its inevitable limitations of perspective, to have a geographic monopoly on the provision of information.

Two solutions have been proposed to address the precipitous decline in the quality and quantity of print journalism, but each entails several drawbacks. The first, already adopted by leading national newspapers like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, is to charge readers who access their content online. This could help to reduce the free rider problem that exists under the status quo, but it may be difficult to enforce in an era of instant communication. If one person reads an article in the Journal, then shares it with followers on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, thousands of people could gain access to the article without subscribing. This is essentially the same problem that the record industry has faced in its losing effort to crack down on illegal music downloads, and there is no reason to believe that newspapers would be any more successful at preventing unauthorized sharing.

The second solution, outlined in a bill introduced by Senator Ben Cardin in 2009, would provide a federal bailout for newspapers to save them from bankruptcy. The logic behind this idea is that, while objective, nonpartisan news constitutes a public good, the free market will tend to undersupply such news because its benefits are widely distributed while its costs are concentrated. The downside is that a government bailout of newspapers, like those received by the banking sector and the auto industry, would reward companies that drove themselves to the brink of collapse by adhering to obsolete and inefficient business models. Government backing will discourage newspapers from adapting to a rapidly changing media climate. Moreover, such a policy has ominous implications for freedom of the press. If newspapers are dependent on the state for financial support, they may be subject to censorship, forfeiting their duty to ensure government accountability.

The Tory has always made all of its content available for free to members of the Princeton community, and we intend to continue doing so in the future. Our situation, however, is unique, because we rely upon the contributions of volunteers. Major newspapers don’t have that luxury, and so they must confront this dilemma.

One potential solution might be for private foundations to play a more active role in funding newspapers. This arrangement is already in place for prominent journals of opinion like the National Review and the Nation, which lose money on subscriptions but are sustained by generous donors. Applying this model to newspapers would entail the same advantages as a government bailout without some of the drawbacks. Of course, it would be problematic if foundations used newspapers to advance their own agendas, although to some extent this is already true of editorial boards.

As a student journalist, I am concerned about the future of the profession of journalism. Along the same lines, former Publisher Aaron Smargon wrote a piece in the January 2011 issue of the Tory that contemplated the implications of the Wikileaks case for the future of journalism. Like Aaron, I don’t pretend to have all the answers to these difficult questions. Given the importance of a vibrant and independent media to the health of our democracy, they are, at the very least, questions that we as citizens ought to consider.

Sincerely,
Sam Norton ’12

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