A Recipe for Keeping Newspapers Alive

Michael Socolow, a professor at Brandeis, serves up a recipe for success, and explains some of why newspapers are in so much trouble in this article from the Baltimore Sun.

“Yet other key, but too often ignored, issues in the history of the newspaper business have played a role in the industry’s problems. Very few Americans – or even journalists – realize that Congress passed, and President Richard M. Nixon in 1970 signed into law, the Orwellian-titled Newspaper Preservation Act. That law (essentially) allowed local newspaper monopolies to flourish throughout the country. In all but a handful of markets, dominant newspapers would employ tactics that in other industries would be considered restraint of trade in order to corner their local markets for newspaper advertising.

Joint operating agreements between newspapers that otherwise would have been competitors became legal. The cost certainty of operating in a noncompetitive environment allowed these “hometown” newspapers to grow fat with advertising revenue. New sections were added. Newspaper chains such as Gannett and Knight-Ridder scooped up these profitable properties around America. The chains grew accustomed to profit margins that would have been impossible to achieve in a truly competitive environment.

By desperately trying to serve its core – but dwindling – audience, the newspaper business is shortchanging that audience. Most newspapers are offering little more than a comfortable rehash of events that their consumers are already aware of. Instead, newspapers should be challenging their readers by providing difficult-to-obtain firsthand reports from around the world that are unavailable anywhere else. They should combine that reporting with bracing, counterintuitive commentary that would provoke thought and discussion in the civic arena.”