Newspapers must operate as a business to carry out their First Amendment function
This past weekend my plans included a much-anticipated trip to the movies to see “The Post.” Starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, the movie chronicles a time involving the Pentagon Papers and The Washington Post’s decision to publish them. Facing legal battles up to an injunction to cease publication by the Supreme Court, the paper decided to publish the information to educate the public about the truth behind The Vietnam War and presidential administration after presidential administration lies to cover up the truth.
The movie, without a doubt, is well worth a watch. Anyone who is a proponent of the First Amendment should view the movie. Those who aren’t, let me know and I’ll buy you a ticket.
Perhaps what most impacted me was the following series of quotes from the film:
- ●Fritz Beebe (chairman of The Post): “If the government wins, The Washington Post will cease to exist.”
- ●Ben Bradlee (managing editor of The Post): “If we don’t hold them accountable, who will?”
- ●Kay Graham (publisher of The Post): “We can’t hold them accountable if we don’t have a newspaper.”
These quotes chronicle a centuries old battle between a newspaper’s being a business and providing information. At the basis, all points of view are right. Newspapers and media companies must be solvent in order to serve as a watchdog for their communities.
What disheartens me most is in the world of social media and websites, the world has turned against real journalism. Watching the wide pages of The Washington Post flutter by on an old school press was bittersweet for me, as was the newsroom where line after line of desks for myriad reporters was shown. We don’t get that anymore.
As the newspaper industry has changed, we’ve had to adjust our models to stay solvent and that means doing more with less. Throw in social media, websites, videos … we’ve in some ways had to compromise our journalism. Part of this is our fault and some is our audience’s.
In a recent Knight-Gallup report, an overwhelming majority of Americans believe that the media have an important role to play in our democracy. Fifty-eight percent of Americans say the increased number of news sources makes it harder to be informed. Seventy-three percent of Americans say the spread of inaccurate information on the internet is a major problem with news coverage today, more than any other potential type of news bias.
Another startling statistic is while Americans believe the internet, news aggregators, citizen videos and cable news have had a more positive than negative impact on the U.S. news environment over the past 10 years, the majority (54 percent) say that the impact of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter on the news environment has been negative.
When you put all these together, a clear cut answer is presented. Why aren’t people supporting their local newspapers?
Recently, we wrote an article about new restaurants in town for a publication. The story went into print first, then into our e-edition. A snippet including the first three paragraphs with a link to subscribe to read the rest was placed on our website, then teased to Facebook. This is the journey of the majority of our stories, unless it is something such as breaking news.
We are a business first.
Almost immediately complaints started. Why do we have to subscribe to read the full article? Why do we have to pay? (Our subscriptions are $33 a year and our digital and rack single copy issue price is $1.) That amount helps you get real journalism. We went out and arranged interviews. We talked to the owners. We started a relationship with them and then we crafted a story. With really pretty photos of sesame chicken, mind you.
Somewhere along the way the mindset from that found in “The Post” changed. I’m not sure when newspapers started to be thought of in disposable terms. A newspaper is the one that brought down the Nixon administration and who still hold those in power accountable. Even on a local level.
The following quote was given by the Supreme Court after the 6-3 Pentagon Papers case against The Post and The New York Times.
“In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed … not the governors.”
Isn’t it worth $33 a year to be part of that mission?