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Should Newspapers Do Whatever It Takes To Make Money?

April 30, 2012

Something to ponder on a cloudy Monday.

In a way, newspapers have only themselves to blame for this turn of events. In the early days of the industry, no one really expected newspapers to be engines for protecting the public good. Their job was to sell as many papers as possible, and publishers like William Randolph Hearst did whatever they thought would accomplish that goal, including making stories up out of whole cloth, just as some “tabloid” newspapers still do now.

But in the 1960s and 70s, newspapers became a massive industry with corporate owners, who wanted to appeal to national and international advertisers and readers — and as part of that process they became public institutions, something that was accelerated by the Watergate scandal and the role that the Washington Post played in it. In many ways, that helped create the idea that newspapers should protect and uphold certain public principles for the good of society.

So the problem now is that newspapers are trying to charge readers more directly for their content than they ever have before, and by definition that restricts the number of people who can read it. If a paper erects a paywall that costs $15 a month, that’s one thing — but what if it’s a subscription plan designed for hedge funds and bond traders? If that is a newspaper’s central focus, hasn’t it given up any hope of being a public entity or keeping the interests of society at heart? In some ways, general-interest papers seem to be damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

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