By: Brent Budowsky
The collapse of the daily newspaper in America is indescribably sad for the soul and indescribably bad for the nation but need not be the end of an institution that should be at the heart of American life. The means for revival of the daily paper is crystal clear from my own experience as a political columnist for a newspaper (The Hill), someone who advises many senior leaders, a customer who is an avid consumer of news and a source for many who write the news.
It begins with this: remember the historic role of the press in our free nation, remember that the customer is always right, and understand the enormous scope and magnitude of change brought by any new president and especially by Barack Obama beginning January 20, 2009.
What has been lost in modern America is the broad sense of community, the spirit that we are in this together, and the notion that ourdemocracy should function as a great townmeeting where diverse people come togetherwith common purpose. In recent generations this democratic culture was embodied by the network news and transcendent figures such as Walter Cronkite and by the daily newspaper that aimed to serve the broader community.
In recent years our politics have become factionalized, our media have become balkanized and our society has become fragmentized. Political operatives seek to divide us in search of small pluralities; marketing executives seek to categorize us in targeted sales niches; electronic media has moved from the national network to the narrow focused cable. Alienated or disillusioned audiences have pulled away from the center in a move to the internet and talk radio where the left talks to the left, the right to the right, while cable television is little more than an insider vanity play of pundits talking to pundits about matters irrelevant to the larger body of the whole.
What does the rise of Barack Obama tell us about the future of the daily newspaper and the printed media in general, including the endangered news weekly?
Let us set aside our individual politics and consider what the national body politic was telling us in the recent election. Obama had campaigned nonstop for two years on the notion of the broader community, an end to partisan acrimony and national division, the closure of business and politics as usual and the gridlock and deadlock that appears inherent in our modern system.
Obama campaigned for an end to factionalism, balkanization and segmentation of our society and for a beginning of a renewed attitude of “we are in this together.” Whether one likes his persona or not; whether one agrees with his policies or not; his message to the nation was clear and the nation’s message in electing him, and giving him stratospheric poll ratings
during the transition, is equally powerful and clear.
American politics, American finance, and American consumerism now stand at an inflection point where there is huge and widespread cynicism and alienation among the vast American whole against the insider American establishments that are widely viewed as self-serving, often corrupted and divorced from the broader interest.
While Americans, in the counter-move of this great dialectic, have elected and admired a new president who speaks in terms of bottom up, changing institutions and uniting diverse cultural and political divides.
New presidents both reflect their times, and transform their times, and the message of Obama to the voters, and the message of the voters in the election, would augur well for those daily newspapers, weekly magazines and print media generally that recognize that the historic election that transformed America politically reflects large and deep trends that could and should benefit the print media journolistically and commercially.
Certainly it will be hard at a time when capital formation is constricted by a financial crisis, when consumers are afflicted by a recession, and when print media is victimized like all businesses by extreme financial conditions that make recapitalization and reinvestment
appear impossible. However, if the print media can seize the moment of change that will be inaugurated within hours, the road to revival begins with a strategic vision of the role of the print media at this moment of change, and a business plan that translates historic waves of public opinion to journalistic excellence and commercial viability and success.
Instead of thinking in terms of Obama mugs, Obama commemorative coins, Obama videos, and Obama sweatshirts think in terms of the transformational change and revitalized debate on great issues of our time, one after another, throughout American society, involving every American community, creating dramatic and new opportunities for the American print media.
Americans will now engage in great national and community debates about dramatic changes in health care policy that are of enormous interest to countless millions of citizens. We will begin discussion of new ways of serving American veterans and troops which will be of seismic interest to more than 50 million Americans in veteran and military families. We will expand our debates about a financial crisis greater than any recent generation that profoundly affects the daily lives of every single member of every American community.
With a new president who seeks a revival of the broad American community, who brings dramatic new policy changes across the landscape of American life, who embodies a bottom up approach to democratic
institutions, the temper of our times now shifts to terrain that is far more favorable to the daily newspapers that understand the new realities and seize the new moment.
In a crisis of confidence and complexity involving issues that people have difficulty understanding, the premium is placed on more in-depth reporting and less insider
punditry, more interaction between readers and reporters, and between readers and other readers, and between the individual newspaper and the community as a whole, and less on the alienating segmentation of other media.
It is not my role to write business plans for print media to propose to new investors, but the opportunity is clear and the right plans will attract new money, so long as the plan is attuned to our times.
Readers, advertisers, politicians and capitalists would be attracted to in depth reporting, special sections, and opinion pages that offer more than regurgitation of shallow and discredited conventional wisdom. Citizens of all viewpoints in every community would be excited by
participating in great debates and great events at a great moment in American history with great impact in their daily lives through the vehicles of the print media. From in-depth reporting to innovative subscription drives
to advertiser-supported special sections and special editions.
As the Bush era ends and the Obama era begins there are deep and powerful changes that offer the opportunity for revival of the daily newspaper. It will be hard, not easy, but the opportunity is great and the prospects are real if the moment in history, politics, culture and media embodied by the arrival of Obama is fully understood.
This is true for those who admire and support Obama and those who don’t. It is the change itself, the debate it engenders, the enormous issues at stake, the powerful impact on the daily lives of every current and future customer that creates the opportunity. The gravity of
our crisis creates the magnitude of the opportunity.
There is a role that must be fulfilled in the Obama years that cannot be fulfilled by the internet, or cable television,
or talk radio the way it can be advanced by the print media, at its best, as great debates unfold and great energies are unleashed throughout American life.
The arrival of a new president who brings historic change to our democracy affects every American home and brings new opportunity to every newsroom and boardroom.