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Alan Chartock: I Publius

One of the most interesting concepts that has been advanced holds that, sooner or later, newspapers will adopt the public radio model and offer memberships in the paper.

Newspapers have fallen on very hard times. They are dropping like flies all over America. In the olden days, if you owned a print newspaper, you had it all. Not so much anymore. The owner of a newspaper was a pretty important personage in town. People bowed and scraped.

But now things have changed. Not only are newspapers going out of business, they are cutting corners like crazy. Sometimes they close and sometimes they quit publishing one day a week. My editor friends spend a lot of time bemoaning how empty their newsrooms are. They remember the days when every desk was taken. Now those newspapers resemble ghost towns. On WAMC’s “The Media Project” program, we hear some sour grapes from newspaper people about how so many other players in the game are using the original material that they developed. Clearly, the new modalities like public radio stations stick in the craws of some of the newspaper oligarchs. On the other hand, newspapers have been generous in supplying their talent to the public radio airwaves.

Here in the Berkshires, a new model has been developed. Since newspapers have always been all about money, a group of very wealthy people got together and put a lot of money into the Berkshire Eagle. There is no question that the new Eagle model is a paradigm that will surely be followed in other localities like Washington, D.C. In these cases, a few people with a lot of money will band together. Although they technically may be partners, it is almost always the case that the “Iron Law of Oligarchy,” invented by sociologist Robert Michels, sets in. Here’s how it works: As soon as a group runs anything, one person takes charge; his word becomes law.

Let me be clear that we can only thank the people who have resurrected the Eagle. These are extraordinarily generous people. But while it might appear that this new model may be the savior of the newspaper, there are always downsides to any new model. If, for example, the new head were to start abusing his authority in a personal manner, that could prove as bad as the old days.

There are editors and publishers out there taking shots at public radio. It’s well worth listening to as they carry on this crusade. One of the most interesting concepts that has been advanced holds that, sooner or later, newspapers will adopt the public radio model and offer memberships in the paper. That sounds like a very reasonable idea to me. I would certainly become a member of the New York Times, since I truly believe that company has fought harder to preserve the American form of democracy than any other institution.

The problem with that model is that newspapers are privately owned. They do not have a publicly chartered board of directors. I have doubts that the newspaper barons are willing to give up their power to a public radio-like model.

Now something new has emerged. A huge part of financing a newspaper is the very paper that it is printed on. While an online newspaper is not cheap to run, at least you don’t have to buy the paper. Years ago, I started a state university newspaper project called The Legislative Gazette. It brought young people to Albany to cover the government, and the progeny of that project are all over the country on some very major newspapers, with at least two of them having received Pulitzers. Ultimately, the Gazette went digital and I am proud to say that it’s still in business.

Most of us now read our newspapers online, a long way from finding them on our doorsteps every morning. Things are evolving. That’s good.

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