So it seems that Washington Governor, Chris Gregoire, has approved a 40% tax cut for that state’s newspapers to help them survive. This is coming from a state where one paper recently ran its last print edition and is now an online-only publication with a much small staff.

Credit: Sharon Styer (Lazeye)
Credit: Sharon Styer (Lazeye)
But I can’t help but to think this move by Washington’s Governor is a political band-aid solution that’s more about saving jobs than preserving the state’s democratic watchdogs. Not that there’s aything with saving jobs, but newspapers need to start thinking more long-term — more in terms of an exit strategy. As Clay Shirky recently pointed out, it’s not so much journalism that’s on the line, but rather an increasingly obsolete business model:

If you want to know why newspapers are in such trouble, the most salient fact is this: Printing presses are terrifically expensive to set up and to run. […]

For a long time, longer than anyone in the newspaper business has been alive in fact, print journalism has been intertwined with these economics. […]

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.

When we shift our attention from ’save newspapers’ to ’save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work

Shirky’s comments, of course, come from a post about “thinking the unthinkable,” but the complete paradigmatic shift implied in doing so is probably what led Tom Foremski to urge newspapers reinvent themselves as social news organizations. Because, at the end of the day, the printed newspaper business model suffers form too many competitive disadvantages vis a vis digital outlets: (1) printing costs, (2) news-cycle product turn-around, (3) a cumbersome product, (4) less targeted advertising, and (5) a higher price-point (i.e. subscription fees).

So if the state is going to start bailing-out newspapers like it’s doing with the automotive industry, then someone should tell them to hold them to the same scrutiny as the Big-3 are being held. Give them a break to save the jobs, of course, but not foreover, and not unless they can show that they have a clear plan-of-action to (1) cut costs, (2) increase efficiencies, (3) diversify their ad and prioduct offerings, and most importantly (4) ditch a production model that is nothing more than obsolete.

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