Newspapers: our priceless asset

Excellent piece by Peter Onos on the priceless of newspapers in today's Century Foundation. Osnos argues that newspapers are a "basic democratic resource" unlike any other in the media:

Magazines, television, radio, and books all are essential also, but itwas newspapers that broke the stories of the NSA wiretaps, the monitoring of bank transactions, the harvesting of phone records, and the secret CIA prisons around the world. Only newspapers (and their sibling Web sites) have the daily immediacy, the reporting staffs, and the impact of headlines and front pages to consistently lead the way in revealing government activity. Magazines focus on narratives and trends; television is about personalities (Katie, Anderson, Bill); radio, except for public radio, is about attitude; and books can make headlines but do not have them.

Osnos is right. And his argument underlines the utter irresponsibility of the New York Times bashers on the right and the Wall Street Journal bashers on the left. If we really care about the vitality of our democracy, then we must cherish and respect our core institutions. It's all too easy to criticize weaknesses in or mistakes made by the newspaper industry. But we needs newspapers more than they need us. As Osnos argues, as serious news reporting institutions, newspapers are simply irreplaceable.

Osnos' piece is not, however, all gloom and doom. In spite of some declines in ad revenue and circulation, he shows that the newspaper business is actually in reasonable economic health:

Here are some other newspaper company profits as recorded by Fortune magazine in their spring issue on the company’s top 1000 companies: Gannett $1.245 million; Washington Post, $314 million; New York Times, $260 million; and the late lamented Knight-Ridder chain in its last full year had profits of $471 million. As for advertising revenues, according to Business Week, Web ad sales in the first quarter of 2006 were up 35 percent to $613 million. Print ad sales were up 0.3 percent to $10.5 billion. These profit and revenue numbers doubtless look less robust to those responsible for making them grow even faster, but by any measure, this is not the portrait of an industry in an inexorable downturn.

Osnos ends by describing newspapers as "priceless". He's right. The only way to support his argument is to buy them and read them. If we all read less free blogs and paid for more newspapers, everyone would be better off.

A citizen should be valued not for what they say, but for what they read. How about a constitutional reform granting privileged voting rights to anyone who subscribes to more than one newspaper?