Dunsmore: Newspapers and the declining economy

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(HOST) As we continue to view the local fall-out of the economic crisis, commentator Barrie Dunsmore, a veteran correspondent for ABC News, looks at how the new hard times are affecting an old institution.

(DUNSMORE) Those Vermonters who have lost their jobs and their health care are, of course, major casualties of the current economic disaster. What may be less obvious are the very likely negative consequences of the crisis on things we all take for granted. I am thinking particularly of our local newspapers.

The newspaper business, nationally and locally, was already struggling because of a dramatic loss of classified advertising to the Internet. In today’s economic climate, the problem has become much worse. Your friendly new and used car dealerships – who once accounted for a major chunk of a local newspaper’s advertising revenue – now have little or no money to spend on such ads – as the entire automobile industry faces the worst losses in its history.

Likewise, many other national and local advertisers can no longer afford to spend at former levels.

To face these new challenges, the Burlington Free Press has made staff cuts, as have other Vermont local and regional publications. As a freelance columnist for the Rutland Herald and Montpelier/Barre Times Argus, I and other contributors were asked to take fairly substantial cuts in fees. Much more significantly, some top editors and reporters at the Herald and Times Argus have been laid off. I am not privy to these newspapers’ balance sheets, but I do know that, in Vermont and around the nation, local newspapers are struggling mightily to stay in business.

There is one school of thought that newspapers are dinosaurs and after several hundred years, a new business model for packaging and selling the news is long over-due. I happen not to subscribe to this gloomy view.  I believe that newspapers – the great national ones and the dedicated local versions – are essential to democracy and remain the backbones of our communities. The top papers employ some of the best minds in the country to report and analyze the major events of the world and the nation. Local newspapers help to keep our state houses, city halls and zoning boards honest. They cover our local sports teams and review local dramas and musicals. This nurtures local talent and gives communities a sense of civic pride and cohesion – something I cannot see the Internet being able to accomplish.

There are those who champion the rise of the citizen blogger as evidence that the Internet has created the first truly democratic form of journalism. But, while there certainly is no shortage of opinion on the Internet, I have found much of that opinion to be based on neither knowledge nor actual facts.

In order to survive, newspapers will need more revenue. Perhaps they’ll finally find an efficient way to charge small sums for their on-line versions. Or maybe they will have to become non-profits dependent upon rich benefactors. A new business model for news may be needed – but we haven’t found it yet. Meantime, this geezer believes losing our newspapers would be a devastating blow – to America’s political system and to its very way of life.

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