In a recent Salon piece, Gary Kamiya starkly presents the dire state of the traditional newspaper. As he says, 2008 was an unprecedently awful year for the publishers of newspapers, whose shares fell, on average, 83%. The market value of newspapers fell a dizzying $64.5 billion.

Though newspaper proprietors are, by and large, an unlovely lot, the dire state of their businesses should still concern the rest of us. Why? Because, to date, no one has stepped forward with a digital alternative to old-fashioned newspapers. As Kamiya says, despite the proliferation of online media, the vast majority of stories still originate with the press. Despite some notable exceptions, the majority of bloggers and web publications offer commentary more than reporting. There’s no obvious online model to fund newshounds pounding a beat: it’s much cheaper to aggregate existing content and pay freelancers to opinionate.

In Australia, the death of the press might still seem largely hypothetical. But you can already see the early symptoms of the fatal disease, not least in the massive job cuts taking place in both Murdoch and Fairfax.

What to do? In passing, Kamiya mentions David Swensen and Michael Schmidt’s recent proposal that newspapers become non-profit, endowed organisations which philanthropists could fund in the same fashion they do US colleges and universities. It’s an intriguing idea. The reason we care about the state of newspapers is that we see them as possessing, in all the ways Kamiya explains, a social function extending beyond the revenue they earn for their proprietors. Hospitals can be run for profit, too, but, because we think a health service matters, we don’t leave our sick to the market’s tender mercies.

As soon as you make that comparison, the conclusion leaps out. American-style philanthropy is all very well but, if, here in Australia, the state supports a TV and radio network, why shouldn’t it also fund a newspaper?

All the arguments that justify state funded electronic media apply even more so to the press. If, without a taxpayer funded television channel, there’d be no quality drama, news or current affairs on TV, it’s increasingly clear that, without some new model, the in-depth reporting that once came from the broadsheets will vanish. ABC television and ABC radio are no longer enough, since the written word can do things that images or sound can not, conveying ideas of far greater complexity or subtlety.

A state-run newspaper might conjure up visions of Pravda, but it shouldn’t. We’re all accustomed to government funded TV, and there’s no reason why editorial independence in print should entail any different challenges.

So how might a government paper happen?

You wouldn’t need to forcibly nationalise the Australian and send its commentators to mine salt (as satisfying as that might be). The process could be as simple as building on ABC radio’s websites. Because a government-run newspaper would not need advertising revenue, the new publication could function without a dead-tree version: it could, in other words, support salaried reporters in a way that other online ventures simply can’t. Unencumbered by the costs of print and distribution, it wouldn’t necessarily even be tremendously expensive.

What’s more, though serious news journalism would be its main charter, a government funded publication could also provide a forum for other services once provided by the press. For instance, across the US, newspaper book reviewing is utterly collapsing. That’s going to happen here, too — indeed, rumours suggest that the Fairfax book pages might get the chop sooner rather than later. If, as a society, we think that a literary culture matters, why not hang a review magazine off the back of a government newspaper?

You could make the same argument for other sections, too.

Of course, all of this runs into the sand as soon as you actually think about the Rudd government and the likelihood of it adopting a proposal requiring a modicum of boldness. But that doesn’t mean the idea itself doesn’t warrant consideration.

Peter Fray

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