Howard Kurtz Media Notes: News Business Must Save Itself, Not Turn to President

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 17, 2009

Dan Rather is wrong.

Barack Obama should stay out of it.

We don't need no stinkin' presidential commission.

It's not that the former CBS anchor has delivered a flawed diagnosis. The news business, as Rather wrote in a Washington Post op-ed, is in deep trouble, particularly the print side. But his prescription -- that only high-level White House involvement can draw sufficient attention to the media's plight -- badly misses the mark.

This president may be able to bring Henry Louis Gates and James Crowley together for a beer. Obama might even figure out how to get Congress to cough up a health-care bill, or Americans to understand what on earth cap-and-trade is. But rescuing the news business is beyond his power.

Actually, by giving interviews to Katie, Brian, Charlie, Meredith and Robin -- not to mention "60 Minutes," "Nightline," the Sunday shows, Jay Leno, ESPN, major newspapers, columnists and bloggers -- Obama has helped prop up the news business and demonstrated that it matters. But the challenge here is not as easy as dropping by Five Guys and boosting its burger business. The journalism racket needs more than some spicy mustard to lure customers.

To be fair, Rather isn't suggesting that Obama do anything, exactly. He doesn't want a cash-for-clunkers bailout. He doesn't want federal control. The Detroit papers wouldn't become another General Motors, with some information czar picking the font size.

Yet Rather has great faith in the illuminating power of the blue-ribbon commission, which for Beltway denizens is a classic bureaucratic substitute for doing something, with a thick report destined to gather dust on a shelf, if that still happens in the digital age.

Besides, the media's problems have been endlessly chewed over by the chattering classes at forums, seminars, discussions and panels (including one I moderated in New York that featured, yes, Dan Rather). Indeed, such talkathons may be keeping Aspen's economy afloat.

There is wide agreement that newspapers, the most endangered species at the moment, provide the most journalistic boots on the ground -- particularly at the local level, but also on national and international affairs. There is equal agreement that their business model is busted -- which is why the papers in Philadelphia, Chicago (both), Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Baltimore, among others, are in Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

The emerging consensus -- that newspapers, having lost their mojo to the Web, have to find a way to charge for content -- may soon be tested. Rupert Murdoch has declared that he will begin slapping fees on his news sites, from the Times of London to the Wall Street Journal (which already charges its affluent audience). The Boston Globe, which is in the process of being unloaded by the New York Times Co., also plans to begin charging. Steve Brill's Journalism Online says 506 newspapers and magazines have signed up for his service to help companies bill their most avid online customers.

Unless the movement becomes a stampede, pay-wall sites may see traffic nosedive as the information-wants-to-be-free crowd heads for the exits. At that point, we will know whether enough people are willing to pay something, anything, for decent reporting. Nonprofit groups, meanwhile, will try to fill the gap.

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