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Robert McChesney on “The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers”

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The New York Times and Washington Post have become the latest newspapers to announce plans to downsize their staffs. As papers across the country continue to fold or downsize, policy officials and experts are contemplating a series of proposals to help newspapers stay afloat. On Capitol Hill, Democratic Senator Benjamin Cardin of Maryland has introduced the Newspaper Revitalization Act. Meanwhile, in an article in The Nation magazine titled “The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers,” media activists Robert McChesney and John Nichols are proposing a multi-part journalism economic stimulus package. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to a major crisis, the crisis of newspapers in this country. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, the New York Times and Washington Post have become the latest newspapers to announce plans to downsize their staffs. On Thursday, the New York Times Company said it will lay off 100 people, about five percent of its staff. In addition, the Times is temporarily cutting the pay of its non-union workers by five percent in return for ten days leave. The layoffs and salary cuts will affect employees at both the New York Times and Boston Globe.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post has announced it is offering employees another round of early retirement packages, or “buyouts.” Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth said the buyouts will, quote, “allow us to reduce costs and gain efficiency while we continue to restructure for the future.”

AMY GOODMAN: As papers across the country continue to fold or downsize, policy officials and experts are contemplating a series of proposals to help newspapers stay afloat.

On Capitol Hill, Democratic Senator Benjamin Cardin of Maryland has introduced the Newspaper Revitalization Act. He wants to make it easier for newspapers to become nonprofit publications.

Meanwhile, two longtime media activists from the group Free Press have proposed a bold solution: a government intervention to save American journalism. In an article in The Nation magazine, Robert McChesney and John Nichols propose a multi-part journalism economic stimulus package. They call for all Americans to receive an annual tax credit for the first $200 they spend on daily newspapers, free postage for many periodicals, government funding for high school and college journalism projects, and a large expansion of funding for public and community broadcasting.

To talk more about this, we’re joined by Bob McChesney from Madison, Wiscsonsin, co-founder of the media advocacy group Free Press and a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Bob. Lay out the plan.

ROBERT McCHESNEY: Well, the plan simply is this. The commercial system of journalism, which has dominated in the United States for the past 150 years, is collapsing. It’s disintegrating. And we’re really left as a society with a basic option: are we going to have journalism or not?

If we’re going to simply sit around and hope that the business community, Wall Street and Madison Avenue, are going to come up with a way to rescue it and give us the sort of journalism we need, we’re not going to get there. It’s pretty clear that’s not going to happen.

And that means we’re going to have to turn to enlightened policymaking, direct and indirect government subsidies, to give us the resources to do journalism. And you already did a great job, Amy, of outlining the key elements of what we see as an emergency stimulus plan. And by “emergency stimulus,” we mean something that will get us through the crisis so we can have time, buy time, to come up with a coherent plan that we can eventually have multiple newsrooms of well-paid quality journalists covering their communities across the country that will segue into the digital era.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Bob, the particular part of the plan that would call for the funding of journalism programs in high schools and colleges, how might that work?

ROBERT McCHESNEY: Well, we haven’t done the details. We just wanted to throw out the idea. One of the great problems of journalism in the United States in the past three decades has been the decreasing involvement of young people. The average age of newspapers, the average age of viewers of television news programs, seems to almost go up a year every year. And part of the problem, I think, is that we’ve seen a real cutback in school newspapers and radio stations in the last three decades with the cutbacks in the public sector, and kids aren’t doing journalism as much anymore. If you don’t do it, you don’t really appreciate it and get involved in it. So we think one thing we ought to do is make sure every high school, every middle school, every college has a good, solid, adequate funding base to do a newspaper and also to do a radio station. The more kids get involved in creating journalism, the more they’re going to appreciate the good stuff.

AMY GOODMAN: Bob McChesney, we’re going to break, then we’re going to come back to you. He’s in Madison, Wisconsin, co-founder of After we speak with Bob, we’ll be going to, not related at all, but that’s about the thirtieth anniversary of the meltdown at Three Mile Island. Bob McChesney is a professor at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His article, “The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers.” Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Bob McChesney is our guest, co-founder of, professor at University of Illinois. Juan, as we’re laying out Bob’s plan to save the American newspapers, I was thinking about your forthcoming book and how you chronicle the history of newspapers in this country.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Right. Well, Bob, I wanted to ask you about that, because you mentioned the subsidy plan that you saw are these credits helping also — or the plan by getting free postal delivery. I think most Americans are not aware, as you have pointed out in many of your books, about the importance of the Post Office in allowing the development of this rich newspaper tradition that we have in this country. But now we’re hearing the Post Office is claiming that it’s virtually bankrupt, that it keeps — has to keep raising prices and reducing service. So how would this impact, since you’re calling for free delivery of newspapers?

ROBERT McCHESNEY: Well, it would mean that the Post Office would return to its roots, in effect. You know, as you pointed out, Juan, the Post Office began in the United States primarily as a distribution arm for American newspapers. In the 1830s, 90 percent of the traffic of the US Post Office was newspapers or magazines. That was its basic job. Within cities, people got their newspapers by post. And the US government heavily subsidized it. The newspapers paid a very small fraction of the actual cost of distributing their wares, such that at one point only two or three percent of the revenues of the Post Office came from newspapers, but it was 90 percent of the traffic. That’s a pretty large subsidy.

And we’ve got to return to that point today. We’ve got to basically say to the Post Office that in the near term what we — any publication that has less than 20 percent advertising, so it’s primarily content-driven, it gets free postage, it gets complete free subsidy. That’s going to keep alive a whole raft of publications that are struggling now with very onerous costs on them.

And I want to point out, on all these subsidies — because I’m not trying to keep alive old media. I’m not trying to keep alive dying media at the expense of new media, additional media. The condition of all these subsidies, for student papers, for daily newspapers, for any publication, to get postal subsidies, for community and public broadcasting, is everything that’s done with these subsidies instantly goes online, is made free and accessible to everyone in the world who has access to it. So what we’re really doing is creating a rich vein of quality material that’s available to everyone, for the digital world, for the blogosphere to work with. So we should view it really as a step forward, not as trying to hold onto dying industries.

AMY GOODMAN: Bob McChesney, I also wanted to ask you about Senator Benjamin Cardin’s proposed Newspaper Revitalization Act. This is part of what the Maryland Democrat had to say from the floor of the Senate earlier this week.

    SEN. BENJAMIN CARDIN: As local papers are closing, we’re losing a valuable tradition in America, critically important to our communities, critically important to our democracy. So the legislation that I am filing today, the Newspaper Revitalization Act, offers an opportunity to save our local papers. It allows them to be nonprofits, to operate like we do in many of the other media areas, such as public radio, public television, to allow for the opportunity for nonprofits to operate our local community papers.

    Now, this is not going to be an option that a lot of papers will choose. They want to make profit. They want to do their commercial. They want to make endorsements of candidates. But for some papers, it will allow us to save local newspapers. The restriction on going nonprofit would be that you could not endorse candidates. You can certainly report on elections.

AMY GOODMAN: Maryland Democratic Senator Cardin. Robert McChesney, your response to his proposal? He’s introducing the Newspaper Revitalization Act.

ROBERT McCHESNEY: Well, I think it’s a historic moment, and I’m honored and delighted to see that Senator Cardin has done this. And I think what it points to, like my article, too, Amy and Juan, is that we’re in this historic crisis. I mean, a year ago, if I had written this article or Senator Cardin had introduced that legislation, we would have been put in the funny farm, we would have been dismissed as lunatics for even proposing it. I think six months or a year from now, this is going to look like very staid thinking, the way this crisis is going, because as Senator Cardin points out, in community after community, we don’t have any journalists left anymore. You know, and our system of governance can’t work if people don’t know anything about their community. It simply collapses. And that means the rule of law collapses, civil liberty collapses.

I think that Senator Cardin’s plan is a good start. It’s part of the solution. It’s not the entire solution. But I love the idea that people on Capitol Hill are waking up to this crisis and understand that doing nothing is not an option, if we want to have a constitutional form of government.

AMY GOODMAN: Bob McChesney, we want to thank you very much for being with us, co-founder of Free Press, professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His article, “The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers,” appearing in The Nation magazine.

I’m looking forward to coming to Madison, Wisconsin at the beginning of May, the end of April, for the hundredth anniversary of The Progressive magazine — it should be quite a remarkable celebration, beginning with a concert with Ani DiFranco and Dar Williams and others — and beginning that tour this weekend, our Standing Up to the Madness tour around the country, looking at conditions around the country. I’ll be in Seattle on Sunday and Olympia, Washington, celebrating community media as we go, like KAOS Radio in Olympia, Washington. On Monday, to Washington, D.C., and then we’ll be going to Cambridge and to Amherst, to across Montana. In Tennessee, we’ll be celebrating WETS, a wonderful community public radio station there. We’ll be going through Florida. We’ll be going to Kansas City. We’ll be coming to Minneapolis and many places. Just check our website at We’ll also be going throughout Ohio, to the University of Ohio. We’ll be going to Columbus. And Juan, that’s where we’re going right now to talk to our next guest.

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