How Electronic Readers Could Save Newspapers

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Here's something I'd like to toss into the hat for the economic stimulus program: Let's provide a subsidy to help newspapers and other publishers transition from paper-based to electronic distribution. The fate of American journalism is too important to be left to chance, but its very nature precludes it from lobbying much on its own behalf.

Our founding fathers clearly considered a free press to be more important to the survival of our democracy than banks. In fact, Thomas Jefferson eerily predicted that big banking could be our downfall. Yet, banks are getting hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars and publishers not a cent. Newspapers are also more important than saving GM or Chrysler, both of which are presently readying for long drinks from the public trough.

There is already an immediate precedent for helping media companies make the jump from analog to digital technology--all those $40 digital TV converter box vouchers that have been issued. Why shouldn't paper publishing likewise get some assistance through a technology transition?

Saving America's newspapers would probably cost more than handing out TV vouchers, and maybe even more than saving the automakers. I really have no idea what this proposal would cost, but it isn't so much an investment in newspapers as it is in maintaining a free press capable of watching out for the public's interest. Is this important? Take Washington and Jefferson's word for it.

How might this work?

Washington would give every American taxpayer an amount of money that could only be spent on newspapers and magazines delivered electronically. The amount might be keyed to the amount of taxes paid, but it needs to be in a form that is immediately spendable, such as an online voucher.

You could also use the money for a Kindle or a next-generation newspaper reader such as the one Hearst is proposing. Maybe even for a laptop, though that is probably a stretch.

The key thing would be supporting new hardware platforms and developing a new business model that supports paid content. I anticipate this will be a multi-year program, but not a forever one. Properly supported, the transition to electronic distribution could be complete in a few years and our newspapers and magazines would be around to see it.

This program would help publishers make the jump from today's free content to tomorrow's paid content. It would be especially helpful to community newspapers, which play such an important part in our political and social life. It would also keep our newspapers of record alive and might even contribute to the founding of a variety of new information sources.

Yes, this is a publishing guy saying our industry needs survival assistance. That doesn't matter: Newspapers and magazines are too important to be lost in a perfect storm of economic downturn and technology transition.

If you agree that it's important to save newspapers and support new technology, please promote this idea over your social networks and via e-mail to your friends and, especially, your representative in Washington. Newspapers and publishers are an endangered species unless you help.

David Coursey started in journalism at the age of 15 and remains idealistic. Write to him using the contact form on his Web site.

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