Don't Bail Out Newspapers—Let Them Die and Get Out of the Way

Nobody in their right mind believes the future of the news business involves paper and ink rather than pixels on a screen. We all know where the news business is headed, and what's more, we've known it for at least a decade. So why on earth are people talking about a bailout for newspapers? Why is President Obama saying he'd consider it? Why is Congress holding hearings and considering "The Newspaper Revitalization Act" in a bid to save these ailing old rags with tax breaks and other handouts? It's like introducing legislation to save horse-drawn carriages, or steam engines, or black-and-white TV. It's stupid. It's pointless. It won't work.

The fact is, all this hysteria has nothing to do with saving the news, or saving jobs. Nor is it about saving democracy, which is what the red-in-the-face newspaper lovers always get themselves huffed about, as if newspapers and democracy were inextricably linked. Democracy existed long before newspapers did, and it will survive without them. And plenty of countries that don't have democracy do have newspapers. Nor would a bailout help readers. In fact, it would only slow down our shift to the Internet, which is a far better medium for delivering information.

The only beneficiaries of a bailout would be a handful of big newspaper companies that used to be profitable and powerful and now, well, aren't. Those companies saw the Internet charging toward them like a freight train, and they just stood there on the tracks. They didn't adapt. Why? Because for decades these companies enjoyed virtual monopolies, and as often happens to monopolists, they got lazy. They invested their resources in protecting their monopolies, using bully tactics to keep new competitors from entering their markets. They dished up an inferior product and failed to believe that anything or anyone could ever take their little gold mines away from them.

It's hilarious to hear these folks puff themselves up with talk about being the Fourth Estate, performing some valuable public service for readers—when in fact the real customer has always been the advertiser, not the reader. That truth has been laid bare in recent years. As soon as papers got desperate for cash, they dropped their "sacred principles" as readily as a call girl sheds her clothes. Ads on the front page? Reporters assigned to write sponsored content? No problem.

Now, new companies with names like Politico and Huffington Post and The Daily Beast and Gawker are beating newspapers at their own game. The new guys are faster, and often better. They're leading, with newspapers chasing behind. If the old guys really want to retain their chokehold on the news business, they should consider buying up the new guys. Problem is, the old guys waited too long, and now they're too broke to make acquisitions. Whoops.

Sure, nobody has yet figured out how to make loads of money delivering news over the Internet. But that's partly because there are too many old newspaper companies, stumbling around like zombies: creatures from another century, clinging to their lame old business model, surviving but not thriving—and sucking up money that Internet companies could put to better use.

Instead of giving newspapers bailouts, we should be hastening their demise. The weak papers need to die. The strong newspapers need to go into bankruptcy and restructure their businesses with smaller staffs and lower cost structures. Yes, it will be painful. But journalists will find jobs—and they'll be working in a better, faster medium.

Meanwhile, all of us need to get over this pious notion about the sanctity of the newspaper. I've been a journalist for 27 years, and I love that romantic old notion of the newsroom as much as the next guy. But I recently canceled my two morning papers—The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal—because I got tired of carrying them from the front porch to the recycling bin, sometimes without even looking at them. Fact is, I only care about a tiny percentage of what those papers publish, and I can read them on my computer or my iPhone. And I can rely on blogs and Twitter to steer me to articles worth reading.

As for all the hand-wringing about the great "in-depth" information that only a newspaper can provide, let's be honest: the typical daily newspaper does a lousy job. It tries to provide a little bit of everything—politics, sports, business, celebrity stuff—and as a result it doesn't do anything particularly well. Ask anyone who's an expert in anything—whether it's bicycle racing or brain surgery—what they think when they read a newspaper article about their field. Chances are they cringe, because the material is so dumbed-down, and because it's so clear that whoever wrote the article has no real expertise on this topic.

Frankly, a lot of newspapers just stink. People worry about the fate of the San Francisco Chronicle, but that paper has been an embarrassment for decades. The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press are in trouble, but they deserve it: for one thing, they spawned Mitch Albom; for another, they're both pretty awful. The Boston Globe, my current hometown paper, is smug and provincial, and the writing is embarrassingly bad. Much of the Globe reads like a college newspaper. Would any of us really be worse off if these crusty, crappy old relics suddenly disappeared?

Please, Congress, drop this crazy idea about saving newspapers. You can't save them. They are going to die. All you can do is prolong their agony, and delay the shift to the Internet. That doesn't do any of us any good.

Want to read more blog posts by Daniel Lyons? To subscribe to the Techtonic Shifts RSS feed, click here.