How many print newspapers do you read each day? Do you watch the evening news on television? On which station? These questions are more and more pertinent with the disappearance of local dailies and votes on how much citizens should pay for access to subsidized state radio and television.
The last print edition of Le Matin on July 21 recalls the slogan of The New York Times, “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” Created by the Times owner Adolph S. Ochs in 1897, it was supposed to assure that the newspaper would report the news impartially. While the slogan still appears on the masthead, there is certainly a question whether “Fit to Print” is still relevant. (I leave the question of the Times’ impartiality to others as well as the quality of the stories in Le Matin.)
Le Matin is the first Swiss daily to go 100% digital. But this is not a move from strength. The paper has been losing money; the move to digital is an attempt to keep the daily going by cutting costs.
Like other local dailies, such as Geneva’s Tribune de Genève or New York’s Daily News, the print news is in trouble. Attempts are being made to inject public funds into the private press to keep it afloat. But there is justifiable hesitation on the part of the public of government interference in the freedom of the press. We certainly don’t want something like the Communist Party’s Pravda to tell us what’s going on.
The disappearance of the print edition of Le Matin is part of a larger pattern away from paper towards digital. More and more news comes from blogs and social media. The daily newspaper, often extolled as the bastion of café conversations, has given way to online browsing. The local daily has become a remnant of the past like family viewing of the evening news. The communitarianism of the public reading and listening to the same news has given way to the individualism of selective digital.
To have an informed public is important. Informed citizens are lauded as the backbone of democracy. How one gets the news is another matter. While many news sources are blatantly political, it is not easy to find any source that is totally impartial. The only way to get impartial news is either to be at an event or to read several versions to decide for yourself. Both are difficult and time consuming. We must rely on other sources for our information. Only when we analyse these sources can we make an informed opinion.
Does the public really want to know? Have we become so inundated with information that we prefer quickly browsing or ignoring all together? The news is less and less in the forefront of our radar screens.
How to change this? If an informed public is essential for thriving democracies, then different news sources should be offered to the public in a tempting manner.
Here is my idea: In Switzerland, citizens pay to have television which indirectly subsidizes the evening news. But how to subsidize the news? Or even digital news? If we don’t want the state to run the media, another possibility would be that subscriptions to local sources could be tax deductible, much like donating to charities. This way I would not pay directly for the service, but I would be allowed to deduct the purchase from my taxes as part of a charitable activity. And the media would be paid based on the number of deductions requested.
The advantage of this indirect system is the recognition that getting the news is more than just buying a commodity. A newspaper is not a widget; it is a public good. So, by declaring my subscription to X as a charitable deduction, I would be reconfirming my contribution to the greater public good, rather than just buying a paper at a local kiosk or subscribing to some website.