As part of the Richmond Memorial Library's regular series, "Books Sandwiched In," the publisher of the Batavia Daily News spoke today about his assigned book: "The Death and Life of American Journalism," by Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols.
As Turnbull explained, the book examines why commercial journalism has declined in the United States and what might be done about it.
The authors take the position that robust journalism is essential to a functioning democracy, and if there are fewer reporters and fewer media outlets, the public will be less informed and more susceptible to be misled by the government.
The book opens with some sobering statistics about circulation declines for newspapers (broadcast news is hardly mentioned in the book) and correctly notes that the declines started well before the advent of the web.
While the authors place some blame on free online news and loss of revenue to sites such as Craigslist, the real problem, according to McChesney and Nichols, is corporate journalism.
Conglomerates, not merely chains, that owe a greater allegiance to shareholders than readers, started depending on higher and higher profit margins in the 1990s, leading to cuts in news rooms and a decline in journalistic quality at many newspapers.
Not satisfied with the 15 percent profit margins many family owned newspapers maintained throughout most of the 19th and 20th centuries, shareholders and CEOs beholden to them upped the ante to 30 and 35 percent profit margins.
The explosion of the Internet only added to the woes of newspapers with an abundance of free content -- most of it supplied by newspapers -- and competitors that robbed newspapers of vital classified advertising revenue. The recession made things worse, and in 2009 more than 15,000 newspaper employees lost their jobs.
If journalism is going to be saved, according to McChesney and Nichols, it won't come from a free-market approach with Internet entrepreneurs inventing a new news industry, and it won't come from the government allowing newspapers to form a cartel to protect their interests.
Instead, the authors argue that the solution is some form of government subsidy -- from vouchers for readers to direct handouts -- and the ability of newspaper ownership groups to more easily form nonprofit entities.
As Turnbull notes, even the authors acknowledge none of these solutions are perfect. They're all expensive, and Turnbull indicated he didn't see politicians -- or the public -- supporting subsidy solutions.
"The authors make a really strong argument at the end of the book that subsidies are not only necessary, but worth it," Turnbull said. "I think when you look at this book, it's not really a blueprint for the future of journalism, but a series of talking points."
While Turnbull didn't offer up his own version of what the future of journalism will look like, he did express concern that it isn't possible yet for a news operation the size of the Daily News to generate enough revenue online from advertising sales.
Turnbull is also skeptical that readers will pay for their news online. While there are various experiments in "pay walls" being conducted by newspapers around the country, Turnbull noted that none have yet proven successful.
Meanwhile, Turnbull said, subscription fees for the print newspaper are an important part of the Daily's revenue pie.
"Almost everybody reads everything on the Internet," Turnbull said. "And like I said, we can’t find a way to make money on that."
In an audience of mostly retirees, they all indicated they are avid Daily News readers.
"You're my favorite group (to speak to)," Turnbull said with a smile, and one audience member piped up with, "The day’s not complete without a good solid reading of the Batavia Daily News."
UPDATE: Tom Turnbull sends along a couple of clarifications. Regarding the quote "Almost everybody reads everything on the Internet," Turnbull said. "And like I said, we can’t find a way to make money on that."
Turnbull said to be clear we should note that comment was in response to somebody in the audience talking about the media habits of the "younger generation." Also, " we can't find a way to make money on that yet."