By David Tulis
A shock ran through the world of printed newspapers Thursday when a major chain announced it was cutting major dailies to three days a week
The New Orleans Times Picayune and Alabama dailies in Birmingham, Huntsville and Mobile are being chopped from seven days a week.
The newspaper industry has struggled for years with declining circulation and plunging ad revenues as readers and advertisers flee to the Internet. In this third post about my hometown newspaper, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, I argue that the concept of local economy and an open newsroom could ensure the company’s survival and prosperity in bleak times as a printer of newspapers and publisher of news.
The solutions for responding to the digital revolution aren’t simply technical. They are, I suggest, founded on moral and free market principles that start with the principles of local economy.
Thumbnail of local economy
Localism is an intellectually self-aware provincialism that avoids the left-right and other tired paradigms. It favors the small over the big, the local/regional vs. the alien or the remote. County government is appreciated, national suspected. For the intelligent Noogacentrist, even Nashville is too remote. The American system once was highly local, with the genius of centralization fiercely doubted and stoutly fought (particularly by the South). Indeed, the war to prevent Southern independence destroyed this decentralized order in favor of unitary national government and rule of experts and university elites. But its failings are increasingly evident.Here are the players in the conflict into which I propose our local media treasure, the Times Free Press, nudge itself as an intelligent partisan:
➤ National economy is all about multinationals, trade unions, limited liability, commercial government, fractional reserve credit, the Federal Reserve System, surveillance, regulation, professional licensure, big media propaganda, food stamps, stimulus funding of Waterhouse PR’s solar panels, investment in remote entities, big food and pharma, “too big to fail,” Fannie Mae, Wal-Mart and white bread. The economy where the federal and other levels of government create more than 50 percent of the incomes of the American people? That’s the national economy. Picture the pyramid on the back of your $1 bill; national economy is about vertical relationships, top down.
➤ In contrast, local economy envisions replacing the bureaucratic superstructure of modern life over the long term. It is about sole proprietorships, family life, Christian grace, mutual aid, private charity, small business, noninterventionism and local investment. It’s about slow and local food, living in persona propria (in one’s proper person sans limited liability), printed books and whole wheat bread. Local economy is marked by horizontal relationships, where people and businesses act left to right and right to left, as among free equals.
Since the 2008 meltdown, Americans are increasingly aware of the dichotomy, and I have hints they are willing to act more in terms of it. Chattanoogans feel a mix of loathing for the U.S. Congress and dread as against its ubiquitous policing apparatus. The tea party movement, the free press of the Internet, the Tenthers who argue for states rights, home educators, the off-grid solar and local food movements, the Occupy Wall Street crowd of a few months back act in terms of this paradigm.
It’s important to divide the players across a fault line because the United States is in the process of devolution and decentralization. We are at an acme, a peak, of a trend for which the divine right of kings and the corporate state were crucial cornerstones 500 years ago. History’s drive into centralization seems to have come to its utmost limit, and the world is in a long-term supertrend in the opposite direction.
The Internet is helping end old tyrannies and monopolies and showing the rot in the floorboards upon which the king’s throne stands. I believe that many bankruptcies lie ahead, in both government and corporate fields. LTCM in 1998 and Lehman in 2008 were just the beginning. Witness the crackup of the EU, Harrisburg, Pa., or Jefferson County, Ala. Sunday’s story about the red ink in Olan Mills photo studio’s pension plan is a snapshot of the national overleveraging. The discounting of big government is accelerating. Its descent into receivership promises to bring widespread agony and despair, but also a tremendous opportunity for liberty and free market capitalism in Chattanooga.
In a local economy paradigm, the Times Free Press positions a vulnerable cash cow, its printed newspaper, and the rest of its revenue streams on the winning side.
Generating goodwill, identification with two types of customer
My proposal for the TFP would rally Chattanoogans under an opportune banner (namely, Chattanooga), give them a greater sense of belonging and enhance their sense of place. As the paper editorializes for constitutional government and wheeling our exhausted nanny state into the skilled care unit, it gives readers and advertisers reason to rally around as THEIR local news meeting place and newspaper. The paper is tough on bureaucrats. It quizzes senators.It comforts the harassed and harasses the comfortable etc. But the Times Free Press represents local commoners of the kind that fills its own staff ranks; its serve his interests in dealing with the barons and their tax-stamp agents. It helps with cheap websites, a multi-tiered ad rate structure across a swarm of local websites and blogs for which it is a utility service provider. These graces allow it to defend against Nooga.com and other local competitors. Its staff people and its client site writers are all over the Web, blogging on local issues and developing their own Internet neighborhoods and brands. To say the paper’s job is to inform the public about officials’ acts is to say too little. Its job as the hometown paper should be to represent and defend its ordinary person subscribers and neighbors.
My proposal recognizes that we are within a geopolitical antithesis, and suggests self-conscious steps to further its development. Localism and local economy are the only solution to the outlying catastrophe that is upon us as a country. Except for mass inflation, no federal solution exists to stop the disaster or delay it by much. Sending a better man to Congress won’t solve anything. Even Ron Paul, who has been right for 40 years, could not really prevent the powerful forces of devolution that are wrecking the nation’s high-toned entitlements and our cherished assumptions about the U.S. government.
The local economy argument fills people with hope and a sense of good cheer. It enlivens our sense of what is possible, what the Times Free Press can do, what people in the area can do in the free market and personally. Over time, the problems created by Uncle Sam’s bankruptcy will be solved by local people. They will bypass collapsed structures and replace them with liberty-oriented homegrown family-run systems. Localism puts a lot of confidence in American ingenuity and the newspaper’s subscribers and fans. It makes much of the character and technology that make Americans an inimitable people, and it respects their variety and origins.
The role of grace in saving an institution
Local economy encourages free association over force, community of interests over class conflict, personal interaction over political lobbying, local investment versus Wall Street, homegrown can-do solutions over statute-encased directives from New England policy wonks. If the Times Free Press’ writers are encouraged to develop their own writing and photo gigs outside normal workplace hours, the company extends grace to them and assures the public that they are alike: Human, ordinary, not a pretended elite.
Cheap websites for thrift shops and garages are all about graciously stooping to conquer, about caring for the commoner and the plainspoken. My idea of the newspaper being a media utility for bloggers serves the small shop as a prospective ad client and it enriches local life. Accurate, aggressive reporting and bold editorials help people to defend and enhance our remarkable city. Aggressive use of TFP newsroom output increases the public’s desire to patronize the company and support the printed newspaper product, despite its $180 a year pricetag.
A main benefit of my idea is that if the newspaper makes a moral and psychological identification with its readers through the concept of local economy, readers have better reason to write another yearly subscription check. The world is full of ordinary, simple people who don’t want to read their news on a screen, and the printed paper becomes a necessary luxury. The printed newspaper, which carries a load of ads and well-paying ad inserts, will survive because paid subscriptions become a right reward for a vigorous local benefactor and defender.