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As the Media Goes So Goes Democracy

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A good friend of mine, Rosanna Fuentes-Berain of Mexico City, wrote a book then magazine excerpt a few years ago of the world's richest man Carlos Slim. She submitted the piece to the New York Times. They passed on the basis that no one would be interested in this Mexican businessman.

Well, there's lots of sudden interest now in the Times venerable newsroom: Senor Slim saved the New York Times financially a few days ago with another cash infusion of quarter of a billion dollars. Not pesos. Dollars.

The story illustrates how much the media has changed or, rather, has had to change. Even America's pre-eminent periodical had much to learn about how decreasingly important its pages, as well as America itself, was becoming. Both lived beyond their means while technology, globalization, competition and profligacy took their toll.

The media business model implodes globally and the fallout has grave ramifications for democracy, business transparency and, last but not least, for those like me who practice journalism.

News, both print and broadcast, has been subsidized by advertisers who wanted to peddle their wares to our readers or viewers. Now the audience is fragmented across the Internet and other media platforms, a second whammy to a sector suffering like all the others from the current credit crunch.
So we are, like others, casting about for a better business model while fighting to keep our audiences and advertisers happy.

Many media outlets are seeking refuge in the waiting arms of rich guys like Carlos Slim. Or Sam Zell in Chicago who blew his brains out within a year and put the Chicago Tribune, LA Times and others into chapter 11 protection.

In Britain, the Evening Standard has been rescue by controversial Russian oligarch, and former KGB agent, Alexander Lebedev. Like Slim, Mr. Lebedev in the past has been the sort of subject that newspapers wrote about, not on behalf of, because of their coziness with questionable politicians and governments.

This is a considerable departure. Conrad Black or William Randolph Hearst aside, newspaper proprietors have been thought of as independent pillars of society in past generations. They have been thought of, along with their journalists, as the champions of the underdog, press freedoms and even democracy itself.

While over-stated, there is some concern in journalistic quarters such as those I occupy about this higher purpose. Frankly, specialty channels, reality TV and the blogosphere are very entertaining but they are hardly bastions of our freedoms, values or of facts that have been well-tested and curated by professional content-providers in editors' and producers' chairs.

All of which has led me to conclude that perhaps, for a change, France may have come up with the absolutely best business model for my business: Nicolas Sarkozy has given France's newspapers a €600million subsidy over three years--including a free subscription for every 18-year-old Frenchman--on top of the €280 per year it gives them now. He's also directed governments to step up their advertising.

Britain is considering similar measures for regional papers and there's talk even in the U.S. Meanwhile, Canadian taxpayers support the CBC, British the BBC and perhaps all governments should prop all of us up too.

Just kidding. Sort of.

From my blog in the Financial Post about the implosion of the media business model...