It’s a trying time for all newspapers, especially daily newspapers and especially The Cincinnati Enquirer.
As more and more readers turn to the Internet for free content and information, advertisers that once relied on print publications instead are flocking to Web sites like Craig’s List. Newspaper companies are left desperately trying to devise a new business model to replace the loss of advertising cash.
Business analysts are buzzing about The Gannett Co., The Enquirer’s parent firm, and rumors it will layoff another 4,500 employees at its U.S. newspaper holdings on July 8. Already this year Gannett has required most of its workers to take two separate, five-day unpaid furloughs.
Also, Gannett had a round of layoffs in December, and offered several employees a voluntary severance package last fall to reduce its payroll.
With that atmosphere in mind, it’s understandable that The Enquirer would want to protect its hold on print and online advertising from possible competition.
The Enquirer published an editorial Thursday opposing a bill (Amended Substitute Ohio House Bill 1) under consideration in the state legislature. The bill, sought by county governments across Ohio, would allow counties to reduce the amount they spent on public notice ads in newspapers and possibly allow them to solicit online advertising for county Web sites.
Counties want the changes to help them cut costs and explore new revenue sources during tight budget times.
Under the headline, “An advertisement for corruption,” the editorial stated,
“But (the bill) would make legislators beholden to a new set of interests, advertisers who buy space on county Web sites. This is wrongly advocated as a painless way for county governments to raise money without raising taxes. What it really does is open the door for conflicts-of-interest, campaign corruption and uncontrolled public spending.”
In its fervor to kill the bill, though, The Enquirer omits important facts.
First, several counties elsewhere across the nation already allow advertising on their Web sites including Cook County, Ill., where Chicago is located. No problems have been reported as a result.
Also, just like those counties, Hamilton County officials have said they would draft rules that would prevent advertisers from having any other business with the county, to avoid conflicts.
Later The Enquirer’s editorial continues,
“Advertising would make public officials dependent on one narrow set of constituents (the advertisers) for a new stream of revenue. Think of the potential conflict of an advertiser who spends tens of thousands of dollars on the county commissioners' Web site coming before the county seeking a zoning variance, a development deal or a tax abatement. If you are a private citizen opposed to the request, will you be confident that your voice carries the same weight as the advertiser?”
The irony, of course, is that readers could ask the same thing of newspapers about their coverage. Are newspaper executives somehow inherently morally superior to politicians? If you think advertisers don’t influence newspapers, ask fired Enquirer business reporter James McNair for his opinion sometime.
Just as newspapers still need readers to increase circulation numbers to justify the rates they charge advertisers, politicians still must convince voters to reelect them. It’s a type of check and balance.
The Ohio Newspaper Association (ONA), the lobbyist for newspapers statewide, sent an “urgent action alert” to its members several days ago, urging them to “editorialize immediately” against the bill. In the alert, the ONA listed several reasons why it should be opposed. They included:
** Government would be creating commercial Web sites in direct competition with private enterprises.
** Government would be soliciting advertising from the same companies and businesses advertising on traditional commercial media, thus taking revenue away from media outlets in Ohio that are already suffering from the recession with massive cutbacks, including layoffs of media employees.
** This concept allows government to operate with non-tax revenue, setting up the potential of avoiding voters whenever additional county revenue is needed.
** This concept is a conflict of interest that violates the separation of government (the public sector) from business (the private sector).
With tax credits, the use of eminent domain to seize land, and the recent federal bailouts, that last point is particularly laughable.
Thursday’s editorial followed the ONA’s suggested talking points on the topic virtually one-by-one, paraphrasing the lobbying group’s line of attack against the bill.
“County governments should concentrate on the business of providing government services,” The Enquirer’s editorial stated. “If they are short on funds, they should cut their expenditures or raise taxes. It is not in the public interest for them to solicit money from a select few outside the control of the voters. We urge the House to delete this proposal from the budget bill.”
That sentiment is at odds with what many newspapers — especially conservative ones like The Enquirer — have editorialized about for years. They’ve often pushed local governments to “do more with less” and find innovative new revenue streams that don’t depend on taxes. What those newspapers didn’t say was, “Just don’t step on our toes when you do.”
In today’s Enquirer, another editorial praised a watered-down version of the bill that would protect newspapers’ revenues. The newer bill would require the first printing of government notices to be done in newspapers, with subsequent printings done online. Further, it doesn’t mention allowing county governments to solicit their own online advertising.
The latest editorial, however, doesn’t mention that it would help newspapers protect their revenues at a higher cost to taxpayers. How disingenuous.