Do you care about the future of democracy? Why don't you buy a newspaper? That's the advice of Pablo Eisenberg, senior fellow at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute and a regular contributor to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Eisenberg is, like many thinking people, worried about the closure of newspapers in recent years. The Times Picayune, for instance, announced in June that it would be publishing only three print editions a week. The trend is certainly disappointing. Few local papers have found a way to be profitable in the digital age. As one of the youngest people who actually gets three papers delivered to her door and as someone who makes her living in part from writing for newspapers, I will be particularly saddened to see the newspaper business fold.
Eisenberg points to the recent Ford Foundation grant to the Los Angeles Times to help in their coverage of the city's prison system as well as immigration and suggests that other foundations and rich individuals should follow suit:
As many other newspaper owners follow the lead of the Times-Picayune, it’s time for the nation’s major philanthropists to step in and recognize that they must rescue a critical engine of democracy....
Why, for example, hasn’t George Soros, fervent champion of an open society, donated some of his vast fortune to preserve a free press on which an open society so depends? And how about all the other wealthy philanthropists -- especially prominent community leaders like Eli Broad and Peter Lewis -- who manage to make gifts to colleges, art museums, and hospitals? Philanthropy has many strong options to solve the problems confronting newspapers. Like the Ford Foundation, grant makers and donors could give newspapers money to cover their essential needs.
Rich donors could individually or collectively buy ailing newspapers to make certain that they continue their service as publicly minded information providers and watchdogs.
The gift from the Ford Foundation came with "no strings attached" according to both the Los Angeles Times and Ford, but Ford is hardly a neutral bystander on questions of immigration or the prison system. Does anyone want to bet how many articles will focus on the success of, say, a for-profit model of prisons or crime in immigrant communities? Now, it's also true that the LA Times was unlikely to take up these topics to begin with, but a million dollars will probably confirm the paper's positions.
And why shouldn't the Ford Foundation get its say? After all, it's being transparent about the whole thing? Unfortunately, when it comes to influencing newspapers, only certain kinds of money serve to, in the words of Eisenberg, "promote democracy." He holds up Warren Buffett as an example of a great supporter of newspapers. Buffett's political positions probably appeal to Eisenberg, as does, one imagines his hands-off approach. David Carr recently offered a glowing report of Buffett in the New York Times, which included the fact that he has not visited his Buffalo News property in the past eight years. Let's just say Eisenberg doesn't bother to mention Rupert Murdoch when he invokes wealthy people willing to lose a little money in the newspaper business for the sake of preserving democracy.
The New York Times also had a piece a few weeks ago about Douglas Manchester, a developer who bought the Union-Times San Diego, the local newspaper. The Times describes Manchester as "anti-big government, anti-tax and anti-gay marriage" and it goes on to interview local politicians, journalists, and radio personalities who express concern that Manchester has become "a player rather than observer in civic events." The paper's chief executive told the Times, "We make no apologies. We are doing what a newspaper ought to do, which is to take positions." I'm not sure that's how I would describe what newspapers ought to do, but Mr. Manchester and other wealthy newspaper owners are certainly entitled to their opinions. I wonder if Pablo Eisenberg would agree.