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Society needs a new business model

I’ve been thinking a lot these past few weeks about a poster one of my teachers had on the classroom wall when I was a boy.

It listed how much money Michael Jordan’s basketball and sponsorship contracts made him while he did everyday things: $52,000 while he sleeps, $618 while boiling an egg, $3,710 while watching an episode of “Friends.”

But, the poster ended, Jordan would have to live for 450 years to make as much money as computer genius Bill Gates, so “nerds win.”

The poster was meant to encourage all of us to buckle down on academics, so we, too, might make 450 times the annual salary of Michael Jordon. I was a bookish boy and I saw the poster as a rallying cry.

Now, I see it as a bunch of crock.

I’ve nothing against sports. I watch the Lions every Sunday through the fall, enjoy a good baseball summer afternoon, and think sports can teach us a lot about perseverance and dedication and discipline.

But there’s something backwards about a player signing a multimillion-dollar contract after making it through college on a full-ride athletic scholarship while the teacher who inspired him and helped him keep the required grade-point average starts somewhere around $30,000 a year under a mountain of student loan debt.

For every billionaire Bill Gates, there are thousands of academic types doing the kinds of work society depends on but not cashing in: teachers, researchers, librarians, social workers — and yes, journalists.

In fact, newspapers tend to hurt the most right when their communities need them most.

It happened during the Great Recession that began in 2007-08. Newspapers laid off and furloughed journalists, pressmen, copy desk editors, page designers, photographers, and more by the thousands, right when their readers needed them to make sense of the economic jargon and to hold federal, state, and local authorities accountable for how they spent billions of stimulus dollars.

And it’s happening now, as shutdowns and quarantines meant to prevent the spread of the coronavirus dry up the advertising dollars that keep papers afloat.

Just 10 days into Michigan’s coronavirus fight, Crain’s Detroit Business reported several newspapers in metro Detroit were shutting down (see the story here: https://tinyurl.com/szhse5g). By March 27, CNN reported at least 300 journalists across the U.S. had lost their jobs (https://tinyurl.com/ueo4xe8). This week, Gannett ordered furloughs and pay cuts across its massive newspaper empire (https://tinyurl.com/v4ykfxn). The News and its parent company, Wheeling, West Virgina-based Ogden Newspapers, have not been immune.

And, again, that slashing is happening at the same time our communities are turning to newspapers to make sense of the medical jargon and to hold federal, state, and local authorities accountable for how they will spend trillions of stimulus dollars.

As their pay is cut and their friends lose their jobs (and the leader of the free world keeps bashing them: https://tinyurl.com/swvaheq), journalists are working overtime to report on the mountains of facts flying across the globe and to bat down rumor after rumor after rumor (https://tinyurl.com/vsdn3m6).

The public obviously appreciates that work. Newspaper website traffic is booming and single-copy sales remain strong, despite many places where newspapers are sold being closed.

But that’s not turning into dollars. While subscribers make up a bigger share of newspaper revenue than ever before, advertisers remain newspapers’ bread and butter.

And, seeing their work as a public service, many newspapers have actually brought their coronavirus stories out from behind their websites’ paywalls, allowing folks to read all of those stories without a subscription (paywalls typically require a subscription to read more than five to 10 stories a month).

So, at the same time potential subscribers are flooding to newspapers while advertisers are flooding away, newspapers are giving more of their content away for free (newspapers that haven’t done so have faced harsh criticism from their peers: https://tinyurl.com/tnpvxku).

In Congress’ latest $2.2 trillion stimulus package, airlines, hotels, restaurants, and several other businesses got a bailout or at least a helping hand. There’s never a bailout for newspapers, though some journalists are starting to argue there should be (https://tinyurl.com/roposs2).

I have mixed feelings about that. Newspapers are certainly important enough to justify public support, but journalists have a hard enough time dealing with skeptics without actually being indebted to the federal government.

The better way, however, would be for society to develop a new business model.

Athletes only make millions of dollars a year because we spend billions of dollars a year buying tickets to their games and buying the products they endorse.

What if we were also willing to invest in schools the same way?

Or newspapers?

How many winning nerds could we make then?

Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or jhinkley@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.

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