A Burning House

African American communities are not the only ones that suffer from the slow death of journalism. Civic engagement in the larger American polity is withering too, and for the same reason. Newspapers are folding not because they are unprofitable, but because even after cutting actual journalism to the bone, they don’t bring in the fifteen and twenty percent returns that the bubble economy has accustomed investors to. A well-run newspaper can consistently bring in a seven to nine percent annual return on investment, which in pre-bubble days was considered just fine. The very few newspaper corporations that remained family owned, or that went nonprofit are doing journalism as well as ever.

Forty-some years ago, Dr. Martin Luther wondered aloud that all his life’s work might have been the integration of African Americans into a burning house. King answered his own question by declaring that if that was the case, we would have to be the firefighters, not just for ourselves, but for the whole American polity…

Black Agenda Report, Bruce A. Dixon on Wed, 04/15/2009

I think you could dedicate an entire blog to the “push from the left” drama that seems to be so characteristic of the first few months of the Obama presidency. Obama is a consummate liberal, more interested in repairing the system than profound changes to its basic assumptions, but he’s also pragmatic and interested clearly in ideas.

That means the possibilities, at least until he establishes a longer record, are going to seem wide-open. That also means there’s going to be a lot of dreaming going on in the next few years, as well as a lot of hand-wringing. I am trying to keep my eyes on a few potential changes, or kinds of changes, that I think might create real shifts in power.

The Employee Free Choice Act is a good example, because it would allow, if not encourage, certain kinds of democratic organizing and power. Media reform is less well defined, but it too could create substantive change. What I like about Dixon’s post, however, is his notion of “reasonable” profit. The cliches about so-called old media– that they are unprofitable, especially– are just not true.

What’s really driven economic change over the last three decades isn’t profit as such, it’s greed. In other words, the idea of profit has lost its “reasonable” basis. “Reasonable” is relative, of course, and I am sure this sort of cultural shift happens regularly, but Dixon’s point is an important reminder. We won’t stop the slash and burn economy until we try to define a reasonable profit.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and Smarthinking.com. I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol] writinginthewild.com

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