Eblen: Slots for another signature industry?

I'm worried about the financial state of journalism.

Digital technology has given news papers more readers than ever. Ironically, though, that technology means newspapers no longer are the dominant force in advertising, from where the money to support journalism has always come.

To make matters worse, most newspapers are owned by big corporations that went into debt to get bigger. They thought profits from advertising would make the debt affordable. They were wrong.

As a result, newspapers and newsrooms are dwindling in size. Radio and television newsrooms have been hit hard, too; they just don't talk about it. But I worry most about newspapers, and not just because I work for one.

Newspapers have always done most of journalism's heavy lifting, from investigations to public affairs reporting.

The Herald-Leader has gotten a lot of attention lately for exposing wasteful spending in some of Kentucky's quasi- government agencies. But that kind of work is nothing new: Newspapers of all sizes have a long record of giving Kentucky's powerful people and institutions some much-needed oversight.

Newspapers also play a big role in community-building. They do everything from covering neighborhood zoning disputes to printing wedding announcements.

You could call newspapers one of Kentucky's "signature" industries. There's at least one in each of Kentucky's 120 counties, and almost all of them are struggling.

But I have an idea: What if newspapers could persuade the General Assembly to give them another way to replace the advertising revenue they used to have?

What if newspapers were allowed to put slot machines in some of that empty space where reporters and editors used to work? Big newspapers might even have room for full-blown casinos.

People who went to their local newspapers to gamble wouldn't go out of state so much, so more of their money would stay in Kentucky.

Truthfully, though, much of that money would have stayed in Kentucky anyway. It just would have been spent on other things. So other than helping newspapers and the people associated with them, gambling revenue wouldn't do a lot for Kentucky's economy.

There would be other complications, too. For example, critics of slot machines and casinos say they attract crime and create other social costs.

There's big money in addictive businesses like gambling, especially when they're part of a government-sponsored monopoly.

Others would surely complain that it's not fair for such a monopoly to benefit only one industry, like newspapers. At the least, TV and radio also would want a piece of the action. And it wouldn't be long before politicians decided that government needed a bigger share of the take. After all, they created the monopoly, and they could just as easily take it away.

Even if newspapers could hang onto most of their new gambling revenue, I'm not sure it would be good for journalism in the long run.

Some media companies would use their cash infusion to invest in journalism — for a while. But corporate executives have a duty to maximize return for investors. If media companies could make big profits with slot machines and casinos, why would they want to subsidize journalism?

Even "signature" industries aren't exempt from the laws of economics, no matter how special they think they are.

My guess is that journalism must find a way to adapt by attracting more loyal customers, doing a better job of marketing and selling its products, creating new business models and proving its value. It no longer can be totally dependent on something else, even advertising.

So maybe my newsroom gambling idea isn't so good after all.

Besides, it's not an original idea.

Another "signature" industry has tried this strategy in other states for years, with little evidence that slot machines and casinos are anything but a short-term fix for deeper economic issues.

Of course, that industry would have us think it's a horse of a different color.

I wouldn't bet on it.

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