Don't rush to judgment on Stars and Stripes

News
Tobias Naegele, Stars and Stripes' ombudsman
Tobias Naegele, Stars and Stripes' ombudsman

Don't rush to judgment on Stars and Stripes

by: Tobias Naegele | .
Stars and Stripes Ombudsman | .
published: April 22, 2016

The Defense Department is considering a proposal to stop funding Stars and Stripes.

Such a cut would likely kill the newspaper. It must not be made in haste or in secret.

Stars and Stripes receives about $12 million a year in appropriated funding. That’s about 40 percent of its overall budget, according to Stars and Stripes Publisher Max Lederer, with the balance coming from advertising and circulation sales. Of the appropriated funds, $7 million comes from the regular defense budget and $5 million from overseas contingency operations funds — the war budget — mostly to pay for printing and distributing the paper downrange.

In a world of multibillion-dollar aircraft programs, that’s not a whole lot. But in my house and yours, it’s real money, and for Stripes, it’s the difference between publishing or not.

The proposal comes from the Business Process and Systems Review team, chartered in 2014 to cut Pentagon headquarters spending by 20 percent. It’s important work, and they’re right to question whether funding Stripes is a good use of taxpayer funds.

I’ve asked the same question myself. For many years, I led the newsroom at Military Times, a rival to Stripes for both readers and advertisers, and I often wondered whether, in an age of global connectivity, this newspaper still had a mission. Couldn’t troops overseas access American news on the Web?

Since joining Stars and Stripes as ombudsman a couple of months ago, others have asked me the same question.

Turns out it’s not that simple. Yes, troops in most places can access news on the Internet. But not everywhere. If you’re in Britain, Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea — base stations where Internet access is easy and routine — you have no trouble reading news online.

But deployed troops in Afghanistan or Iraq, Kuwait or Djibouti do not have that luxury. For them, Internet access is spotty and unreliable. So a printed newspaper distributed in chow halls and gyms and elsewhere offers both information and escape, news from home that can be read and shared over a meal, on a flight or while waiting for that next order or assignment.

That answers why print may still be viable, but it doesn’t address why it’s necessary.

Stars and Stripes as we know it today dates to World War II, when American military leaders chose to create a daily newspaper for servicemembers overseas. They wanted troops to feel connected to what was happening back home. They continued to publish Stripes for generations because we, as a people, believe a well-informed citizen-soldier is a better citizen and soldier. For most of that time, the newspaper was self-supporting.

The economics of newspapering blew up over the past decade, and with it Stripes’ economic model. Paid circulation declined, and with it advertising revenue, which is based on reader volume. Today, Stripes survives only because it gets direct funding.

Some might argue the Pentagon would save money by shuttering Stripes and instead delivering a commercial newspaper to our troops overseas. But those papers won’t come without a price and they won’t be tailored, as Stripes is, to the interests of military readers. The beauty of Stars and Stripes is not just that it’s a daily paper available overseas, but that it’s a daily paper written and edited for military members. Its blend of staff-written articles and news culled from the nation’s leading providers — The Washington Post, The Associated Press, The New York Times — is unique, and provides depth and balance to military readers.

Another difference: Most newspapers endorse political policies and candidates, creating political baggage in the process. Stars and Stripes doesn’t take political positions.

It seems inevitable that, like the American Forces Network, which balances left-leaning and right-leaning news channels, the military eventually would have to follow suit and offer not one, but two newspapers in the war zone. That’s not going to save a dime.

The BPSR team, along with the Defense Media Activity, which oversees the newspaper, need to dig deeper. What is the ultimate value of delivering an independently minded, military-oriented newspaper to our troops downrange? What is that really worth to us as a nation? And what is it worth to the troops who depend on it when they’re far from home?

Studying Stars and Stripes’ balance sheet tells us the obvious: The newspaper loses money. It’s the intangibles that are harder for us to understand.

I don’t think there’s any question that Stripes offers value. But whether it’s worth the cost and whether its value is appreciated are separate questions. Both deserve answers.

Here’s a modest proposal: Fund a readership study downrange. Use it to dig beyond what servicemembers like or don’t like about Stripes and discover the deeper value they derive from having it available and what the payoff is to helping them be better-informed citizens. Then, when we’ve gathered some answers, we can talk seriously about whether it’s time for Stripes to go the way of sailing ships and hardtack, or whether it, like the ageless B-52 bomber, should be refitted with new wings and electronics and keep contributing to the military mission.

This newspaper exists for the benefit of forward-stationed troops and those who support them. They deserve a voice in determining its future.

The ombudsman welcomes comments from readers, and can be contacted by email at naegele.tobias@stripes.com or by phone at 202-761-0900.