2009: The Year of the Newspaper Bailout?

Michelle Malkin called it, as did several NewsBusters commenters. Their prediction was that newspapers on the brink would be asking for government bailouts.

It came to pass in late November that seven Connecticut legislators asked the state's Department of Economic and Community Development for help in keeping the New Britain Herald and the Bristol Press afloat. A JPEG of the full letter with three of the seven signatures is here. Alleged GOP Governor Jodi Rell is apparently sympathetic.

A Wednesday "analysis" piece by Robert MacMillan of Reuters reports that the state agency is indeed "offering tax breaks, training funds, financing opportunities and other incentives for publishers, but not cash."

Here are other key paragraphs from MacMillan:

Relying on government help raises ethical questions for the press, whose traditional role has been to operate free from government influence as it tries to hold politicians accountable to the people who elected them. Even some publishers desperate for help are wary of this route.

Providing government support can muddy that mission, said Paul Janensch, a journalism professor at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, and a former reporter and editor.

"You can't expect a watchdog to bite the hand that feeds it," he said.

..... The lifeline comes as U.S. newspaper publishers such as the New York Times, Tribune and McClatchy deal with falling advertising revenue, fleeing readers and tremendous debt.

..... Many media experts predict that 2009 will be the year that newspapers of all sizes will falter and die, a threat long predicted but rarely taken seriously until the credit crunch blossomed into a full-fledged financial meltdown.

..... "I truly believe that no democracy can remain healthy without an equally healthy press," said Fiedler, now dean of Boston University's College of Communication. "Thus it is in democracy's interest to support the press in the same sense that the human being doesn't hesitate to take medicine when his or her health is threatened."

Connecticut does not see trying to find a buyer and offering tax breaks as exerting influence on the press, said Joan McDonald, the economic development commissioner.

..... Connecticut's actions are not the first time government has helped newspapers. The U.S. Postal Service has offered discounted postage rates. Several cities have papers running under Joint Operating Agreements, created following the congressional Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970 to keep competing urban dailies viable despite circulation declines.

On the whole, MacMillan's piece comes across as sympathetic to newspaper bailouts. Two unexcerpted paragraphs quote a journalist who says government help wouldn't affect his independence, but he misses the point. Government involvement would, eventually, either lead to government control or, as is the case with the BBC and NPR, ultimately untouchable, highly-subsidized entities that are free to disseminate their non-stop, heavily-biased reports without worrying about whether enough readers or advertisers care enough to pay for it.

The last thing we need is a hundred, or a thousand, little BBC clones running around setting the news agenda without regard to reader or viewer interest, in the process drowning out New Media. Perhaps because these entities would be receiving government money, the government would see it as its duty to keep New Media on the sidelines.

I believe that if New Media ends up inheriting the task of daily news reporting, clever entrepreneurs will figure out a way to do it, and well. It's less likely to happen if they know that their failing competitors in print will be propped up ad infinitum.

2009 should be the year when failing media enterprises give up the ghost, even if it means that some cities and towns have no newspapers. I suggest that we see what pops up to replace them. I'll go further (I'm not clear on what the answer is this question, so I'll throw it open for discussion):  If the answer is "nothing," what's wrong with that?

Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.

Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer is a contributing editor for NewsBusters.