Saturday, January 3, 2009

Government bailout of newspapers tempting, but dangerous

(Originally published 1/3/09)

Bristol, Conn.: Home to ESPN, The Bristol Press and Ground Zero in the fight to save American newspapers.

Like every other media company, The Press's owner, Journal Register, is drowning in rising newsprint costs and declining circulation and ad revenue, factors magnified and multiplied by the tanking economy. As a result, JR owners say they can't afford to keep The Press and its nearby counterpart, The New Britain Herald, open.

Enter Connecticut state assemblyman Frank Nicastro.

Reuters reported this week that the lawmaker and some colleagues don't want to see the newspapers founder, so they're asking the state government for help. In response, the state's economic development arm is offering tax breaks, training funds, financing opportunities and other incentives for publishers, but not cash.

Supporters of the move say there is precedent for government action to protect newspapers: The Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970 paved the way for joint operating agreements to help competing dailies in metro areas, and the U.S. Postal Service offers discounted postage rates.

Likewise, Nicastro says, Connecticut's assistance is being offered to protect newspapers' ability to serve as taxpayers' advocates, not to usurp it.

As newspapers continue to hemorrhage people and cash, a few folks in the industry are considering the government lifeline. Yes, newspapers jealously guard their independence from government for the sake of their sacrosanct mission. But how noble is that commitment, they ask, if no newspapers are left to fulfill that mission?

I've struggled with this issue all week. I'm the fifth generation of my family to work in newspapers; I don't want to see them die. They serve an oversight purpose that no other organization can -– or will. If newspapers die, who will dig out the connections between legislators and the state two-year college system? Who will keep an eye on City Council for you? Who will examine that new garbage contract for possible conflicts of interest, tell you about new business openings and what caused that fire down the street?

But I can't make myself believe that a government lifeline is the solution. If newspapers take a government bailout, how can they report on those bailouts -– or anything else the government is doing?

As Quinnipiac University journalism professor Paul Janensch told Reuters, "You can't expect a watchdog to bite the hand that feeds it."

As much as I hate to see newspapers go under –- and many probably will in 2009 -– I have to believe, as I did with the Big Three bailout, that bankruptcy won't kill the product. It will simply regenerate in a different –- and better –- form.

I hope industry bankruptcy will bring an eventual return of the locally owned and operated daily newspaper. No one knows your community like the people who live there, and your need for news won't die with the corporate media conglomerate. So when the corporate media conglomerate goes under, your neighbors will be there to pick up the pieces.

Yes, the newspaper industry is worth saving. But as I said on the blog last month, as other industries clamor for government bailouts to ensure their survival, it is actually the procurement, not the denial, of government funds that would seal the American newspaper's demise.

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