Government Has No Business Bailing Out Newspapers the People Don't Want

Liberal cries aside, the newspaper industry must convince the market to save it, or die.

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In a very real sense, your daily newspaper is the most incredible bargain in the world. For only two bits, you can unfold dozens of pages and find scores of news stories, on everything from national defense to local parades. The newspaper gives you a passport to foreign lands and a trip to the bleachers of baseball games.

And yet, the newspaper industry is dying. Denver's Rocky Mountain News, the Baltimore Examiner, and the Cincinnati Post are gone. Other newspapers like Madison's Capital Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer have converted to online only. Some newspaper chains have entered the shaky bubble of Chapter 11 Bankruptcy proceedings, including the two companies owning the Chicago Sun-Times and the ChicagoTribune. The New York Times is threatening to shut down the Boston Globe if the unions don't make enough concessions.

As a result, media theorists are rolling out ideas to save the daily paper. Newspapers have increasingly lectured the public on how they are a crucial instrument of our democracy and have encouraged more bailout mania in Washington, where the knee-jerk reaction to any failing enterprise is a bailout. This is a terrible idea on several levels.

First, injecting billions of taxpayer dollars into newspapers isn't going to make them suddenly more readable or appealing to readers than they are now. The standard business model is eroding. Readers are gravitating to newspaper websites, offering all the same information literally free at your fingertips. The increasing speed of the news cycle means people don't want to read today's news tomorrow. They want it right now.

Second, direct government funding of newspapers would create a massive daily conflict of interest. "Today's news about the federal government is brought to you by our sponsor . . . the federal government." To many Americans, government-funded newspapers sound like a domestic echo of old Soviet state newspapers like Pravda.

A proposal in Pennsylvania to have the state bail out the Philadelphia Inquirer raised the obvious question: Once Gov. Ed Rendell rides like a knight to its rescue, who in the state would ever rely on the Inquirer again for tough scrutiny of Rendell?

Some have an even grander idea of a top-down "national media strategy"—more massive, European-style government support of the media elite. In the Nation magazine, they argue that the current economic downturn is an opportunity for the government to operate the news media just as the government operates the public education system: "A moment has arrived at which we must recognize the need to invest tax dollars to create and maintain news gathering, reporting, and writing with the purpose of informing all our citizens."

Leftists employ the strange argument that government subsidies "encourage" independent reporting. Los Angeles Times columnist Rosa Brooks provided a lecturing with-us-or-against-us formulation: "We can bail out journalism, using tax dollars and granting licenses in ways that encourage robust and independent reporting and commentary, or we can watch, wringing our hands, as more and more top journalists are laid off or bail out, leaving us with nothing in our newspapers but ads, entertainment features, and crossword puzzles."

When liberals say government subsidies provide "robust independence," they mean they are free of the corruption of "commercial interests," not that they're free of political tilt. They would insist that newspaper reporters operate more like journalists at PBS and NPR. Pundits like Rosa Brooks want to multiply the NPR model across the print media. But one reason newspapers have been losing readers is the perception of an elitist liberal bias.

There are milder proposals as well. Sen. Ben Cardin proposes to adjust the tax code to allow newspapers to operate as nonprofits under the usual 501(c)(3) classification for educational purposes—"similar to public broadcasters," Cardin insisted. His bill is hardly taking off—his only cosponsor is a fellow Maryland Democrat, Sen. Barbara Mikulski. Even Cardin admitted, "This is not going to be an option that a lot of newspapers choose." His bill would create a messy mixed metaphor—a for-profit, advertising-supported newspaper that's also a tax-exempt charity.

L. Brent Bozell III is founder and president of the Media Research Center, a conservative media watchdog group.