No Bailout for Newspapers: Dinosaurs, Meet Capitalism and the First Amendment

Industry's arrogance has led to its pending extinction. That's capitalism, folks.

By + More

By John Aloysius Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

True story. Several years ago, a Senate press secretary called to tell me he was leaving the Hill for more lucrative corporate PR work.

He was chuckling on the phone, for he had just informed a coworker of mine at the Boston Globe that he would be joining us in the private sector, and my colleague responded—sincerely!—by saying, "We don't work in the private sector."

How is that for a self-fulfilling prophecy?

We all in the newspaper business got so caught up in the holier-than-thou priests of print thing (and so seduced by the 30 percent profits we were making, and the lovely stock options) that we took our eye off the ball. We forgot that the first goal of any capitalist enterprise is to make money.

In a way that William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer would never have let happen, we got so self-indulgent and elitist and lazy that we missed the true impact of the Internet revolution. First we lost readers, then the classified ads, and then even more readers and the big grocery and department store advertising.

And seeing how this is America, where the economic system has a rather ruthless prescription for such foolishness, our way of life and livelihood is dying.

I thought of all this as I watched the Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the fate of newspapers yesterday, and read the debate on this page between Sen. Ben Cardin and L. Brent Bozell III.

Yes, here in Washington, they are wondering if they should be doing something to save America's newspapers.

Well, I know about Cardin and Bozell a little bit. And let me assure you, I would infinitely prefer to share a foxhole with Ben than with Brent. But in this case, Brent is the one who is right—government has no business subsidizing journalism.

The First Amendment works both ways. We get to say and believe what we want, and the government gets to keep its big and blundering good intentions, with all their unintended consequences, to itself.

Government intrusion would forestall the inevitable. American journalists need to learn how to make money online, or on-Kindle, or on iPhone, or on-something.

I'm engaged in one such venture at GlobalPost and, hey, I can tell you: It's not easy being a mammalian runt while the big thunder lizards are still stomping around in their death throes. A guy could get crushed.

So maybe we won't learn in time. Maybe we will all have to learn what we had, and lost, before we agree to kick in a few bucks for what we read right online these days for free. But in the meantime, selling the press to the government is no solution. 

Check out our political cartoons.

  • Read more by John Aloysius Farrell.
  • Read more about the media.
  • Read more from the Thomas Jefferson Street blog.