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Posted by on Apr 9, 2009 in At TMV | 1 comment

No Bailout For Newspapers

I’ve been reluctant commenting on the demise of newspapers, a place of work I enjoyed immensely for a quarter century. But I’m a fossil, quitting the business in 1985, and lack the hands-on experience of what really happened during the past 29 years.

I do know this: Federal bailout for newspapers is a really really dumb proposal.

Difficult as it is to say, newspapers are dinosaurs.

It reminds me of a lousy movie starring Danny DeVito and Gregory Peck about a New England wire manufacturing company’s final days. DeVito, playing a Wall Street venture capitalist, offered a succinct description of Peck’s pride and joy. He compared it to the manufacturers of buggy whips at the time automobiles were introduced to the nation. In the end, only one maker — “the best damned buggy whip manufacturer in the whole world” — was left standing.

So be it with newspapers. It’s a damn shame. For with the demise of newspapers, the collateral damage can be catastrophic as its tools applied to the First Amendment might as well be thrown in the recycle bin.

Rosa Parks, in her farewell column in the Los Angeles Times, says it much better than me.

If newspapers become mostly infotainment websites — if the number of well-trained investigative journalists dwindles still further — and if we’re soon left with nothing but the yapping heads who dominate cable “news” and talk radio, how will we recognize, or hope to forestall, impending national and global crises? How will we know if government officials have made terrible mistakes, as even the best will sometimes do? How will we know if government officials have told us terrible lies, as the worst have sometimes done? A decimated, demoralized and under-resourced press corps hardly questioned the Bush administration’s flimsy case for war in Iraq — and the price for that failure will be paid for generations.

The problem is Parks’ solution.

If we’re willing to use taxpayer money to build roads, pay teachers and maintain a military; if we’re willing to bail out banks and insurance companies and failing automakers, we should be willing to part with some public funds to keep journalism alive too. In an article in the April 6 Nation, John Nichols and Robert McChesney offer some ideas on how to bail out the news industry. They suggest, for instance, eliminating postal rates for periodicals that get less than 20% of their revenues from advertising, a tax credit for the first $200 taxpayers spend on newspaper subscriptions and a substantial expansion of funding for public broadcasting. Meanwhile, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) has introduced legislation to allow many existing newspapers to restructure as tax-exempt nonprofit educational institutions. And these ideas are just a start.

If the thought of government subsidization of journalism seems novel, it shouldn’t. Most other democracies provide far more direct government support for public media than the U.S. does (Canada spends 16 times as much per capita; Britain spends 60 times as much). And as Nichols and McChesney point out, our government already “doles out tens of billions of dollars in direct and indirect [media] subsidies,” including free broadcast, cable and satellite privileges.

My argument against bailing out the newspaper industry is that it is a waste of money. It will only prolong an inimitable death rattle.

Bailouts are now in vogue as the government tries to keep the financial institutions and U.S. carmakers alive — without too much success at this time, I might add. Nor are they very popular in the public conscious. Can you imagine the public uproar if The New York Times was given a billion dollars to continue publishing? A line in the sand must be drawn somewhere.

Unlike Ms. Parks, I don’t care if other countries subsidize their newspapers. That’s a non-issue.

Providing even more tax havens for newspapers and pumping equity into their operations will only create fear and trepidation among the working stiffs. There was a time on the old San Diego Tribune reporters and editors used far too much caution writing stories about good advertisers who ran a foul. Such would be the case of Big Brother looking over your shoulder. It’s human nature.

I think we are losing sight of a basic principle. Newspapers rise and fall because of market demands. They are a part of our capitalistic system. If the market leaves the industry and the industry can’t figure out how to cope, then the industry must die. Cruel, but true.

American habits of curling up on a sofa Sunday mornings and reading the newspaper are changing. We now sip our morning coffee in front of the computer to read the comics and work the crossword puzzles. Rather than printer’s ink rubbing off on our hands and pajama tops, we curse at the computer screen because it takes more than a nano second to download a story which may or may not pique our interest.

If our economy ever pulls out of the current recession, only the smartest and best managed newspapers may survive — just as that last buggy whip manufacturer.

The sad part of the equation is that the Internet media sites don’t pay worth a damn and few can afford to attract crackerjack journalists who know how to dig and edit and write well. Until that market glitch is corrected, I’m afraid we never again will see a Watergate or veterans rehabilitation hospital scandal uncovered.

Oh, the websites and blogs will still report on the escapades of the Sarah Palins and Michelle Bachmans of the world, but those are easy fish to fry.

Cross posted on The Remmers Report