05 January 2009

Another Truly Bad Bailout Idea

Apparently, no one is reading newspapers in Connecticut anymore:

The Bristol Free Press and the Herald in New Britain are owned by the financially troubled Journal Register Company of Yardley, Pennsylvania.

Now, Connecticut's Governor and Attorney General say they want to help keep the papers going. Governor M. Jodi Rell and Richard Blumenthal have said they would be interested in taking part in a bipartisan effort to save the papers.

The Bristol Free Press reports Blumenthal said: “That kind of closing would be a huge loss to me and learning about what’s happening in this community. It’s really the oxygen of democracy. People take it for granted,” until it’s gone and they can’t breathe.

Advocates point to the fact that local papers provide vital news about what is going on in the community, from zoning meetings to city council actions, as well as things such as firehouse fundraisers, parent-teacher organization activities and school sports. In addition, they provide a record of births, marriages and deaths, he said.

The Journal Register Company has said if the papers aren't in sale negotiations by January 12, they will be closed that day or within the following 14 days.

Do newspapers provide a vital service to the community? Possibly, depending on how they conduct themselves. The ethical debate in summed up nicely in these excerpts from a Reuters article:

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...

Even as industries deemed too important to fail are seeking bailouts, most newspaper publishers have refused to give serious thought to the idea, though some industry insiders recounted joking about it with other newspaper executives.

"The whole idea of the First Amendment and separating media and giving them freedom of control from the government is sacrosanct," said Digby Solomon, publisher of Tribune Co's Daily Press in Newport News, Virginia.

Former Miami Herald Editor Tom Fiedler said that a democracy has an obligation to help preserve a free press.

"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."...

But the press is not the same as other businesses, said veteran newspaper financial analyst John Morton. "You're doing something that has a bearing on political life," he said.

Marc Levy, executive editor of the Herald and the Press, said he would not let gratitude get in the way of reporting on local political peccadilloes.

"It's the brutal reality," he said. "You'd say, 'thank you very much for helping me with that, but now we have to ask you about this thing.'"

Sorry, but I do not buy Mr Levy's assurances in the last two paragraphs. I am certain that his intentions are good, but it is not just the investigations, it is also the editorial pages and the way news is spun.

Finally, this is another case of government possibly stepping in to save an institution that may well have outlived its usefulness. If democracy needs to support a free press, then let the free market do so. If the paper is not offering a viable product, then let it cease publication.

Finally, in this internet age, this is the functional equivalent of government subsidies for the builders of conastoga wagons because the railroad was putting them out of business!

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