Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Uncle Sugar to the rescue (of our beleaguered newspapers)

There's an old saying that "he who takes the king's coin becomes the king's man." Those words are worth remembering as journalists rend their clothing over the death throes of many of the nation's newspapers, activist groups call for the government to rescue the dead-tree press as a crucial prop for preserving democracy, and opportunistic politicians respond with schemes to put the nation's broadsheets and tabloids on government-funded life support. When journalists are dependent on coins tossed their way by the political class, just which way do you think their stories will lean?

The problem is that people just aren't reading newspapers. Readership plunged last year, again. And with subscription dollars and advertising following readers out the door, more newspapers went bankrupt, closed their doors or went online-only in response. In keeping with the times, some folks think the solution is to have Uncle Sam break out the checkbook.

Some of the calls for subsidized journalism are outright ironic. Free Press, a "media reform" advocacy organization, complains that "[t]he takeover of our country's media outlets by a small handful of giant conglomerates puts too much power and influence in too few hands. That's bad for our democracy, which depends on our ability to access diverse sources of news, information and opinion."

Even if you buy the argument that media ownership is more concentrated now than in the past (a tough sell in the world-spanning Internet age to those of us who remember when "the press" meant a couple of network TV affiliates and the local newspaper), it's difficult to see how making the press dependent on a single benefactor -- the government -- would improve matters. But that's what the organization advocates in a recent report (PDF), in the form of state-regulated non-profit status, government subsidies and even direct employment of journalists by the government.

Along these lines, Senator Ben Cardin, of Maryland, has introduced the Newspaper Revitalization Act, with an eye to allowing newspapers to function as educational non-profits, so long as they "contain local, national, and international news stories of interest to the general public and the distribution of such newspaper is necessary or valuable in achieving an educational purpose" and "the preparation of the material contained in such newspaper follows methods generally accepted as educational in character." Oh, and newspapers with non-profit status would be barred from endorsing candidates.

But those caveats provide a hint of problems with the plan. Imagine lawyer-fueled arguments over the meaning of "of interest to the general public" and "generally accepted as educational in character." Even Free Press concedes that the scheme has First Amendment problems and might not stand up in court. Report authors Victor Pickard, Josh Stearns and Craig Aaron also allow that the plan raises concerns about "newsrooms currying favor with their benefactors."

But if non-profit status raises the possibility of favor-currying, how about direct ownership of media by local governments, government subsidies, or government employment of journalists?

This isn't exactly uncharted territory -- even within the United States. The New Deal-era Federal Writers Project, so praised in the Free Press report, employed journalists to document the America of the time and (not incidentally) to put to work in government employment writers who might otherwise be disaffected. An article in 49th Parallel: An Interdisciplinary Journal of North American Studies says the FWP can be described "perhaps most aptly, as a politicized documentary of the times with a social democratic slant." Of the guidebooks produced by the project, author Michael Dittman writes, "To further their hegemonic ends, the FWP could not have chosen a better propaganda tool."

But the propaganda effort didn't stop there. Writing of the same era, Nicholas John Cull, David Holbrook Culbert, David Welch point out in Propaganda and Mass Persuasion: A Historical Encyclopedia, 1500 to the Present:

Murals (intended for post offices and other public buildings) were commissioned as Works Progress Administration (WPA) relief work. They were painted in an American socialist realist style ...

The Federal Theater Project adapted topics favorable to the New Deal in a series of "Living Newspaper" productions. For example, Power defended the socialist content of the TVA and openly advocated public control of utilities.

FDR was by no means the only U.S. president to use propaganda to further his goals, but since his example is so approvingly cited by modern advocates of government-subsidized media, it's worth examining the results.

Of course, independent media can curry favor with advertisers and investors, too, just as subsidized media caters to the government. But advertisers and investors tend to be a diverse bunch, with different and sometimes opposing interests. And they don't all have their fingers in all of the pies. Setting the state up as every journalist's sugar daddy is sure to create a situation where politicians have an awful lot of say over what is published.

Considering the power wielded by those politicians, and the investigative eyes we should all hope are fastened on them, that's an unhealthy prospect.

Such fears won't stop old-line fans of cheap paper and smeary ink from fretting over the declining fortunes of warhorses like the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. But those publications are stumbling because they can't attract customers even as many Websites created in recent years (and the online editions of old newspapers) are enjoying booming readership. If the old-timers don't see the connection, maybe their successors will.

In The Joplin Globe, Jessica Shreindl, a college newspaper editor and (presumably) journalist of the future recently wrote:

And even if a government buyout, err, bailout of the newspaper industry wasn’t eerie, its necessity is hard to argue. The hard truth of the free market is that industries either adapt or they die. Contrary to the “death of democracy doom-and-gloomers,” information and news sources are not on the decline. Online readership is up. With the click of a mouse readers are deciding what the news is.

The industry will be fine, it may consolidate, but it will be fine. There will always be news gatherers so long as people desire to know what’s going on in their communities and the world around them.

Newspapers arose out of people’s ingenuity and need-to-know; not by some legislature’s stroke of the pen. They will continue to do just fine without Uncle Sam.

She's right. People who gather information have always found a way to cater to people who want to consume information. Just because one crop of aging providers can't figure out how to change with the times and keep customers happy (or make money from online customers) doesn't mean the whole business should be turned over to the people most deserving of scrutiny.



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