I wrote a month ago about the possibility of government bailouts for failing newspapers, and in Connecticut it appears the notion has gained steam. Unfortunately, some state lawmakers want to transfer capital from taxpayers to failing private enterprises, which we’ve seen on a national level for the last two months. Their rationalizations make clear that the lawmakers have no concept of media, democracy, or common sense (via Michelle):
Connecticut lawmaker Frank Nicastro sees saving the local newspaper as his duty. But others think he and his colleagues are setting a worrisome precedent for government involvement in the U.S. press.
Nicastro represents Connecticut’s 79th assembly district, which includes Bristol, a city of about 61,000 people outside Hartford, the state capital. Its paper, The Bristol Press, may fold within days, along with The Herald in nearby New Britain.
That is because publisher Journal Register, in danger of being crushed under hundreds of millions of dollars of debt, says it cannot afford to keep them open anymore.
Newspapers face difficult futures. Readership has declined for print media even while it increases for their on-line sites. Printing papers is an expensive process, as is delivery, and more and more people seem disinclined to access news in that manner. Newspapers will eventually have to abandon newsprint and refashion themselves into a more generic news-delivery service and find new economic models to survive.
Unfortunately, Nicastro and his allies want to prop up an old, failing model with taxpayer subsidies. They feel that news media are too important to democracy, but fail to understand why — and even some media figures have trouble understanding it:
Nicastro and fellow legislators want the papers to survive, and petitioned the state government to do something about it. “The media is a vitally important part of America,” he said, particularly local papers that cover news ignored by big papers and television and radio stations. …
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.”
The only reason — the only reason — that news media is vital to a democracy is its independence from government. Think about this. Is The National Enquirer vital to democracy? Will the Republic fall if Entertainment Weekly suddenly closed its doors? Not at all, not even if the entire paparazzi industry suddenly collapsed.
The need for a truly independent media is to make sure that the citizenry is fully informed of government activity and policy, and not just relying on the self-serving communications from elected officials. Without independence, newspapers and other media have as much value as press releases from Congressional offices.
Now, what happens when government suddenly takes a stake in newspapers and other media? Can they remain independent — or will they cater themselves to those politicians who support those subsidies and target politicians who don’t? In fact, the very act of asking for those bailouts has destroyed their independence and credibility on political matters, the very core of what makes a free media necessary for a democracy.
At this point, the best possible outcome would be to let the newspapers crash and burn. They’re worthless now as an independent voice in Connecticut. If the market demand remains for print-and-deliver newspapers, then we will see private capital form to meet the demand. If not, then all the taxpayer subsidies in the world would not have saved them anyway.
Update: Gary Gross has similar thoughts in his post, “Let Them Die”.