The next bailout: media?

What radio and television could not do – despite the dire predictions of observers at the time – the Internet is poised to achieve. That was the description made by many who testified this week at a Federal Trade Commission workshop which pondered “How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?”

While many argue that the forces eroding the print media’s share of the news market in favor of Internet-based information should be allowed to continue, a number of those testifying at the event believed their industry was worthy of a government bailout just as the financial sector and automakers had received. Their call for devoting “significant financial resources” to newspapers and the media industry fell on receptive ears, as Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) stated, “Government’s going to have to be involved, in one way or the other.”

One Senator has already made such a move. Back in March, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) introduced the Newspaper Revitalization Act, which would allow newspapers to operate as nonprofits for educational services, using a status similar to public broadcasting companies. The bill, S. 673, is languishing in committee (as is the similar H.R. 3602, introduced by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, Democrat from New York), but that didn’t stop representatives of public broadcasting from making their pitch for helping out the newspaper industry with our tax dollars.

Jon McTaggart of Minnesota Public Radio called government involvement “traditional, mainstream, and all-American” and continued by claiming, “as a civil society, we don’t trust the open market or the free market” for the services media provides. Piling on, National Public Radio CEO Vivian Schiller also stated her belief that a government-supported media outlet could still be fair, asserting that federal support makes them even more of a watchdog when it comes to government affairs.

However, it’s only print media’s business model that’s in peril, and while many blame the Internet for its demise they can’t discount the fact that these daily papers also have a presence on the World Wide Web. In his testimony Waxman pointed out that daily newspapers in Denver and Seattle had recently failed, joining other closures in Baltimore and San Francisco as casualties of a declining market. (The Seattle Post-Intelligencer continues as an online-only edition.)

But there’s no less of an appetite for news; it’s just the source of the news that’s changing. While the daily newspaper has been around for centuries, the very fact that the content is dated as soon as it’s printed makes a newspaper much less useful as a source of current information than its media cousins television or radio. Remember, those media were supposed to signal the demise of the newspaper years ago when they came out, too.

The advent of the Internet added a new dimension to news gathering, though – no longer was the distribution of information at the discretion of a newsroom editor. One thing all the old media had in common was a filter where loads of information entered but only that which was approved for distribution came out and was made available to the public. Once in awhile journalism was a great tool of investigation but more often they told you what they thought you should hear.

But the Internet has changed all that by eliminating the filter, and the real story behind the bid to have a government bailout of the newspaper industry may be one of placing the camel’s nose under the tent.

There’s an old takeoff on the Golden Rule which states, “He who has the gold, rules.” While government may have the best of intentions for the newspaper industry, the prospect of maintaining a free press when government funding hangs in the balance is dubious at best and laughable on its face. As we’ve seen with the recent scandal over information being withheld and falsified in the climate change debate, when billions in government funding is on the table the editors may not be as worried about accurate reporting as they are with how to keep Uncle Sam’s financial spigot flowing.

Author: Michael

It's me from my laptop computer.