The disappearing paper: why government support won’t save news

In the late 1800s, Oscar Wilde wrote this in The Soul of Man:

In old days men had the rack. Now they have the press. That is an improvement certainly. But still it is very bad, and wrong, and demoralizing. Somebody — was it Burke? — called journalism the fourth estate. That was true at the time no doubt. But at the present moment it is the only estate. It has eaten up the other three. The Lords Temporal say nothing, the Lords Spiritual have nothing to say, and the House of Commons has nothing to say and says it. We are dominated by Journalism.

At the turn of the 20th century, journalism was likened to a torture device, a dark fortress that overshadowed the highest governing bodies. But a recent survey conducted by the Pew Center for Research found 42 percent of Americans said they wouldn’t miss their community newspapers, a good thing considering more than 100 newspapers have stopped printing this year alone.

Even congress is concerned — in March, they issued a report titled “The Newspaper Industry in Transition,” a detailed set of proposals generated to save the industry. And today, only 23 states have papers covering Congress — less than half the states in the country — opening a chasm in government analysis and leaving too much room for corruption and political deceit. If the press is the main watchdog agency in government regulation, then the extinction of the fourth estate will allow for unbalanced, unchecked political administration. In this case, the disappearance of newspapers is a matter of public policy.

But a government bailout will not solve the problem. Tax cuts, allowing print to transition to non-profit status, relaxing anti-trust laws, increasing government funding — all proposals in the report — might save the industry financially, much as government assistance temporarily quelled the bank crisis, but ultimately, will do nothing to restore journalistic prominence. A government bailout will lead to a press beholden to the very establishment they are supposed to regulate.

Would journalists feel compelled to ignore their gut political instincts if the only reason they were still employed was because the politician they were investigating had rescued their industry? Would the reporter from The State have ignored her “hunch,” and decided against going to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to corner Governor Mark Sanford as he exited a plane from Argentina if Washington was responsible for the upkeep of her newsroom?

As a watchdog agency, the newspaper industry can only save itself. Or they can accept government support and become another stalemated political branch. At least frustrated editors will still be able to threaten their reporters with rolled-up newspapers as they become submissive puppies beholden to their new government masters.


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