Civil Liberties

Newspaper Bailout Update


Re: the embattled newspaper industry that Jesse Walker discussed yesterday, there continue to be many fanciful ideas about rearranging federal law in order to keep afloat what was until recently one of the world's most successful business models. For instance, the attorney general of the United States said this week:

I think it's important for this nation to maintain a healthy newspaper industry. So to the extent that we have to look at our enforcement policies and conform them to the realities that that industry faces, that's something that I'm going to be willing to do.

To the extent that this may amount to across-the-board exemptions from anti-trust regulations that have little relevance to our 2009 world, that will be fine. To the extent that this may amount to special legal considerations given only to the biggest special pleaders, this will be as unjust (and ineffective) as the inaccurately named Newspaper Preservation Act.

Speaking of anti-trust and joint operating agreements, the government-afflicted newspaper market of San Francisco is being hit with pleas, such as this editorial from the SF Bay Guardian, to have "Congress, the state Legislature, and the San Francisco supervisors" intervene to "force" the Chronicle-owning Hearst Corporation to "work with potential buyers." Yes, that's the same Bay Guardian that sued (successfully!) the competing New Times chain for "predatory pricing."

There's better news from Maine, where the state employee pension fund has thankfully declined to buy the state's largest newspaper company. (Really, pension funds have enough problems of their own.)

And in a long Nation magazine manifesto, scarequote-worthy "media reformers" Robert McChesney and John Nichols advocate a journalism "stimulus" costing $60 billion over the next three years, and comprising (at minimum) a $200 tax credit for newspaper subscriptions, the elimination of postage rates for magazines receiving less than 20 percent of their revenue from advertising, taxpayer support for "a well-funded student newspaper and a low-power FM radio station" at "every middle school, high school and college," and so on. Their argument is worth reading in full, if for no other reason than to appreciate what a wonderful diversity of interpretation we have in this Land of the Free. A selection:

Only government can implement policies and subsidies to provide an institutional framework for quality journalism. […]

Fortunately, the rude calculus that says government intervention equals government control is inaccurate and does not reflect our past or present, or what enlightened policies and subsidies could entail.

Our founders never thought that freedom of the press would belong only to those who could afford a press. They would have been horrified at the notion that journalism should be regarded as the private preserve of the Rupert Murdochs and John Malones. The founders would not have entertained, let alone accepted, the current equation that seems to say that if rich people determine there is no good money to be made in the news, then society cannot have news.

Reason has taken a different view over the years, which you can peruse here. Meanwhile, USA Today this week produced a fact-rich snapshot of the industry, including the perhaps-surprising-to-some news that average profit margins at newspaper companies still clock in at an enviable 10 percent.

Many of these links via the invaluable Romenesko; more newspaper-bailout news here.