A bailout for news?

For most old-school journalists, the equation is simple.

Public disdain for reporters — ranked slightly above used car salesmen in one public poll — combined with a need to stay independent from the government as watchdogs, equals a situation where we can't take money from the government to survive.

But there are some other numbers to consider: 5,900 full-time newspaper journalism jobs disappeared last year, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, with one-third of newspaper newsroom jobs gone since 2001. Newspaper advertising revenue dropped 22 percent in 2009, according to the PEJ.

The historic way of funding great journalism in America — bankrolling newsrooms through the sales of real estate, auto, retail and employment ads — is disintegrating. Which means journalists must once again confront an uncomfortable issue: Do the news media need a bailout from the government to save journalism?

"If these institutions go away, will it be impossible to build back some alternative?" asked Tom Rosenstiel, director of the PEJ, which is part of the Pew Research Center. "If something precious is irretrievably lost, you may have to move in sooner."

On Tuesday, I'll explore this issue in Washington, D.C., at the national convention of the American Society of News Editors — moderating a panel featuring a journalist, newspaper publisher, government officials and lawyer in a discussion titled: "Can government save us? And do we even want to try?"

John Nichols, Washington correspondent for the liberal magazine Nation and co-author of a book advocating government subsidies called The Death and Life of American Journalism, thinks so. Noting a media universe increasingly crowded with information but decreasing in journalism, Nichols fears a future where reporting on local and state government vanishes.

He and co-author Robert McChesney have suggested a few government-funded antidotes: boosting subsidies to public broadcasting outlets such as National Public Radio and PBS; a tax credit for the first $200 citizens spend on a daily newspaper; or tax incentives for owners of debt-laden media chains who sell their newspapers to local owners.

"The Founding Fathers strongly supported postal subsidies and printing subsidies," Nichols said. "If Rush Limbaugh wants to say this is a typical liberal running to government … I'm like those liberals who founded the American system and thought the government was so powerful it had to have journalism to keep it in check."

A study released in January by the University of Southern California found that in 1970, the U.S. Postal Service covered 75 percent of the mailing costs for news periodicals, totaling $2 billion. In 2006, that subsidy fell to 11 percent, or $288 million. Federal and state tax breaks for newspapers and magazines total more than $900 million.

"If the government has supported the news industry for all of American history, shouldn't it consider new forms of support now, when the survival of news businesses is in doubt?" wrote the study's co-author David Westphal, a former McClatchy Newspapers editor and senior fellow at the school's Center on Communications Leadership and Policy.

But Paul Tash, editor, chairman and CEO of the St. Petersburg Times, opposes direct subsidy of newspapers while noting that government might help indirectly — by allowing the public to make tax-deductible donations to newspapers, for instance.

He criticized the industry for being too fatalistic — incorrectly connecting the problems of big newspaper chains struggling to pay off massive debts in the worst economy since the Great Depression to the death of local journalism.

"This can still be a very vibrant business," he said. "We're here to make government's life miserable. ... To be subsidized by government seems to only invite compromise."

Conservative columnist Michelle Malkin echoed that view back in 2008, writing: "A press beholden to the ruling class — a press that cannot stand on its own two feet and the strength of its product — is a press better off dead."

The nation's current political polarization makes substantial or direct aid for journalism seem a long shot. But given how long it may take to see if media rebounds after the general recessions ends — one expert said up to 18 months — it may be time to start drastic discussions now.

"I'm maybe a minority opinion, but I don't think getting government into (supporting) the content creation business is a disaster," said Rick Edmonds, a media analyst for the Poynter Institute, which owns the St. Petersburg Times. "But the details are important."

Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com. See The Feed blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.

A bailout for news? 04/10/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 9, 2010 7:09pm]

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