Bureaucrats to the Rescue?

It's safe to assume that everyone at the ASNE conference agrees that journalism needs saving. But at this morning's third panel session, there was little agreement about whether government should be the industry's savior.

John Nichols, a Washington correspondent for The Nation, argued that worries about getting government too involved in news are nothing more than knee-jerk hysteria.

Nichols said it's "fundamentally absurd" to say that the hand of government will destroy anything it touches, and pointed out that Norway and Holland are considered to be two of the freest media systems in the world, despite being heavily subsidized by their respective governments.

But not everyone was so eager for a cozy relationship.

"We're better off talking about solutions than subsidies," said Frank Blethen, the publisher of the Seattle Times.

Nichols and Blethen agreed that it's the newspaper ownership model that is broken, and that the government can help foster responsible, committed ownership by regulating the industry further. The specifics of what that regulation might look like went unmentioned.

Katherine Funk, an anti-trust lawyer with the firm Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, said innovation is the answer to the industry's troubles, not asking the government for money.

"There is a window of opportunity to figure out what the future looks like, and to innovate," said Funk, who added that -- from a business perspective -- many newspapers simply aren't run well.

The one government official on the panel said direct subsidies for newspapers are unlikely to happen.

"Framing it as a bailout for journalism is a losing way to frame it,” said Susan DeSanti, the director of the Office of Policy Planning at the Federal Trade Commission. "I agree totally that getting money out of Congress is going to be extremely difficult."

DeSanti suggested that government could provide some indirect aid to the industry by lowering the costs of reporting by making government information more accessible and manageable.

Nichols and other skeptics may be right that the industry can't innovate it's way back to health without some outside help, but most newspaper executives aren't ready to crawl to Capitol Hill with their hands out.

According to a new study by the Pew Research Center, 88 percent of news executives have "serious reservations" about taking direct government subsidies. About half that many said they also had concerns about tax credits for news organizations.

With newspapers eager to protect their integrity and a Congress that can't afford any more generosity with taxpayer dollars, it doesn't look a full-fledged newspaper bailout will happen any time soon.

By Graham Moomaw