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Uncle Sam the newspaperman

Should the government play a role in saving newspapers?

Next Wednesday, the corporate chain that publishes the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Austin American-Statesman, and 15 other newspapers will shut down its Washington bureau and thus abandon the time-honored tradition of keeping tabs on national politicians for the folks back home. This, of course, is no April Fool's Day joke. The newspapers of San Diego, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Toledo, Pittsburgh, Hartford, Houston, Newark, Cleveland, Des Moines, and Philadelphia (among many others) no longer have staff reporters on full-time duty in the Nation's Capital - which, aside from the tragic implications of this trend, seems a tad ironic, given the fact that Washington these days is the font of so much history-making news.

I stress the Washington angle here, only because that's my prime focus. The print journalism crisis, of course, extend far beyond that realm. The economic squeeze precipitated by the Internet (on top of the squeeze that was imposed by Wall Street during the decades immediately preceding the Internet) has come close to devastating newspapers nationwide, big and small (and not just the "liberal" ones). As Walter Isaacson, the former Time magazine editor and celebrated biographer of printer Benjamin Franklin, recently wrote, the "meltdown" is so severe that "it is now possible to contemplate a time in the near future when major towns will no longer have a newspaper."

So it was in the midst of this crisis, earlier this week, when an unusual Senate bill was introduced to rescue the beleaguered industry with the help of Uncle Sam. Sponsor Benjamin Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, has dubbed it the Newspaper Revitalization Act, and its prospects for passage are probably identical to those of thousands of other bills that typically get tossed into the hopper. In other words, close to nil. And that's without even considering some of the revitalization bill's potential flaws.

But the Cardin bill may well trigger a worthy public policy debate over whether government should play a vital role in aiding the newspaper industry in its time of peril, for the purpose of ensuring an informed citizenry. (Lest you forget, the bloggers and web news aggregators and talk-show loudmouths and cable TV fulminators would be struck mute if not for the information supplied every day by the print professionals.)

Cardin's idea - actually, it's an idea that has kicked around for awhile - is to rejigger the tax code so that newspapers could operate as tax-exempt non-profits, much the way public broadcasting operates for educational purposes under the current tax code. Under the terms of Cardin's bill, newspapers wouldn't have to pay federal taxes on the money they reap from ad sales and subscriptions; and they could solicit tax-exempt donations. All told, Cardin said on Tuesday, "We need to look a different model to save local newspapers."

Some in the news business have already questioned the Cardin concept on practical grounds; for instance, would individual donors and foundations provide enough money, year after year, to support expensive news-gathering operations? But most skeptics appear to object for philosophical reasons, arguing that the federal government has no business helping (and therefore meddling with) the newspaper industry.

Under the tax code, non-profits have to be remain politically neutral; in translation, the editorial pages of Cardin's non-profit newspapers would not be able to endorse political candidates. Some newspaper people might not see this restriction as such a big deal; there is an active school of thought that editorial endorsements don't influence many readers anyway. But that potential restriction has prompted a number of skeptics (including the lawyers for some newspapers) to argue that Cardin's idea would essentially put the IRS into the newsroom.

The broader argument is that the government should butt out entirely and leave the industry alone, because any assistance at all would constitute a violation of free speech rights. A Cleveland newspaper columnist writes today, "It's sad to see newspapers struggling...But it would be infinitely sadder to see newspapers cash in their First Amendment birthright - their independence - for a little breathing space." And John Morton, a well-known newspaper industry analyst, said the other day: "Anytime you give the newspaper industry a break, it raises the question about the independence of the press."

But anyone making that argument is not cognizant of our history, clear back to the Founding Fathers. One big reason why newspapers gained traction in early 19th-century America was because the federal government gave the industry a break. It set up all kinds of postal subsidies so that newspapers could cheaply grow their circulation, and it subsidized printer contracts. It has subsequently supported newspapers by enacting copyright protection and the Freedom of Information Act. Several decades ago, it enacted the Newspaper Preservation Act, which has allowed regional papers with separate newsroom staffs to merge their business operations.

Meanwhile - and this strikes me as the most perverse of ironies - the prime cause of the newspaper industry's current woes is the Internet....and there would be no Internet today if not for the lavish government subsidies that made it possible. The Internet was birthed as a Defense Department program, and later nurtured by a federal agency, the National Science Foundation. All constitutional issues aside, maybe the government has a responsibility to help save the industry that it has (albeit inadvertently) helped to destroy.

Cardin's idea may well die, but the debate won't. Other ideas are already being floated; for instance, tax credits on the money that a consumer spends for a newspaper subscription. As the Columbia Journalism Review argued two years ago, the bottom line is that "it would be wise to consider the many ways that government could simply protect journalism from market pressures."

The counter-argument is that, if the free market wants newspapers to die, then so be it. And, of course, many Americans are rooting for death. Which brings me to this story:

Ten days ago, in Philadelphia, a corrupt Democratic state senator named Vince Fumo was finally brought to justice in court, convicted on all counts. As the prosecutors specifically acknowledged, Fumo would have never been nailed if not for the herculean efforts of Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Craig McCoy, who dug out the story over a span of years. McCoy was able to do this because he was a seasoned investigator, and he was a seasoned investigator because a newspaper had nurtured his professional talents over several decades by paying him a full-time wage with health benefits.

So here's my question to those of you who are rooting for death:

If local newspapers die, who's going to be around to root out the next Fumo? You?