Should Newspapers Be on the Federal Dole?

Failing local newspapers unconvincingly use the Wuhan virus crisis as an excuse to feed at the public trough

Thanks to the Southeast Texas Record (here)!

Newspapers have been in a decline since the advent of television in the 1950s. Once the primary source of information for most Americans, daily newspapers were supplanted by TV decades ago. The percentage of the population that read newspapers began to shrink. Chasing after finite advertising revenues—display and classified–the industry consolidated, but continued.  In many cities, once serviced by multiple daily newspapers, readers were limited to a single option. In my home city of Washington, D.C., back in the day readers could subscribe to the Washington Post, the Evening Star, or the Daily News. (As a boy, I delivered the Evening Star.) Before my time there was also the Washington Herald, the Washington Times (in an earlier iteration), and the Washington Times-Herald. Only Jeff Bezos’s Post remains—reduced to a progressive propaganda organ.

The digital age flummoxed the newspaper industry further by decimating demand for classified ads, which migrated to Craigslist and similar free services. The increasing dominance of the internet, amplified by ubiquitous smartphones and social media usage, eventually gutted newspapers’ remaining source of revenue—display ads. Millennials and Generation Z, who grew up without reading newspapers, never developed the habit and now consider paper and ink news to be archaic—even obsolete–like snail mail. They rely on digital media instead: social media and the blogosphere. The downward spiral in circulation leads to less advertising revenue, which in turn requires fewer reporters and abbreviated editions of the paper, which further depresses circulation. And so on, ad infinitum. Most national reporting has been outsourced to AP, so the much-vaunted claim that local papers foster “community identity” is a risible canard.

Newspapers are expensive to produce, cumbersome to deliver in hard copy, and—as the quality of the reporting continues to decline in a 24/7 cable news age—irrelevant to most Americans as a source of information. Aside from a few large-circulation papers with a specialized niche (such as the Wall Street Journal), daily papers in most markets limp along by offering high school sports coverage, crime blotter items, and community news not covered elsewhere—obituaries, honor roll announcements, and the like. Even in this diminished role, local newspapers are a dying industry, doomed to extinction as surely as buggy whip manufacturers, fax machines, 8-track tapes, or pay phone providers. Call it an illustration of creative destruction—the disruption of an entire industry due to technological shifts and changing consumer preferences.

But what if creative destructive could be delayed, or avoided altogether, by government subsidies? If dying newspapers banded together, in rent-seeking fashion, to seek a federal bailout, would consumers be better off? Would dependency on government assistance—a safety net for mediocre journalists—make newspapers better? Of course not. Going on the dole would sap newspapers of their independence (and their accountability to subscribers and advertisers). Consumers would be worse off, since their tax dollars (or, in this era of massive deficit spending, public debt) would be used for the benefit of corporate newspaper owners to shelter them from the consequences of market forces—and, in some cases, from imprudent investments, excessive debt, and poor management.

Yet, on April 26, 2020, a trade association of failing daily newspapers, grandiosely called America’s Newspapers, encouraged its member-papers to run—verbatim—a canned editorial calling for federal subsidies to newspapers that few people care to read. The trade association’s website stated that:

Your action is needed! Members of America’s Newspapers are encouraged to run an editorial on Sunday, April 26, explaining why Congress needs to support local news providers during the COVID-19 crisis.  An editorial from America’s Newspapers is available here. Members also are asked to contact their local representatives and urge them to support funding for local news providers.

In my local paper, the Maryville Daily Times (owned by the Adams Publishing Group, which operates 37 daily newspapers), the editorial was titled “Why Congress needs to support your local news sources.” Hundreds of other newspapers across the country presumably ran the same editorial, often without disclosure that the paper in question is a member of a trade association acting in collusion with other failing publications. (There was no such disclosure in the Daily Times.) The corporate welfare sought by long-distressed newspapers was “justified” as a response to the Wuhan virus pandemic—the ostensible cause of recent advertising declines, and as an essential source of public health information (as if the Wuhan virus wasn’t covered constantly by every cable and digital news outlet).

Without local newspapers, the editorial absurdly argued, citizens would be deprived of “vital sources of timely and trustworthy information.” Local papers, the editorial self-servingly proclaimed, play a “critical role” in “keeping communities healthy and informed.” Incredibly, America’s Newspapers describes the mission of the trade association as “explaining, defending, and advancing the vital role of newspapers in democracy and civil life.” Without community voices such as the Maryville Daily Times, the editorial laughingly suggested, the nation would fall into anarchy and ignorance. Accordingly, the editorial urged readers to contact their U.S. Senators and representatives in Congress to extend federal assistance to local newspapers. Democracy itself is at stake!

What utter, unadulterated B.S. I don’t believe that even the PR flack who wrote this corny dreck believed a word of it. When the tone-deaf editorial solemnly denied that it was “a demand for an industry bailout,” it instead unmistakably confirmed that was the real purpose. Once-proud journalists, a tough and independent breed, now beg for government handouts like a panhandler scavenges for spare change. The venerable fourth estate has been reduced to hustling for welfare. Blaming their plight on the Wuhan virus is the height of disingenuousness. However, for a beleaguered industry on the verge of collapse, any excuse will do.  Beggars can’t be choosers; nor can they be honest about the reasons for their dire predicament.

Propping up the comatose newspaper industry with federal relief (loans, grants, and advertising funds) is nothing more than crony capitalism at its worst—the dole for corporate dinosaurs unable to survive in the current economy. Regardless of economic challenges, the free press must—above all–remain free. Feeding at the taxpayer trough would put newspapers in a position of subservience to the federal government, like state-owned propaganda outlets in Communist China.

Proposing welfare for newspapers smacks of desperation. That a trade association would cynically cook up a canned editorial for members to run in concert to generate political pressure for a federal bailout of an industry facing certain extinction exhibits total disdain for the very public that community newspapers claim to serve.  I fervently hope that Congress doesn’t authorize so much as a nickel to prop up newspapers that cannot survive on their own. No self-respecting newspaper would ask for—or accept— government largesse.

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