A Bailout for the Fourth Estate?

Some state lawmakers in Connecticut are raising the specter of government bailouts for newspapers.

As with the auto bailout, a newspaper bailout would be erroneous - it too would aid an industry in decline not because of the present financial crisis, but instead because of a long term, pre-existing industry trend. The current economic woes are certainly exacerbating the trend of newspaper downsizing and closings, but a bailout would prop up an industry already arcing down a rather grim trajectory.

The problems and dangers inherent in any government attempts to fund the press are legion.

The concept and reality of a free press should be somewhere close to sacrosanct, but there are some gray areas with respect to government assistance to newspapers. Efforts in Connecticut, for example, skate closer to the edge:

Connecticut does not see trying to find a buyer and offering tax breaks as exerting influence on the press, said Joan McDonald, the economic development commissioner.

"It is what we do ... with companies whether it's in aerospace, biomedical devices, biotech or financial services," she said. "If a company is developing laser technology, we don't get into the business of what lasers are used for."

But the press is unique under our Constitution. And the free market, too, has - or at least had - a fundamental place in our decision-making about government's involvement in private enterprises. Still, existing federal law maintains some very interesting media arrangements:

Connecticut's actions are not the first time government has helped newspapers. The U.S. Postal Service has offered discounted postage rates. Several cities have papers running under Joint Operating Agreements, created following the congressional Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970 to keep competing urban dailies viable despite circulation declines.

In the end, as important as newspapers have been to our form of government and society, it's crucial for the government to refrain from a direct bailout in this situation. To survive, newspapers need to find creative ways to raise revenue and create a viable online presence. If they do not, to put it simply, the demand for news will either be supplied by different forms of media or a replacement newspaper entity will fill the void.

Or, is the demand for local news in some places is simply disappearing? If true, such a shift has some interesting implications. What exactly would it say about American society today?

To me, it seems interest in local news hasn't dwindled, it's just not being catered to very adeptly. For example, the lack of a local focus in online search is seen by one journalism observer as "a chink in Google's armor" - one that seemingly could be better exploited by small, local media outlets.