Is government intervention in newspapers wise?

The Federal Trade Commission is working on recommendations--to put it bluntly--to save newspapers from oblivion. Whenever I see government and newspapers in the same sentence, I usually blanch. Only in the First Amendment (prohibiting government restrictions on a free press) do I feel comfortable seeing the words juxtaposed. So, why should the FTC concern itself with such matters?

Some answers can be ascertained by taking a look at its year-long effort in a report called, Potential Policy Recommendations to Support the Reinvention of Journalism. I've only scanned it (intending to give it closer study later), but a couple of things jump out, especially the need to provide increased copyright protection for news organizations and writers. I also like the idea of maximizing access to government by all comers. I don't like the idea of any sort of government support or subsidies. Public radio and television already receive public monies--an obvious conflict of interest. 
But readers of ChicagoNow and other blogs should take a close look at this report because the potential impact on them. Especially relevant is how any action might affect news aggregators. 
As someone who has been paid for his writing all his life, I'm especially sensitive to protecting my work product and intellectual property. Personally, I don't think the survival of newspapers is helped by giving away its product--news--on the Internet. As the FTC reports notes, news is not something that readers, listeners and viewers have been in the habit of paying for its full value. But shouldn't they be required to pay for some of it?


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  • A few brief observations:

    Copyright law and antitrust law are traditional government interests, and you seem to agree on that. I also agree with those who observe that the Newspaper Preservation Act is either a failure or a joke.

    I, like you, can't agree with the points in the FTC survey about government subsidizing the press, except in the indirect manner of buying legal advertisements or the like. There is no point in the Postal Service further subsidizing the press, given that both it and the press have largely been supplanted by the Internet.

    Also, I read continually through it about "news aggregators," which means that the press doesn't like Google. Of course, Chicago Breaking News in various versions is no different in giving incomplete accounts of stuff in Crain's or the Sun-Times, and then providing a link.

    What it still comes down to is that the Tribune does not have a viable business model in this age, especially when it comes to electronic publishing. I have said that many times before. No amount of government intervention (short of the Tribune becoming like Government Motors, and that certainly would violate the First Amendment) is going to avoid that reality.

  • I love newspapers and I loved working for newspapers for a fair share of my life. But it appears that the news business is evolving and that newspapers in the form that we know them today may become fossils. Newspapers survive on readership and advertising. If there arenot enough readers or advertisers to pay the bills, newspapers can't survive in their present form.

    I doubt that government intervention will halt the evolution of the news business. I don't pretend to understand how this evolution will play out. But, play out it will. I'll be sorry to see it happen. When I started working for newspapers, they still put "Extras" on the street. I even once got to push the Stop the Pressses button to hold an edition for what is now called "breaking news".

    Newspapers may suirvive somewhat lomger in certain environments. In small towns throughout the country, there is no substitute for the daily or weekly newspaper. I recll a banner on a newspaper in southern Missouri--"The Only Newspaper in the World That Gives a Damn About Ozark County".

  • In reply to jimbreeling:

    With regard to the small towns, that's not to say that the small town doesn't have a website or bloggers. That eliminates the cost of paper, printing, and distribution.

    Not exactly small town, but the Pioneer Press and Trib Local indicate that they are essentially shopping papers with a little news content. In Trib Local's case, it is written by the people promoting their own causes.

    Hence, the real question is not whether newspaper, in the sense of paper, is essential, but who is doing the reporting and who is paying for that reporting.

  • How can the press survive on government handouts? They have a credibility issue now. How can any newspaper man who is worth his salt even stand for this.I to like my printd words but the,the paper industry needs to figure this out,I really don't know. If they accept money it will only hasten their demise....

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