Newspapers Don't Need, and Shouldn't Get, a Bailout

An Ad Age Editorial

Published on .

With Congress on a bailout spree and big scraps of the newspaper industry circling the bowl, no one should be surprised that the idea of some sort of bailout would be floated.

One such idea was proposed by Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., earlier this year and received some breathless attention last week when President Barack Obama was asked about the idea and said that he's open to looking at it. That Mr. Cardin's bill has attracted only one other co-sponsor and that the Newspaper Association of America isn't backing the bill should tell Mr. Obama all he needs to know: "Don't waste your time."

What we're talking about isn't a straightforward bailout. The Cardin bill would set up tax breaks for newspapers that reorganize themselves as not-for-profit entities.

Government wouldn't own newspapers, but it would turn formally independent news-gathering operations into ones that, through either direct funding or tax breaks, are dependent on government largesse to continue operating. No matter how you look at it, that forms a certain kind of indebtedness. Newspaper companies already struggle against the perception they're beholden to advertisers. How much better to be perceived as corporate suck-ups by one side and government propagandists on the other?

We're also not quite sure which papers a not-for-profit move would help considering the number of them owned by public companies. We are sure that there would be outrage from those who own other media outlets. Why should newspapers, alone among all media, get special dispensation, after all? (For now, we'll skip over the hand-wringing about the cacophony of the blogosphere and the bias of TV news.)

Ultimately, newspapers either have to adapt or go the way of the horse and buggy or the Pony Express.

Many newspaper companies are struggling to find viable ways forward in a digital world, rather than grasping about for spare change to keep the old model puttering along.

As Jack Shafer of Slate wondered, "Would the crutch of donor support hinder the search for new commercial revenue necessary for news organizations' long-term viability?"

We think so. If you get a crutch, you're much less likely to try and figure out how to walk, let alone run, without it.

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