Newspapers and Government

I don't have time right now to editorialize in depth, but I found many of the links in this Reason piece on newspaper bailout proposals to be really creepy.  Nothing could be worse for the First Amendment than making news organizations dependent on government largess.   This bit from the Nation is not only totally misguided, but it demonstrates an utter lack of understanding of history, to the point of demonstrating contempt for hist0rical accuracy:

Only government can implement policies and subsidies to provide an institutional framework for quality journalism. [...]

Fortunately, the rude calculus that says government intervention equals government control is inaccurate and does not reflect our past or present, or what enlightened policies and subsidies could entail.

Our founders never thought that freedom of the press would belong only to those who could afford a press. They would have been horrified at the notion that journalism should be regarded as the private preserve of the Rupert Murdochs and John Malones. The founders would not have entertained, let alone accepted, the current equation that seems to say that if rich people determine there is no good money to be made in the news, then society cannot have news.

I find the arguments that such intervention is needed because publishing is too expensive and effectively excludes all but the largest players to be hilarious in the Internet age.  The real problem of newspapers is in fact that it has become so cheap to publish, and competition is rampant.  The problem papers are struggling with is not monopoly, but just the opposite -- that their historic monopoly is gone.   (Take yours truly, for example.  With a $10 a month hosting fee and some of my free time, I have a circulation of almost 5,000 per day).

This appears to me to be yet another veiled attempt by current incumbents to use the government to give them a boost against competition.  Murdoch's empire is utterly assailable -- all you have to do is a better job.   The only thing that makes a business position unassailable is government protection or political advantage aimed at selected players.

Which reminds me of an interesting story.  Ben Franklin  (you know, one of those founders that the Nation refers to as horrified by domination of journalism by moneyed interests) is pretty famous for being among the country's first postmasters.  Before the Revolution, he was postmaster of Philadelphia and later one of the lead postmasters for all the colonies.  We all read in school how he did all kinds of innovative things, because Franklin was a freaking smart guy**.

What you may not know is why he sought out the postmaster job.  Ben Franklin was a printer, and a large source of income for him was running a periodical in Philadelphia  (the names changed over time but among them were the Philadelphia Gazette).  At the time, there were no wire services  (and no wires!)  News came via mail.  Franklin actively sought the postmaster job as a way to get special, privileged access to the mail, which he monitized via his publications.   He had fresher news, and he used the mails to deliver his own publication to customers for free  (a right competitors were not granted)  In a strategy that he did not invent (it was fairly common at the time, and in fact he took the Philadelphia job from his main journalistic competitor who had pursued the same strategy) the surest route to success in the newspaper business was to secure an advantaged position via the government, specifically in a postmaster role.

I am perfectly happy not to go back to this model.

** Postscript:  Franklin seldom gets credit in popular literature for the real areas he contributed to science.  Everyone knows the kite in the thunderstorm story, but I always thought this kind of made him look like a goof, rather than a real scientist.  But Franklin did some real theoretical science, for example by describing what was really going on in a Leyden jar, and substantially advancing how scientists thought about electrical charge and capacitance.


  1. Another guy named Dan:

    Re: Franklin - the way I describe it to people is that if Nobel Prizes existed back then, Franklin would likely have won at least two: Physics, for his investigation of the nature of electrical charge, and Peace, for his role in negotiating the Treaty of Paris that ended the American Revolution. To this day, we are using the definitions of positive and negative charge that he proposed.

    When I think that not only did he live at the same time as Jefferson (philosopher, political theorist, engineer, architect, educator, and even paleontologist), but the two men corresponded frequently and were even personal friends, I wonder how this country could have been more blessed with wisdom and intelligence. and then you can add Sam Addams and Alexander Hamilton, and the mind boggles.

  2. Rick:

    I think the Franklin story is an indication of how he was able to make such broad pronouncements on the abuse of power by government and government officials. His first hand experience gave him a good idea of why things never would work cleanly when the government was involved heavily.

    A very important, but overlooked and almost anonymous, assist to the growth of the US came from Joseph Priestly. May I suggest reading "The Invention of Air"?

  3. Thalpy:

    You surprise me. There are so many examples of governmental excellence and benevolence out there that we should welcome governmental assistance in maintaining a free press. Isn't it a no-brainer.

  4. Shenpen:

    "the surest route to success in the newspaper business was to secure an advantaged position via the government, specifically in a postmaster role.

    I am perfectly happy not to go back to this model."

    Which is perfectly right - but I wonder whether the otherwise quite statist-smelling "net neutrality" stuff is the only thing that could prevent it from happing again (conspiracies between ISPs and online publications)

  5. Bill:

    In theory I agree with you 100%. Watching the BBC and the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting) news, though, makes me wonder if it is not such a bad idea in practice. Surely, if one were to consider the extreme, two dozen government subsidized newspapers would probably be better than two private-owned newspapers.

  6. Mesa Econoguy:

    The real problem with newspapers is that journalism is a joke of a profession, journalists are morons, and anyone can do their job better than they can (especially those directly involved in the story areas/occupations about which they write).

  7. Freelance Unbound:

    To Mesa Econoguy. You know what? I am a journalist - and I agree with you pretty much a hundred percent...