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News industry needs a bailout?

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Some wonder whether the news media could use a federal buyout, just like Wall Street and auto manufacturers.

The Tribune Company, which owns the Los Angeles Times, the Sun in Baltimore and 10 other papers, plus 23 TV stations, filed for bankruptcy Monday, owing $13 billion to international creditors.

"Factors beyond our control have created a perfect storm - a precipitous decline in revenue and a tough economy coupled with a credit crisis," said Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Samuel Zell.

That perfect storm is raining on everybody.

The New York Times Co. also announced Monday it would borrow $225 million against its Manhattan headquarters building to stay afloat. E.W. Scripps Co. put the Rocky Mountain News up for sale Sunday; the McClatchy Co. did the same with the Miami Herald. NBC is laying off 500 employees, Viacom 850.

The current total number of layoffs in American newspapers alone has topped 15,000 this year, according to Paper Cuts, an online site that tracks the bad news.

Columnists and industry analysts alike now suggest a federal bailout.

Some of it started out as pure satire - like the $100 million "Newspaper Rescue Act" envisioned by Business Week writer Jon Fine last month. Yet news last week that state Democratic legislators in Connecticut proposed a state bailout of two local newspapers alarmed conservative columnists like Michelle Malkin, who cautioned against a press "beholden to the ruling class."

St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan wrote his own waggish take on a bailout, noting, "We want to be next," saying President-elect Barack Obama "owes us."

Dozens of readers took him seriously.

"I can't imagine a free press propped up by the federal government. But there were not many people who had sympathy for the press, telling me 'you people deserve it,' or 'you made your bed, liberal media,'" Mr. McClellan said. "Journalists are a lot less popular than auto workers."

In an essay published in the New Republic Monday, Mark Pinsky suggested resurrecting the old Federal Writers Program, which employed 6,000 out-of-work Depression-era scribes.

"I'm an old 'New Lefty,' but I think direct intervention won't work regarding the media. Too complicated, too much a result of cultural changes rather than economic turndown," Mr. Pinsky said Monday.

"A federal bailout would be difficult in principle and process. It's not like we're making cars or cashing checks here," said Robert Steele, a journalism ethicist with the Poynter Institute.

"A financial infusion from the government could raise questions about press independence and credibility. It might also lead to a movement to regulate journalism that would restrict free flow of information and 'cripple the watchdog.' There are just too many questions," he said.

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