Thursday, September 24, 2009

Judging from the turnout Thursday by members of the Joint Economic Committee for a hearing titled “The Future of Newspapers: The Impact on the Economy and Democracy,” lawmakers on Capitol Hill are not too keen to help an industry that is often critical of lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Just three of 20 House and Senate members showed up for the hearing, in which the Democratic chairwoman left early to vote on a House bill, leaving the ranking Republican in charge. But after Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney of New York returned, she emphatically declared what the hearing was most definitely not about.

“I want to be very clear: This is not about bailouts. No one’s talking about bailouts. We’re through with bailouts,” she said to the two other committee members who bothered to show up.

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The issue is dicey and raises a fundamental question: While the Bill of Rights guarantees a free press to act as watchdog over the federal bureaucracy, should the government seek to aid that industry when it is hard hit by economic recession and blindsided by technological change?

“We don’t believe direct governmental financing is appropriate for an industry whose core mission is news-gathering, analysis and dissemination, often involving that very same government,” John Sturm, president of the Newspaper Association of America, said at Thursday’s hearing.

Mr. Sturm and other panelists insisted that they were not there for a government handout or any special subsidy, along the lines of the aid offered to U.S. banks, insurers and carmakers in recent months. Yet several said Congress could play a vital role in easing the day-to-day operating woes of newspapers.

What’s more, Paul Starr of Princeton University said, newspapers differ from other corporate interests.

“The press has not been regarded, and should not be regarded, as just another industry. Government has sought to advance it because a democratic political system cannot function without a diverse, free and independent source of news,” said Mr. Starr, a professor of sociology and public affairs.

With newspapers nationwide making drastic cuts to staff and budgets and several facing bankruptcy, Mrs. Maloney and Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Maryland Democrat, have introduced the Newspaper Revitalization Act of 2009. The legislation would help community and metropolitan newspapers by allowing them to become nonprofit organizations, not unlike public broadcasting networks.

“The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Rocky Mountain News, San Francisco Chronicle and the Baltimore Sun are all facing steep drops in advertising and subscription revenue due to the double whammy of the recession and competition from the Internet,” Mrs. Maloney said.

“Unless something is done, and done fast, it’s likely that many metropolitan areas may soon have no local daily newspapers, and that would damage our democracy. Providing this option to structure their business would be a way for a community or local foundations to preserve their local paper,” she said.

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