One argument against a government bailout of newspapers is that it would make the papers dependent on government largesse, which could interfere with their sacred mission of exposing sex scandals in high places. That’s true, but let’s not kid ourselves: Newspapers have been living on government money for centuries.
This morning’s New York Post, for example, is a hefty 160 pages, about twice its normal length. Did they print the entire text of the bailout bill? No, but pages 33 through 137 are taken up with a list of properties that are up for sale by the city because of unpaid tax liens. This information could just as easily be put online, but the archaic practice of publishing it–along with legal ads, notices of unclaimed property, real-estate transactions, and assorted other records of government business–in “a paper of general circulation” goes a long way toward keeping many newspapers afloat, especially small local weeklies.
The practice has a long history. Two centuries ago, a government printing contract was the biggest plum that a printer, who usually doubled as newspaper editor, could win, and papers were not subtle in their efforts to ingratiate themselves with the party in power. How will the current economic crisis affect this form of subsidy? In the short term, it may even help the papers; these days, sales for non-payment of taxes are a growth industry. But sooner or later the county comptroller will figure out how many expense-account lunches he and his colleagues could buy with the money they spend propping up the Weekly Gazette. If that business goes, it could be one more nail in the bulging coffin of American print journalism.