Is it time for a newspaper bailout? That fascinating notion is in an essay in The Nation called "The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers." The idea has been floated before, but perhaps never with as much conviction as by authors John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney, both of whom have written extensively about the media.

Is it time for a newspaper bailout?


That fascinating notion is in an essay in The Nation called "The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers." The idea has been floated before, but perhaps never with as much conviction as by authors John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney, both of whom have written extensively about the media.


The term "bailout" might be a bit misleading. Though the essay does call for drastic, innovative measures, newspaper wouldn't get carte blanche with taxpayer money. McChesney, a professor at the University of Illinois, says his plan offers help, not a windfall.


"I wouldn't call it a bailout," McChesney told me. "That would be like the government giving a check to Gannett (and other newspaper giants) and saying, 'Do what you want.' That'd be crazy. That'd be like giving Ted Bundy a furlough and a gun."


Mind you, I point to the essay not primarily out of personal interest.


Obviously, I draw a newspaper paycheck. But I'd like to think papers (in some form) will be around long enough to get me to retirement.


Perhaps that's wishful thinking. Regardless, my main reason for wanting newspapers to survive springs from the same reason I was drawn to this business: Newspapers are the backbone of democracy.


CNN, Rush Limbaugh, Jon Stewart, blogs - all owe their livelihood to papers, big and small. In the media world, big fish eat little fish. And the little fish are local newspapers, the public watchdogs that snarl when government and business step on John and Jane Doe.


In short, the Fourth Estate keeps America honest. You want to rail about liberal media? Dish other criticism about today's journalism? Fair enough. But a country without solid newspapers is a nation that entrusts its future entirely to government and big business. And that's suicidal.


How can a government help prop up the very organ designed to watch over it? As the essay points out, the federal government from its inception has fostered vigorous journalism. Postal subsidies encouraged distribution of newspapers. Governmental notices and printing contracts have helped fund papers.


Plus, the U.S. Supreme Court long has pushed freedom of the press as a necessity in our society. And the federal government long has played a role in the media, such as via broadcasting rules and licensing.


Meanwhile, as the essay underscores, newspapers are going digital, yet no business model has made the Internet viable for journalism. Thus, the authors suggest these measures:


• To foster a knowledgeable citizenry, individuals would get a tax credit for the first $200 spent annually on papers.


• To bridge the disconnect between young people and journalism, middle schools, high schools and colleges would get money for student papers, FM stations and Web sites.


• To expand reporting, public broadcasting would get much more funding.


• To help provocative investigative and opinion journals, postage would be exempt for periodicals that garner less than 20 percent of revenue from advertising.


The essay suggests a three-year experiment, to be reviewed thereafter.


The total cost would be $60 billion.


McChesney realizes the concept might unnerve the public at first. Then again, with the federal government shelling out cash to save other industries, the time is right for newspaper aid.


"Six months ago, we might've been locked up in an insane asylum," he says. "I think the case can be made (to win over the public) if it's stressed that this is not a blank check."


The proposal is just a start, a stopgap to bridge the old media to the new media. More ideas would then be needed.


Otherwise, the essay warns, a do-nothing approach would doom newspapers.


You can say good riddance. But the end of newspapers would be the end to democracy as we know it.


It's worth discussing.


Phil Luciano can be reached at pluciano@pjstar.com or (309) 686-3155.