The Columbia Journalism Review has an article suggesting that the government should step in and stop the red ink at the nation's leading newspapers. Declan McCullagh has a great post enumerating all the many reasons that's a bad idea. Here's one of the most important:
Government money tends to come with strings attached. Sure, at first, a handout may seem free. But over time, that tends to change.
Look at the ongoing controversies over the National Endowment for the Arts. In response to controversial photographs (including a provocative retrospective of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe's work) in an NEA-funded exhibit, Congress did two things. It reduced the NEA's budget for the next fiscal year and then slapped a new restriction on the agency, saying that its grants must take "into consideration general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public."
Mapplethorpe was, of course, a brilliant photographer, and some of his work has inspired my own modest efforts. But the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the NEA funding restrictions as constitutional, concluding that they're perfectly OK "when the government is acting as patron rather than as sovereign."
That patrons can muzzle the recipients of their largesse should be no surprise. Last decade, librarians lobbied Congress to create the E-rate program, which levied taxes on Americans' phone bills to pay for wiring schools to the Internet. It was an unalloyed, billion-dollar political win for the librarians — until Congress decided to force them to filter out porn if they wanted the cash.
They howled, they complained, they sued. They lost. The Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that the law "is a valid exercise of Congress' spending power."
It's also worth noting that, as Mike Masnick has pointed out repeatedly, news gathering isn't in decline. Only the portion of the news business that involves shipping people reams of ink-stained paper is having trouble. Most other parts of the news business are thriving. Cable and satellite news channels are thriving, news websites are seeing record traffic, and the blogosphere is providing hundreds of thousands of new sources for news and analysis. The trends in journalism are only alarming for people who think that journalism is synonymous with the print edition of the New York Times. Ironically, that attitude seems to be over-represented among the people in charge of educating the next generation of journalists.