If "Real Journalism" Fails As A Business, Should Government Step In?

The chart to the right, which shows the stock price of the New York Times Company over the last five years, is somewhat representative of the state of print journalism in general. They’re getting their lunch eaten on the revenue end by Craigslist and (to a lesser extent) on the page view end by blogs and other alternative news sources.

When the business model of “real journalism” fails, what should society do in response? When things are considered important, but can’t be supported with a business model, government sometimes steps in. National parks, highways, police and national defense are all examples. Should print journalism be next?

Last week Ralph Whitehead wrote about the issue for the Boston Globe, but said government must not step in. Today at a session led by Jeff Jarvis at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, noted Free Speech lawyer and Columbia University President Lee Bollinger said it should be considered as a viable solution to the problem. Carl Lavin at Forbes picked up the story, and I’m now squarely in the middle of it.

At first Bollinger only mentioned it as an idea put forward by others. When I questioned him, he said he supported the notion.

The idea is both dangerous and absurd. For Bollinger, who is a free speech advocate, to even consider the idea suggests he hasn’t thought through the consequences of the government financing the press. Freedom of the press is one of the most important checks on government. If they’re paying the bills, the press is no longer independent.

Print media is wonderful, and it would be a shame to ever see it fail. But these are businesses that need to sustain themselves in one way or another. Looking for a government handout to perpetuate a quaint but outdated way of life is the last resort of the desperate. It should be avoided at all costs.