Critical Thinking

Should Newsrooms Take Financial Assistance From the Federal Government?

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News publishers have been able to apply for financial assistance under the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program. Should this kind of assistance become a permanent solution?

Zoe Fruchter, 20, junior, Grinnell College, Grinnell, Iowa

Fruchter is the editor-in-chief of The Scarlet & Black, Grinnell College’s independent student newspaper. She is an art history major with a concentration in Russian, Central and Eastern European studies.  

We pay our editors and staff writers at The Scarlet & Black for their work. This is unusual for most college newspapers, and amidst a campus and national shutdown, we have continued to pay our staff, even as we moved out of our dorms and remain scattered across the country. I know first-hand how invaluable this income is to students who rely on this job to pay their bills. Workers of all industries must be able to support themselves in this time when everyone’s health, safety and wellbeing are at risk, and that’s what the PPP does.

I don’t, however, think that such federal assistance should become a permanent solution for news publishers suffering the effects of COVID-19 and otherwise. 

Our newspaper’s budget is derived from a “student activities” fee which comes directly from those paying to attend Grinnell and is not dependent on approval from the College administration. This is a delicate balance of financial independence and journalistic integrity that we have worked with the administration to maintain over many years, a balance that I do not think is possible for the U.S. government and newspapers across the country. Look, for example, at how the current administration has threatened the funding of the ​Corporation for Public Broadcasting​ and, most recently, the ​United States Postal Service​, non-partisan institutions created to serve the public good. 

There is a bigger issue, however, at the heart of this question: the viability of the news publishing industry at large. While COVID-19 has had an undeniable impact, the pandemic has exacerbated existing trends of mass layoffs, publication closures and advertiser drop off. Any college student pursuing a career in journalism knows that entering into the field is a risky decision. The old advertising model just isn’t working anymore. 

Some of the greatest minds in news and journalism are at work trying to figure out how to save this industry. While forms of government funding may be involved in these future models, direct loans from Washington are not the way to revive an industry that is needed now more than ever. 

 

Gary Miles, 56, editor and publisher, Detroit News

Miles was named editor and publisher of the Detroit News in 2019. Previously, he served as managing editor for five years and in various other editing roles at the News since 2000.

In September 1972, President Richard Nixon huddled with aides to discuss ways to keep the Watergate break-in from being linked to the White House. News coverage from the Washington Post came up.

“The Post … it’s going to have its problems,” Nixon said of the newspaper most aggressively following the bugging of Democratic headquarters. “The Post is going to have damnable, damnable problems out of this one. They have a television station.”

His point wasn’t lost on his audience. He could transfer the Post’s lucrative federal broadcast license.

Almost a half-century later, publications across the country this spring filed applications to participate in the Paycheck Protection Program, a $659 billion federal economic stimulus to help small businesses stricken by the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s impossible to blame them. Here was a federal program on which their very survival might depend. Extending that kind of aid permanently, however, would be akin to the wolf taking the shepherd out for dinner.

When a publication is dependent on the government for its survival, it cannot help but be susceptible to its influence. Even if none was exerted, the very perception would erode credibility.

As Nixon proved, politicians can’t be trusted to suppress their darker instincts. “The game has to be played awfully rough,” he told his aides that day.

If there’s any doubt, recall that President Donald Trump, unhappy over coverage in 2017, threatened action against NBC’s license (a misnomer of sorts, since local stations are licensed).

It was an eventual president, Thomas Jefferson, who insisted that the U.S. Constitution immortalize press freedoms in what became the Bill of Rights.

“The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black in his opinion on the Pentagon Papers case in 1971. “Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.”

One can only imagine the self-restraint that might be exercised if a news outlet depended on the government to meet its payroll.

The perils facing the news business are real, as are those facing the nation (growing indebtedness among them). Ultimately, newspapers must stand because readers choose to support independent coverage of the facts. If readers choose not to, they will fall.

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