Don’t let the federal government buy the news

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Mark Warner and Tim Kaine want Congress to bail out newspaper chains, citing concerns that the COVID-19 economic shutdown will decimate local and regional news outlets, which, to be fair, weren’t doing all that well before COVID-19.

But now the chains are furloughing employees to try to cut costs in the face of declining ad revenues, and the budgets balanced on the backs of the few hands left on board before COVID-19 are teetering on the brink of collapse.

Which is why Warner and Kaine, and a group of senators, are pushing for money in any future COVID-19 federal relief package to prop up news outlets.

Any self-respecting news person would give you a terse two-word response to this overture:

“Hell, no.”

Money always comes with strings, and it would be the strings that would render this so many millions of dollars of blood money.

The role of the news media vis-à-vis government is to serve as its watchdog.

The second that federal money would change hands, there goes your media as watchdog.

It wouldn’t have to ever be said out loud, or buried deep in a thousand-page bill, but the understanding would be there.

We bailed you out; now we expect you to be, you know, fair.

“Hell, no.”

Which isn’t to say that the motivation behind this idea isn’t spot on.

What happens if the News Leader in Staunton, if the News Virginian in Waynesboro, both of which are furloughing or cutting pay for front-line employees, doesn’t make it to the other side of the flattening of the COVID-19 curve?

The role that local newspapers play in areas like Augusta County, Staunton, Waynesboro, is to have a reporter sitting in the front row at the city council or board of supervisors meeting taking notes, following up with questions of officials, then reporting on what goes on, with an unbiased eye.

If there’s no News Leader or News Virginian, who is there to make sure officials aren’t engaging in funny business, or just making dumb decisions?

Communities need newspapers because they need those reporters there on the front lines to make sure government works.

You can see the issue, though, once it’s government helping pay the bills.

And this doesn’t even account for the obvious issue with bailouts – that there’d need to be safeguards in place to make sure that the money that would change hands from the government to the owners of the chains that run local and regional newspapers doesn’t just end up going toward corporate bonuses and stock buy-backs.

Here’s the problem with having those safeguards in place in this kind of situation – if the money changes hands, and the furloughs and pay cuts for those on the front lines continue, how does that stink get raised?

Do you want to assume that the benevolent corporate owners of the chains actually allow critical coverage of their own internal operations?

“Hell, no.”

Don’t assume it, anyway.

I love the sentiment, but seriously, this is an idea that sounded good in somebody’s head, and shouldn’t have gotten past the saying it out loud stage.

Story by Chris Graham

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