DOES IT STRIKE anyone else as creepy that the U.S. Department of Justice is looking into the nature of the daily-newspaper business in Seattle?
The DOJ is talking to people about the relative merits of having a one- or two-newspaper town. It's ostensibly about business, making sure antitrust laws aren't being violated. The DOJ is not supposed to be involved in content, picking winners and losers based on editorial policies or ideologies. But, inevitably, that's where the "business" questions go when the subject is newspaperingto content. The argument that government should ensure media diversity ultimately is an argument asking that government look over the shoulders of publishers, editors, and writers.
Seattle Weekly staff writer Rick Anderson opened a window on the kinds of questions the DOJ is asking when he wrote about his interview with the feds in our June 25 issue. Rick wrote, "Among their other questions: What would Seattle be like with one less newspaper? How would quality and quantity of reporting be affected? In what ways would the free flow of information to the public be diminished? And would the gap be sufficiently filled by TV, other publications, and the Internet?"
These are all good questions, but the federal government shouldn't be asking them. When you ask whether a newspaper is operating in the public interest, you are asking a question that goes to the heart of what a newspaper is, its mission, and its editorial content. And that is an area where government should butt out.
THIS IS ONE of the great flaws of the well-intentioned effort to save failing daily newspapers. Thirty years ago, Congress passed the Newspaper Preservation Act. It allows the establishment of newspaper monopolies in cities around the country. The idea was that if two newspapers in a particular market could combine their business and production operations to save money, they could afford to continue publishing separate papers, thus enhancing diversity and free speech. That's more or less the way it has worked in Seattle for the past two decades. A so-called joint operating agreement (JOA) allows the Seattle Times to run the business operations of both papers. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer runs its own newsroom and little else. Any profitsand they have been substantial until recent yearsare shared.
The Times wants to close the smaller P-Ibecause, it claims, two papers can't make money, even with the advantage of a JOA. Closing the P-I would give the Times both a business and an editorial monopoly. (If the P-I folded, what would be lost? See Dick Clever's story on p. 19.) The P-I is suing to stop the Times from forcing the closure of the P-I. While the matter is in court, the DOJ is looking at the whole JOA, and a citizens group, the Committee for a Two-Newspaper Town, has just been allowed by the court to intervene in the case. It's likely to be a mess, with the DOJ as a powerful, unpredictable wild card. There are many possible scenarios, including the folding of one paper or the continuation of the two-paper JOA, either of which is apparently unacceptable to one of the parties.
THE DEVIL'S BARGAIN of JOAs becomes apparent when conflicts like this arise. The government then has an excuse to come in and play arbiter of media diversity. It's dicey enough when the Federal Communications Commission exercises its power to determine who rules the TV and radio airwaves, but those airways are public property, after all. It's another matter when the government wants to regulate ink and paper the public doesn't own. The First Amendment says we can spill ink any way we want. It's the thin, black line that protects usbarelyfrom tyranny. Sometimes I think ink is all we have left in this Ashcroft era.
Operating on the assumption that there is some correct way newspapers ought to be run or that there is some magic number that better serves the people (two papers? Why not three or four?) is an intrusion on press freedom.
Running papers in the public interest isn't definable. For some cities, that might be simply getting the birth, death, and marriage announcements right. For others, it means offering up a smorgasbord of news and ideas. For others, it means pounding on the powerful until they squeal. There is, ultimately, no formula for a great newspaper or a lousy one. Ownership makes a difference, but there are lousy local owners and good chains. Every community has a different standard; newspapers have a right to conform or deviate from the standard at will, for better or worse. The Constitution protects all, whether they serve the public or not.
No one has any idea how the Times/ P-I saga will play out. I certainly don't have any say in it. I wish the government didn't, either. As the old newspaper slogan says, "Hew to the line and let the chips fall where they may." That is the tough-love law that ought to rule the newspaper business.