A local-media outlet that shall go unnamed recently had an editorial that, kinda-sorta but without quite saying so out loud, asked its local government to use leftover federal COVID cash to bail it out.
Some local media, the editorial noted, face tough times for a variety of reasons (largely a business model that did not adapt quickly or nimbly enough to address changing trends in readership and advertising). Other media, even those owned by some of the richest people on the planet if you get our drift, largely have reduced coverage of local news. We don’t refer to our, cough, collective competition as the “Northern Virginia press corps[e]” for nothing.
Yes, we wholeheartedly agree that there is a need for a vibrant and viable local media, if for nothing else than to keep local governments looking over their shoulders and held to account for their actions. Our local leaders may not fear the coverage (and at times editorial-page wrath) of the press as they did not so long ago, but they cannot – yet – simply ignore it.
Keeping a vibrant media indeed should be a valuable public-policy priority; an informed community is a healthy community. But shouldn’t we all be worried when local-government cash is offered up to “solve” a problem, any problem?
The chance is virtually nil that such funding could come with no strings attached, inferred if not stated directly, no matter the good intentions that may be involved.
And yes, we in Sun Gazette-land happily take advertising dollars from local governments, and would take lots more if they were available. But that’s a far different thing from being directly subsidized by the local governments you are supposed to be holding to account. Not such a hard distinction to grasp.
To quote financial guru Dave Ramsey: A business that consistently loses money is merely an expensive hobby. The taxpayers shouldn’t be asked to financially support expensive hobbies, and government doesn’t need to be in the business of getting its paws on supposedly independent voices.
Instead of whoring themselves out for a monthly subsidy check, imperiled local-media outlets should just muddle along and try to figure out, as the rest of us have worked diligently to, how to appeal to enough readers and advertisers in multiple formats (print, online, mobile, whatever comes next) to have more revenue coming in than going out on a consistent basis.