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Under its thumb

Welcome to state-sponsored media

The government has its hands on much of life as it is. It issues money, regulates stock markets, guarantees property rights, enforces the rule of law and try opening a business, any business, without the proper papers. But we should think long and hard about letting it get a foothold in your sports section and crossword puzzles.

Did you hear that New Jersey’s Legislature and Gov. Phil Murphy approved $5 million in funding to subsidize the press? Welcome to state-sponsored media, New Jersey.

Here’s how the system is supposed to work: New Jersey, a state with plenty of financial problems, ponies up $5 million to create the Civic Information Consortium, which consists of five state universities. The Wall Street Journal sums up the rest:

“The consortium will use the money for grants supposedly to improve news coverage in communities deemed under-served. The consortium will in turn be overseen by a 13-member board: two appointed by the Governor, two by the legislature, one by each university, and the other four drawn from community groups, media outlets and the technology industry.”

This is a classic big-government approach to a problem. There’s an issue, so we’ll throw money at it.

Local journalism is facing a dilemma these days. Business models have been changing for newspapers and other local media. Journalists who once covered important issues like the city council, quorum court, school board, etc., are becoming more rare. When those areas go uncovered, those in charge of the public’s money might be emboldened with the spotlight powered down. It’s not a new song.

What’s the solution to this problem? We don’t exactly know. We’re certainly doing our best to continue being Arkansas’ Paper for you, Gentle Reader. Blogs and news websites are popping up around the nation, attempting to fill in the gaps. They’re quickly learning it’s getting harder to make money.

And should we expect CNN or Fox News to send a reporter to cover a city council meeting in Harrison or Hot Springs? Unlikely, unless there’s a massive protest about an outrageous circumstance. But there’s only so many of those stories to go around. Outrage, though potent, is a limited resource.

So while the news industry figures out how to adapt to new technology and business models in 2018, there are plenty of experiments to try to save our industry. There are grants from nonprofits to fund reporters, a shift to digital news subscriptions and more. But do we really want the government subsidizing even more journalists? We already have NPR and PBS.

Reporters who might receive these grants wouldn’t exactly have North Korea’s overseers, but we should all wonder: How likely will these reporters be to dig into a big legislative scandal involving their funders, the government? Do you uncover a scandal if it could mean losing funding for your job? That’s the position some of these new reporters might find themselves in.

And that’s the problem with letting the government get involved in something like the free press. We have a First Amendment to keep government out of our industry, but what happens when the government funds it? We fear nothing good.

We do note that the outfit that first came up with this idea in Jersey is called the Free Press Action Fund, and its leaders have been extensively quoted. But can a truly free press be funded this way? Our considered editorial opinion: Let’s not. Believe it or not, journalists are human, too, mostly . . . And . . . .

The hands that feed you oft times aren’t bitten. Some watchdog that would be.

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