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Setting the price of a free press

If the 1st Amendment is to mean anything, Congress has to suspend antitrust rules for the newspaper industry so publishers can determine as a group how much to charge for online content.

August 22, 2009|TIM RUTTEN

As The Times' Dawn C. Chmielewski reported Friday, emissaries of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. recently approached the owners of this newspaper, the New York Times, the Washington Post and Hearst Corp. about joining a consortium that would charge for online news content.

Murdoch's Wall Street Journal already does so, but the Australian-born media magnate understands that what's required for serious -- which is to say expensive-to-produce -- journalism to survive is that all the quality English-language papers and news sites agree to charge for Web access and then mercilessly sue anyone who makes more than fair use of their work without paying a fee. For such a scheme to work, the papers' owners need to agree on when to act and what to charge. (Murdoch and his digital strategist, Jonathan Miller, believe the Journal's existing website model offers a place for what the latter calls "premium" journalism.)

Putting aside the irony of the man who probably has done more to undermine serious English-language news coverage than anybody else in our lifetimes now proposing to save it, Murdoch is right, and newspaper proprietors should elect his proposal or one of the others also being discussed -- and soon. American papers had combined revenues of $34.7 billion from the advertising in their print editions last year and just $3.1 billion in advertising from their online sites, despite the fact that, on average, 67.3 million people visited them each month.

Unless that imbalance is reduced, all but a few quality papers will disappear. For its part, Congress needs to move quickly to grant the newspaper industry at least a temporary exemption from antitrust and price-fixing laws so that publishers and proprietors can, in essence, collude for survival.

The question that naturally arises is why the government should have any interest in supporting newspapers -- unhealthy or otherwise. In fact, U.S. authorities have used their regulatory powers to support a free press -- whose foundations were and remain newspapers -- since the Colonial era. As deputy postmasters general of British America, for example, Benjamin Franklin and William Hunter allowed newspaper subscribers to receive their copies through the mails free of postage. They permitted single copies of any paper to be sent free from one printer to another. That was crucial to the free flow of information because it allowed the foreign and financial news that aggregated in the port cities to pass uninhibited to the printer/publishers of inland papers, while events in the hinterland were transmitted back to the major cities.

When the nation's first Postal Act was passed in 1792, it not only continued Franklin's and Hunter's policy of free transmission of papers between printers but set a heavily subsidized postal rate of a single cent on copies mailed to subscribers. In 1851, Congress granted free postage to weekly papers mailed within their counties of origin and later extended the subsidy to dailies.

More important, if Congress acts as it should, it will do so not on behalf of newspapers but for their readers. The press, after all, does not assert 1st Amendment protections on its own behalf but as the custodian of such protections on behalf of the American people. We ought not lose sight of the fact that the 1st Amendment links the rights to religion, free speech, a free press and peaceable assembly for the redress of grievance for a reason. The framers wisely judged that a healthy democratic government required people informed by a free press, acting according to the dictates of their own consciences, speaking their minds without inhibition in the free associations of their choosing.

There is a kind of spiritual symbiosis in the complementary exercise of these most fundamental rights. If the unlooked-for consequences of technical innovation somehow threatened religious freedom -- which is to say, liberty of conscience -- or inhibited free speech or intimidated people from assembling, there's no doubt Congress would act expeditiously. So it now should on behalf of a free press.

Newspaper proprietors with as serious an interest in their readers' interest as their own bottom lines ought to follow Murdoch's unlikely lead into a consortium of pay-to-view news websites or adopt one of the other proposed models as quickly as practical. Congress should enact the legislation required to allow them to act and price collectively, which has to be done if any of these schemes are to work.

Unless our lawmakers empower the newspaper industry to act on its readers' behalf, it's only a matter of time until there are too few serious sources of quality -- or "premium" -- journalism to guarantee the reality of the free press on which all the 1st Amendment's indispensable liberties depend.

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timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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