Congress also undermines newspapers by subsidizing the U.S. Postal Service, which delivers third-class "junk mail"—catalogs and other advertisements—in competition with newspapers. Now, newspapers have no moral right to deliver every advertisement printed on paper. But it makes little sense to subsidize a quasi-government agency like the Postal Service and then propose new plans to subsidize one of its failing competitors in the private sector.
(It should go without saying that I oppose second-class mail postal subsidies for newspaper and magazine delivery as well as the various state, local, and federal laws that require government to buy space to print legal notices in newspapers.)
The government's attempt to prop up newspapers with rewrites of the tax code or Sarkozy-esque direct subsidies of government advertising and free subscriptions for young people interferes with the already-in-progress transition from print to digital news delivery that's been accelerating for the past 15 years—or longer. Propping up troubled papers has a cost. It weakens the enterprises that are rising from below to compete with them to deliver advertising and, yes, deliver news. I can think of no better way to hinder the rise of such Web sensations as Politico and Talking Points Memo than rewriting the rules to benefit newspapers.
Remember, the decline of newspapers is multifactorial, and it didn't start yesterday. As early as 1992, Warren Buffett was counseling investors against newspapers, saying they had already lost their economic advantage. This was a full three or four years before the commercial World Wide Web took off.
Even if the government were to create as level and competitive a playing field as possible—say, impose the same sales tax burden on Web retailers as bricks-and-mortar shops that are much more likely to advertise in newspapers—I doubt that the dying newspaper trend could be fully reversed. The best thing President Obama can do for the news business is nothing.
Somewhere in the last week, I read somebody commenting about how the rise of nonprofit journalism is going to change journalists from pitch writers into grant writers. Great line. Who wrote it? Stand up and take your bow by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. The author's identity will be announced on my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)