This past spring, the Columbia Journalism Review convened a panel of top editors and a media investor to discuss the somewhat tiresome topic of the future of newspapers. The situation is undeniably bleak. One need merely consult Romenesko, the media-news aggregator, to witness the freefall in circulation, the unending editorial cutbacks, and the closure of foreign bureaus at so many major metropolitan papers. The panelists—Robert Kuttner, the founding co-editor of The American Prospect; Jim Brady, the executive editor of washingtonpost.com; Amanda Bennett, the executive editor for enterprise at Bloomberg News and the former editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer; Jill Abramson, a managing editor of The New York Times; and Steven Rattner, a managing principal of Quadrangle Group LLC, a media investment firm—focused mainly on the need for a new business model, one that would address the rise of the Internet and its negative impact on subscription revenue and advertising, particularly classified. But halfway through the evening, Nicholas Lemann, the dean of Columbia’s journalism school and the panel’s moderator, asked Rattner a surprising question: “What policy interventions would you take to keep institutions like The New York Times and The Washington Post alive if they can’t keep themselves alive in the market?” As the emerging suggestions for mitigating the problems of the publicly traded newspaper—private equity (the Minneapolis Star Tribune), billionaire patronage (Santa Barbara News-Press), and even nonprofit ownership (see Louis Hau’s December 2006 Forbes column on the problems of The St. Petersburg Times)—are proving to have their own unique challenges, the role of government in supporting the press is just beginning to enter the debate. Kuttner, whose March/April cover story in cjr inspired the panel, was somewhat optimistic about the future of the newspaper business. But Rattner, a former journalist, was far less hopeful in his answer to Lemann’s question: “What I do know after the last ten years of people coming up and saying, ‘Why can’t newspaper business models work?’ is that it’s not obvious that the conventional for-profit, public-company model alone is really going to provide the quality of journalism that needs to exist in society.” While Rattner acknowledged that “there are real obvious questions about journalistic independence and government involvement,” he unequivocally supported the notion that government should play a role in ensuring the future of journalism: “To the extent that the for-profit business model doesn’t provide the level of information that we think society should have, that’s what government is for, and I believe that.”

Journalism is a rare business in that its product—news—has a public-service function, but unlike other public-service activities, like public education or scientific research, it is not protected from market forces by government support. So when the financial viability of the news business is threatened, so too is the press’s role as the fourth estate. “I don’t think there’s any question, legally or constitutionally or theoretically, that journalism is a necessary public good for our constitutional system to work,” says Robert McChesney, a professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the founder and president of Free Press, a media-reform organization. “That’s the very understanding of Jefferson and Madison, all the founders, from the beginning. This was not something optional.” As many journalists and scholars point out, it is no accident that the press is the only business explicitly protected by the Constitution. By the 1970s—thanks to an explosion in print advertising after World War II, as well as new labor-saving technologies and the development of monopolies within urban circulation areas—newspapers had become enormously profitable. “They were one of the most profitable investments around, so Wall Street got in on the action and started buying up papers,” says Robert Picard, a media business consultant and the director of the Media Management and Transformation Centre in Jönköping, Sweden. “If we look at the 1970s and the 1980s, we had pretty damn good newspapers. There were a lot of resources, a lot of money in the news operations.” But the market has changed. “Now we don’t like the market,” says Picard. “But we liked it then.”

Bree Nordenson a former assistant editor of CJR.