The push by local legislators, as mentioned in November 28’s post, to involve the Department of Economic Development (DECD) in efforts to save The Herald of New Britain and the Bristol Press is drawing national media attention.

A Reuters story posted at The Huffington Post focuses on questions of a free press and the potential conflicts that would arise if newspapers got government “bailouts” or other forms of assistance.

The coverage is being driven by a mistaken notion advanced in some reports (including those by Courant columnists Stan Simpson and Kevin Rennie) that the proposal would give the newspapers a handout or “bailout” in the face of falling revenues and readership.

That wasn’t the case at all when State Rep. Tim O’Brien (D-24) first asked economic development officials to lend a hand in finding a buyer or potential investors to replace the absentee and failed ownership of The Journal Register Company. The state DECD Commissioner, Joan McDonald, said as much in noting that the push by local elected officials has drawn up to five potential buyers who would take advantage of incentives that her department could provide.

In the Reuters analysis, writer Robert MacMillan notes that legislators, who this week were joined by the Mayors of New Britain and Bristol, sought state intervention to find a way to save these hometown dailies, both of which have a long tradition as the local commercial dailies in once thriving factory towns.

MacMillan, quoting journalism professors and experts, frames the issue in terms of the conflicts that would ensue with state assistance for a newspaper:

To some experts, that sounds like a bailout, a word that resurfaced this year after the U.S. government agreed to give hundreds of billions of dollars to the automobile and financial sectors.

Relying on government help raises ethical questions for the press, whose traditional role has been to operate free from government influence as it tries to hold politicians accountable to the people who elected them. Even some publishers desperate for help are wary of this route.

Providing government support can muddy that mission, said Paul Janensch, a journalism professor at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, and a former reporter and editor.

The Reuters story correctly points out that the separation of the press and government is just as important in a democracy as the separation of church and state.

That separation, however, would not be jeopardized at all if a buyer is found for the Herald or Press, or both, and the newspapers survive via the public sector incentives that DECD would provide.

Whether DECD incentives were part of the sale or not, the assumption that newsrooms would be compromised in New Britain and Bristol is based on unfounded speculation by those journalists and academics who are calling these efforts by DECD a “bailout.”

With the Herald due to close January 12th, it is the longest of long shots to assume a deal will come together in time to save it. Some other form or forms of journalism need to emerge to keep the fourth estate alive locally. The best scenario is that a community newspaper (using both print and the internet) be locally owned and self-sustaining, not another absentee owner seeking to plunder these local papers as the Journal Register company has done.