06/14/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Let's Bail Out Newspapers with First Amendment Ads!

The White House has expressed "concern" and "sadness" over the decline of the newspaper industry but, as the Associated Press reported last week, has made it clear that a bailout is not in the cards.

The White House is making a mistake.

If the greedy auto and financial companies getting federal dough are too big to fail, American newspapers are too important to fail. Neither the collapse of General Motors nor the demise of Lehman Brothers has threatened our democracy. A loss of daily papers would.

Here's what I propose: Congress should finance a series of First Amendment ads to be placed in daily and community newspapers. These ads would balance the books at America's newspapers and give the public some badly needed civics lessons.

In January NBC News reported that

"a recent study by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute found finds that only half of U.S. adults can name all three branches of government, and just 54% know that the power to declare war belongs to Congress. Almost 40% incorrectly said that it belongs to the president."

Congress can create a "stress test," a la Timothy Geithner, that assigns the ads based upon the circulation and finances of each paper. The ads can run daily, weekly or monthly depending upon how dire the situation is at each paper.

Sure, the American newspaper industry bears some responsibility for its own decline. Publishers did not adapt well to the changes wrought by the Internet.

But, as Frank Rich of The New York Times suggested on Sunday, there's too much at stake to get caught up in arguments about business models.

"It's not only journalism that is now struggling to plot a path to survival," he wrote. "But, with all due respect to show business, it's only journalism that's essential to a functioning democracy... Whatever shape journalism ultimately takes in America, make no mistake that in the end we will get what we pay for."

Some day, the business will sort out its model. And at that point, the federal government can stop subsidizing newspapers. But until then, we need a bridge. Badly.