There’s Already a Solution to the Crisis of Local News. Just Ask This Founding Father.

The key to making this policy work — logistically, constitutionally and politically — was its content-neutrality. Benjamin Franklin did not sit around in the Postmaster General’s Office deciding whether the New York Gazetteer was wittier than the Massachusetts Spy. All newspapers benefited.

But that’s not to say political factors didn’t shape policy. Urban and rural interests viewed the postal subsidy differently. It cost a New York City-based newspaper the same amount to ship to Missouri as to New Jersey, so residents away from the coasts feared that the morally dubious sin-city newspapers would infiltrate their towns.

“The poisoned sentiments of the cities,” warned Rep. Abraham Venable of Virginia, “concentrated in their papers, with all the aggravations of such a moral and political cesspool, will invade the simple, pure, conservative atmosphere of the country, and meet with no antidote in a rural press, will contaminate and ultimately destroy that purity of sentiment and of purpose, which is the only true conservatism.” Another lawmaker said that this system would “annihilate at least one half of our village newspapers.”

But, notably, these skeptics did not urge curtailing the subsidy. Instead, the Jacksonian Democrats that represented more agrarian areas pushed for a second subsidy — giving an extra break to help sustain local publishers. In 1845, Congress agreed that newspapers would be free if they were delivered within 30 miles of the office of publication.