From Jon Fine at Business Week comes this idea of a federal bailout of the newspaper industry. Fine presents it in the guise of a modest proposal, but I think that’s just to slip it in the door. Many a halfway serious idea has masqueraded at birth as pure satire.

“We can position this as a proactive move to save the only industry prominently mentioned in the Bill of Rights,” says Fine. That’s true if you don’t count religion as an industry. Here’s the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

It’s interesting that religion, which the Constitution orders Congress to neither help nor hinder, gets tax breaks. The press, which the Constitution orders Congress to protect, gets none. Fine suggests “rebranding” the press as “educational” so tax credits can go to the papers themselves and to taxpayers who read them.

The big problem facing the press is that it’s a business without a functional business model. (See this recent post for a taste of the pointless finger-pointing and hapless rancor that get stirred up when times are tough and nobody knows what to do.) As Fine points out with a jab at the Pontiac Aztek, the American auto industry–which is counting on billions because it’s “too big to fail”–makes cars nobody wants. The American press manufactures news that everybody wants but nobody thinks they should have to pay for–a more than slightly different situation. But nobody’s saying the press is too big to fail.

Or too important. Despite the serious possibility that Chicago, in the next few years, will lose both its major daily newspapers, there’s none of the local outcry that would protest the same sort of threat to the Bears or the Bulls. Or the Fire.