Some time later this year, the General Assembly is going to make available to The Washington Post, The Washington Star and other newspaper and broadcast companies that operate in the state exactly 2,137 square feet of rent-free space in a refurbished building which also houses new legislative officies across the street from the Virginia Capitol.
At $7 a foot, a conservative rate even for basement offices in the area, the annual gift of the taxpayers to these favored private companies will be about $15,000.
Fearing, perhaps, a bad review of unfurnished rooms, the Assembly plan to see that no want of the private press goes unsatisfied. The total space will be partitioned into 14 individual offices of about 150 square feet each to provide competing newspapers and stations the privacy they need to protect competitive stories.
Each office will be furnished with a U-shaped desk, turned out for the press by the willing hands of convict labor, working under the close supervision of the Virginia Department of Corrections.
The state will provide two telephone jacks and electrical outlets for each office. The press must pay for its own phones, but the electricity will be free. After all, the Viriginia Electric and Power Co. gives the state a negotiated rate not subject to regulatory review.
At the last spirited meeting of the Capital Correspondence Association in Richmond, there was a brief discussion among reporters who cover Virginia government and politics of the prospective press facility, which will replace cramped, rent-free space now being occupied in the Capitol itself.
When a radical member suggested it is wrong for private business to accept free office space from the government, there was momentary dismay.
Finally, everyone agreed it is wrong but has to be excused because of three novel defenses of mitigation and extenuation: 1. Everyone does it. 2. It's always been done that way: 3. Management makes us do it.
It is true that everyone does it and that it has always been done that way: The Post, The Star and less celebrated publications have been mooching office space off the taxpayer for as long as anyone can remember. At this very moment, their reporters occupy rent-free space at such out-of-the-way places as the White House, the U.S. Capitol and the Supreme Court of the UNited States.
However, these are not really the best taxpayer supplied offices. The occupants of these buildings attract a mob of reporters and privacy is hard to come by. For privacy at the public expense, it is best to work in a local government office building, like the Alexandria City Hall.
Alexandria taxpayers used to supply The Post, The Star and other local papers with a quaint, gabled office at the corner of Cameron and Fairfax Streets. One window afforded a glimpse of the Potomac and an occassional passing ship.
Unfortunately the city later moved its press tenants to an interior office on the third floor which is more spacious and closer to the mayor, but offers no view worth mentioning.
Occasionally, presumptious use of public space by the press gets out of hand and attracts unwanted attention.
About nine years ago, the late Mason Butcher, then county manager in Montgomery County, Maryland, had to say that The Post's suburban advertising solicitors could not use the paper's facsimile transmission machines in the rent-free press room.
Butcher observed that it was his first crackdown on private building since he had had to tell the Avon ladies to stop calling.
One of the best stories of this kind is told by reporters in the New Jersey state capital of Trenton. New Jersey provides its newspapers with free, individual offices in the Capitol building today, but things are not as good as they used to be.
Until a couple of years ago, the papers' reporters, including those for The Trenton Times, owned bt The Washington Post Company, enjoyed free phone service as well. Not only were the phones free, but the state paid for all long distance calls.
An Assemblyman named Kenneth Gewertz, the majority whip from Gloucester County put an end to this fun with an outraged speech that some suspected was motivated by legislative designs on the office space occupied by the press.
The free phone service ended, but the legislators finally built themselves a new office building and let the press keep its rent-free space. In a fit of rightousness, The Trenton Times editiorialized that it and other newspapers should pay for the space, but a legislature that had lost interest in the offices decided this would be too complicated.
Fortunately, a way to end the non-sense of press freeloading on the public is readily apparent in Virginia. State law already provides that the governor may approve lease of space to private tenants in buildings near the Capitol, with the money going into the general fund.
The Assembly could take advantage of its move to a new building to establish a schedule of charges for reserved space and even phone installations that would recover the full cost to the public of housing the press. While they are it, the legislators could require local governments to do the same.
As a reform, it might spread to Washington, and, eventually, even to Trenton.