With No Newspapers, as Thomas Jefferson Knew, Democracy Suffers

Democracy depends on an informed populace, as Thomas Jefferson knew. And there's a way out.

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A change to nonprofit status would not mean government control of the media. It would not bring about the end of the First Amendment and free speech. Religious and educational groups operate as nonprofits without government interference. A newspaper operating as a nonprofit would be allowed to freely report on all issues, including political campaigns. It simply would refrain from political endorsements. Whether conservative, liberal, or middle-of-the-road, each newspaper would maintain its editorial voice and be able to clearly state its position on issues affecting its community—local and national.

There are successful examples today that closely resemble what I have proposed. Newspapers taking advantage of this nonprofit structure would operate in a manner similar to a local public broadcasting station or National Public Radio.

PBS stations nationwide and NPR are independent entities that produce award-winning, in-depth, and relevant programs that inform us about the world and our community. They rely overwhelmingly on funds from private supporters who believe in the goal of educating the public and enjoy a tax deduction for their donations. Nonprofit status has not caused the government to interfere in the editorial judgments of public television and radio broadcasters.

Conversion to nonprofit status may not be the optimal choice for some newspapers—particularly those that rely on a significant revenue stream—but it does provide an alternative business model that may help keep many newspapers operating. I am confident that there are local citizens or foundations in communities across the nation that would be willing and able to step in and preserve their local newspaper. Newspapers provide a vital service, and it is in the interest of our nation and good governance that we ensure they survive.


Corrected on : Benjamin L. Cardin, a Democratic senator from Maryland, was a member of the House from 1987 to 2006.