Across the nation, small towns and big cities are losing something irreplaceable—their local news. From conservative publications to more liberal media outlets, all have been affected by changes in the newspaper industry that have made it increasingly difficult to survive as an independent voice. Do we need to create new options that will help ensure the survival of investigative and insightful reporting that is most often done today by newspapers? I believe we do.
In recent months, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Rocky Mountain News, the Baltimore Examiner, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among others, have ceased daily print publication or announced they may have to stop publishing. The Tribune Co., owner of the Los Angeles Times and the Baltimore Sun, has filed for bankruptcy. This does not bode well for our democracy. We depend on an open and free press to monitor and report on what is happening in our communities so that we as Americans can make reasoned judgments about our leaders. I think Thomas Jefferson, a man who was vilified by newspapers daily, summed it up best when he said, "If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government, I wouldn't hesitate to choose the latter."
Like Jefferson, I believe that a well-informed public is the core of our democracy. Most recently, newspapers were critical in uncovering the appalling treatment of our brave veterans at Walter Reed and other veterans' hospitals. From the Watergate scandal to the AIG bonus debacle to school board decisions or local zoning debates, news stories—reported by journalists—often bring to public attention the most important decisions and actions that affect all of us.
Despite the 24-7 availability of news from print, broadcast, and digital sources, there remains one clear fact: When it comes to original, in-depth reporting that records and exposes accomplishments, issues, opportunities, and corruption in our communities, nothing has replaced a newspaper. Google, Yahoo, blogs, and even most local and national broadcasters pull their news stories and postings from the original and laborious—and expensive—work of experienced newspaper reporters diligently working their beats over the course of years and months, not hours.
If he were alive today, Jefferson would be truly horrified to see the demise of the newspaper industry. While the economy has caused an immediate problem, the business model for newspapers, based on circulation and advertising revenue, is broken, and that is a real tragedy for communities across the nation and for our democracy.
For that reason, I have introduced the Newspaper Revitalization Act to help our disappearing community and metropolitan papers by allowing them to become nonprofit organizations, if they so choose. This is not a solution for every newspaper across the country, but some may take advantage of its benefits. My goal is to save local coverage by local reporters who know their communities, work their beats, and develop the important stories. Newspaper reporters forge relationships with people; they build a network, which creates avenues to information that someone outside of the local community may never find or understand.
This is not another government bailout of a failing industry. Taxpayer funds will not be used to buy shares or an interest in any media corporation. Instead, my bill would create a new option under the Internal Revenue Code for a "qualified newspaper corporation," allowing newspapers to operate under 501(c)(3) status for educational purposes. It would be the same IRS status that is utilized by churches, hospitals, educational institutions, public broadcasting, and other nonprofit entities. It would allow local communities an option to support an independent local paper. The change to the IRS code is needed because current regulations require nonprofit news organizations to distribute their publications in a manner distinguishable from their commercial counterparts in order to maintain their 501(c)(3) status.
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.
Benjamin L. Cardin, a Democratic senator from Maryland, was a member of the House from 1987 to 2006.