By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
Writing in Monday's Washington Post, former executive editor Len Downie and Columbia University Professor Michael Schudson offer a menu of options to save print journalism by creating mechanisms to bring "public sources of support" for news reporting.
Saying that "American society must now take some collective responsibility for supporting news reporting," Downie and Schudson argue that government must take a leadership role and subsidize the news gathering process because "What is paramount is preserving independent, original, credible reporting, whether or not it is profitable, and regardless of the medium in which is appears."
Among their recommendations is for the Internal Revenue Service or Congress to "clarify tax regulations to explicitly allow new or existing local news organizations to operate as nonprofit or low-profit entities, allowing them to receive tax-deductible donations, along with advertising revenue and other income." Also, they want the Federal Communications Commission to create a "national Fund for Local News" out of the fees it collects "from or could impose on telecom users, broadcast licensees or Internet service providers." The money from this fund, Downie and Schudson suggest, would be distributed in competitive grants issued by "independent state Local News Fund Councils to local news organizations for innovations in local news reporting and ways to support it."
Both of these are monumentally bad ideas, in no small part because they make the government and media partners in the news business.
The spirit of American journalism is anchored in the idea of a free press, one that is constitutionally protected from government interference by the First Amendment. Adjusting the tax code or using government money to keep struggling news chains in business would have a chilling effect on the news business because, unlike what Downie and Schudson seem to be saying in their piece, it always has strings attached.
As real world newspapers and news magazines are experiencing a decline and being forced to reinvent themselves, the nation is seeing an explosion of Internet-based news reporting, some of which is very, very good. Rather than run to the government for high-minded handouts, news business decision makers ought to be reassessing their product and making the changes necessary to keep their customers.