March 30, 2009
By Ken McIntyre
Too bad Ben Cardin wasn't around to throw a life preserver to
the local telegraph operator or horse-and-buggy service.
Where was the U.S. senator from Baltimore when the makers of
eight-track tapes and vinyl records needed him, anyway?
Those entrepreneurs of yesteryear could have used a free pass
from business failure every bit as much as publishers of today's
fading newspapers could use it. And those information delivery
systems arguably served a public educational purpose too. (OK,
maybe not eight-tracks.)
But it's newspapers -- especially local "community" newspapers,
for starters - that Cardin proposes to save with a bill he
introduced last Tuesday. The Maryland Democrat's bill would allow
newspapers to operate as nonprofits, in much the same way as public
His bill would let newspapers opt for tax-exempt status. They
would pay no tax on revenue from subscriptions (always a relative
pittance) and advertising (which paid the bills and produced
profits till the rise of the Internet). Contributions to "support"
a participating newspaper's coverage could be tax deductible, the
Associated Press reported.
His bill is designed to save local newspapers, Cardin explained,
not the big conglomerates. "As local papers are closing," Cardin
said on the Senate floor, "we're losing a valuable tradition in
America -- critically important to our communities, critically
important to our democracy."
Senator Cardin, this is a stupendously bad idea. It would
preserve businesses that free competition and new technology marked
either for failure or transition to something else. It also would
de-claw capitulating newspapers, which could no longer endorse
candidates or freely question the party in power without risk of
losing their nonprofit status.
Here's where I confess to being conflicted about the slow and
painful death of newspapers. I spent more than 25 years working out
of the newsrooms of weekly and daily papers. I got the bug while
delivering the Forest Hills Journal (circulation now 13,000) on my
bike back in suburban Cincinnati and reading both the Cincinnati
Enquirer and the Cincinnati Post (which closed in 2007) at my
parents' kitchen table.
"Newspaperman," until two years ago, was who I was. Sometimes I
think I'm still in withdrawal. My wife says I'll always be a
recovering journalist. (She should know: She's one too.)
So consider these initial thoughts, sketched out first on a
BlackBerry and now plunked on the keys of the Dell atop a desk at
the office.The deadline is just a bit looser than the one I faced
with a bulky bubbletop-and- phone doohickey in the 1980s, filing
three or four afternoon stories on the County Council as a reporter
for the now-defunct Montgomery Journal in Rockville -- a forebear
of the Examiner you're reading now (likely on dcexaminer.com).
I love newspapers. To the amusement of some colleagues, I still
try to read four or five every day -- on newsprint -- as well as
watch Fox News or go online to check out Drudge or Real Clear
But I'm coming around. One can pull up any number of "community"
newspapers online, including the Forest Hills Journal. Small
comfort, maybe, but comfort.
I'm dealing with the hard truth: Newspapers as those of us over
30 knew them are going the way of -- well, the horse and buggy, as
my new boss put it the other night.
"The romance is over, Ken," he said. (This from a man who has
some pretty cool newspaper experience as a foreign correspondent
covering wars and other doings on three continents.)
Fact is, Americans have spectacularly more access to news and
information than ever before. The guys who could buy ink by the
barrel and newsprint by the ton aren't the only ones controlling
content and distribution anymore. Now there's plenty of room for
the guy who can push the button that says "send" or "forward" or
What news is, who delivers it and how, is in superflux. For a
couple of years in the late 1980s, I had the joy of being the
editor of a struggling community weekly of the sort Cardin has in
mind "preserving." He knows the paper.
I assigned and edited news stories and wrote editorials, often
hurriedly in a caffeine fever in the wee hours. That little
newsroom, if not the owner and publisher, prided itself on being a
fearless, independent guardian of the public trust.
Reporters and editors are supposed to be wary skeptics of
politicians and bureaucrats on behalf of readers -- not beholden to
the government's favor.
From Cardin's proposal it's a short and slippery step to
out-and-out taxpayer subsidies for newspapers that government
chooses as worthy recipients. Pretty soon, the government would be
picking the newspapers that survive as well as the banks and
charities that do. Imagine billions in bailouts for "community"
newspapers that political hacks choose.
Do most Americans want hundreds of little left-leaning PBS and
NPR-like house organs calling the tune of what's fit to print in
their town? Maybe in the press clips of Ben Cardin's dreams.
What most of us want -- and what America desperately needs -- is
a tough, clear-eyed free press. Not professional writers who owe
their living to tax favors doled out by government and
contributions from "supporters."
Those in Congress who still believe in freedom of the press
should spike Cardin's idea fast.
McIntyre is the Marilyn and Fred Guardabassi Fellow in
Media and Public Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation
First appeared in Washington Examiner
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Chief White House Correspondent, The Daily Signal
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