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March 30, 2009

For Own Good, Newspapers Should Tell Sen. Cardin 'Thanks But No Thanks'

By

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 broadcasting stations.

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 Politics.

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 "post."

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.

Ken 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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