A big deal was made recently of newspaper industry representatives rejecting the notion of a government bailout for their ailing business model. It almost looks like the industry wants to pull itself up by the bootstraps and solve their own problems, doesn’t it? Keep looking. While the industry rep says pretty clearly that government handouts are inappropriate, going over what he does want makes it look like an issue of semantics.
They want a change in the tax code that would allow newspapers to essentially write-off current losses against profits from as far back as five years ago. And they want changes in the laws that require them to actually fully fund their employee pension plans out of reserve cash. And, rather vaguely, they made allusions to various schemes (and possible accompanying legislation) by which they were planning to compel people to pay for content that they don’t pay for now. Plus, throw in some anti-trust exemptions and loosened non-profit status regulations that tax-exmepts advertising and subscription revenue, and while it doesn’t say “bailout” explicitly, it sure as hell looks like one.
Personally, I’m not in favor of any of this. Allowing them to get tax rebates on profits from five years back is pretty extreme, and sounds to me like a bailout minus the government oversight and strings that they won’t have to pay back. Allowing them more leeway in adequately funding employee pensions is a recipe for abuse. Hell, you can start writing the stories we’ll be seeing in four or five years about looted newspaper pension plans today, and have them in the can for future use, just insert the dates and dollar figures. Any legislation that will generate any kind of significant revenue from readers will have to severely alter how the internet functions, not to mention further eroding fair use, and the First Amendment. Plus, that kind of legislation and an anti-trust exemption could create a massive monopoly that could conceivably shut out everyone not willing to pay what they want us to for news online. How exactly does any of that help the democratic process? That is, after all, their entire argument for why newspapers deserve all of these gifts. “The democratic political system just can’t function without diverse, free and independent sources of news,” says Princeton University professor Paul Starr to describe why the press deserves preferential treatment to other industries. I guess he meant the word “free” in there to mean free from taxes and other pesky regulations, not actually free for people to read and discuss.
If we’re going to provide tax breaks here, it needs to be for innovation and forward looking business models of journalism, not just propping up the same tired, ailing retread of an industry, especially if that means the additional funds allows them to be even more of a legal hurdle to finding the way things will work in the future. And to suggest that the industry’s desire for cash infusions is a genuine interest in saving anyone’s jobs but the ones on the top floor is a lie that virtually anyone who has worked in a publishing company over the past two years sees right through. Give them every last thing they want, and it won’t save one job amongst the rank and file. The farther along this whole imploding mess gets, the more convinced I become that we need to kill the previous monarchy before the new leaders can take their place. Bring out the guillotine and let the old-guard media take that long, slow walk to the podium. We’ll all be better for it down the line.