The Return Of Dumb Ideas: A Broadband Tax To Save Failing Newspapers

from the make-it-go-away dept

RobW points us to an opinion piece over at The Guardian, by David Leigh, who argues that there should be a £2 tax on every broadband connection sent to newspapers in order to prop them up for their own failures to adapt to a changing market place. He tosses out the usual tropes about how only newspapers can do real investigative reporting (what, like hacking voicemails the way Rupert Murdoch’s journalists did?). Of course this is a complete myth. First of all, most newspapers do very little investigative reporting — and UK papers are also somewhat famous for their ability to stretch the truth at times. Is this really something we want to reward?

The idea is hardly original. It’s been suggested for years and seems to pop up in random places at random times. While it may be more reasonable than taxing Google to fund newspapers, it’s still a horrifically bad idea. Leigh tries to work out how this would work, arguing that the sum would be divvied up among UK newspapers based on their web traffic. Of course, how you measure web traffic suddenly becomes very, very important. Leigh seems to assume this is easy, and that any such system wouldn’t be gamed — which it would. On top of that, he fails to recognize that the second you base such a huge sum of potential money on purely one metric, news sites would optimize solely on that metric, even if they’re not “gaming” the system. So, expect plenty of attempts at sensationalistic stories and the like, rather than the thoughtful investigative reporting he thinks they’re going to get.

And how do you define who gets access to the money in the first place? Leigh thinks he has that worked out too… but he does not:

There would be no insuperable problems in defining “news providers”. The starting point would be to designate those organisations already classed by the state as zero-rated newspapers under the 1994 VAT legislation : “Newspapers … issued at least once a week in a continuous series under the same title … [which] contain information about current events of local, national or international interest. Publications which do not contain a substantial amount of news are not newspapers.”

Other original news providers could subsequently apply to the independent levy board for admission to the scheme, case-by-case. But there would have to be a reasonable size threshold for admission, perhaps set at 100,000 monthly users, and also some rules to exclude content aggregators.

Ok, so that starts out by favoring the very companies who have done the least to adapt to changing times and ignores upstarts who have worked hard to build audiences and business models that work. And then you have to “apply” to get access in a long bureaucratic process where a small group of people (probably pulled from newspapers) gets to pick and choose? That’s not how you build innovative companies with innovative business models. And, really, why the ban on “content aggregators”? There is this ongoing argument among old school newspaper people who seem to think that “aggregators” are the enemy — despite the fact that they send original news sites more traffic and more users, and many aggregators expand into original content production themselves as well. Either way, lots of news sites would start applying, just because there’s a ton of cash sitting there, and they’d all just start trying to optimize for the metric to get in.

But, of course, the real problem with all of this is the idea that it ever makes sense to tax a new technology to prop up those who failed to innovate, failed to adapt and couldn’t compete. If they can’t do it, let them fail. Contrary to Leigh’s rather myopic view of the world, others will come in to fill the need, and they’ll do so with innovative business models that don’t require a tax. Really, Leigh’s piece is best summed up by the first comment, from user “romandavid” who noted:

“A £2-a-month levy on automobiles could save our horse and cart business.”

Exactly. If this got approved, every other disrupted industry would seek the same thing. Record labels? Movie studios? You bet. Travel agents? Absolutely. Really, what industry wouldn’t want to add their own “tax” to the internet to try to pretend that we still lived in the 1980s? Thankfully, nearly all of the comments on the article seem to be taking the same general stance, that Leigh’s idea is completely ridiculous and self-serving, without any reason or merit.

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Comments on “The Return Of Dumb Ideas: A Broadband Tax To Save Failing Newspapers”

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66 Comments
monkyyy says:

Re: Re:

because capitalism as an ideal of letting people do whatever they want a long as they find a way to profit off it……

…..isnt around anymore,look at the 10 steps from the communism manifiso, and tell me how many of them have been completed w/ nil public support and compete bipartisan support in such as way that the commies wouldnt be happy about (im looking at u fed reserve)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Quite apart from the fact that the US doesn’t have anything like a political left wing, never mind a major socialist or communist party. You have two near identical, very right wing parties and then have to pretend to have major political differences or what would be the point in voting every 10 minutes. You’ll know when you have a left wing, it won’t be supported by the wealthy as both republicans and democrats are.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Well, when you give a bunch of money to the people who make the rules, and then tell the people who you’ve now given a bunch of money to that your business is doing poorly and not going to give them money anymore…..

Either a) you’re flat-out telling the people who make the rules, “get us money or you’re cut off” or b) the people who make the rules think, “uh oh, if they fail, we lose our money!” and the end result is weekend-at-burnies’ing companies which should just go away.

Well, either that, or it’s a bunch of people who have no understanding of the internet and think something of value is lost if the old newspapers go away.

Duke (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I don’t know, but dying businesses seem to like keeping it artificially alive. There is a nice (and often-referenced) quote by Robert A. Heinlein about this from 1939, so this isn’t a new idea. It’s a common quote, but worth noting in full:

There has grown in the minds of certain groups in this country the idea that just because a man or corporation has made a profit out of the public for a number of years, the government and the courts are charged with guaranteeing such a profit in the future, even in the face of changing circumstances and contrary to public interest. This strange doctrine is supported by neither statute or common law. Neither corporations or individuals have the right to come into court and ask that the clock of history be stopped, or turned back.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Mr Heinlein, while a respected author, was considered by many to be a bit of a crackpot when it came to political ideas. His best interpretation of things was to tell the govenerment to leave you alone and sleep with a gun under your pillow. It’s sort of the mentality that supports the “armed militias” that litter the US like so much garbage.

Nobody wants to be guaranteed a profit – only the right to seek one without interference by those who would attempt to profit unjustly from your efforts.

It’s an amusing quote from a man that was fairly out of touch even in his day.

Duke (profile) says:

Some facts which may or may not be relevant

That would be David Leigh, journalist and assistant editor of The Guardian; a newspaper who’s parent company is making losses of something like ?100,000 a day.

It is about 12th in national circulation figures (with 1/10th of the leader) but apparently has the second most visited website of UK newspapers.

Just a few facts which might, or might not be relevant, to his suggestions.

On the other hand, The Guardian does at least try to do journalism, unlike some of its competitors which are more interested in securing readers/page views than actually investigating things; the Daily Mail, 2nd in circulation,and most visited news site (iirc in the world) has a top article at the moment on someone’s account of how they were able to make money from a supermarket’s voucher scheme, and their top side story is about some celebrity’s dress splitting open at the Emmys (with pictures, of course). Still, at least we have the BBC.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Some facts which may or may not be relevant

On the other hand, The Guardian does at least try to do journalism, unlike some of its competitors which are more interested in securing readers/page views than actually investigating things; the Daily Mail, 2nd in circulation,and most visited news site (iirc in the world) has a top article at the moment on someone’s account of how they were able to make money from a supermarket’s voucher scheme, and their top side story is about some celebrity’s dress splitting open at the Emmys (with pictures, of course). Still, at least we have the BBC.

So what you’re saying is the people have spoken and they are more interested in super market voucher schemes than whatever the Guardian has to offer.

Got it. The Guardian must be incredibly boring.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Statism

Statism (The practice or doctrine of giving a centralized government control over economic planning and policy) is what Obama truly believes in.

June 8th, 2012, President Obama said, ??the Private sector is doing fine, where we?re seeing weaknesses in our economy has to do with state and local government?? YouTube

monkyyy says:

Re: Re: Re:

to the state is corrupted before it even exists, otherwise kings would be just rulers cause capitalism doesnt get to corrupt them

while on the otherhand the state can take control of some very very core levels of the market, like its currency, peoples incomes, subitys, and flat out price increasing; and then sells the rulebook to the highest bidder,

it was the government stealing to rule book from nature and putting it up for sell, not nature giving its book to the government

Yakko Warner (profile) says:

US internet sucks

There are almost 20m UK households that are paying upwards of ?15 a month for a good broadband connection…

A quick google translates that to $24.29

I pay Comcast $69.99 for a “good broadband connection”.

Time for me to go into my corner and pout about how much I pay for the only viable option I have for internet….

Tunnen (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: US internet sucks

Hey, the Internet needs to sleep too. What are you, some Foxconn slave driver? How would you like being asked millions of questions and delivering thousands of hours of porn per second and not have a break? Yet, I try to get a 6 year old to make shoes for only 18 hours per day and I’m the slave driver. Lousy double standard…

=P

Keroberos (profile) says:

Taxes for Everyone. Hooray!

Yes, yes, this is a great idea, let’s do this. And we can expand on it. We can tax cable TV to prop up broadcast TV–then tax satellite TV to prop up cable–then tax Netflix to prop up satellite. Of course skimming 10% off the top for administration fees. Oh, oh, and then we can tax audiobooks to prop up print books, and tax e-books to prop up audiobooks. Oh and vinyl, we can tax cds to prop up vinyl, and mp3s to prop up cds, and streaming services to prop up mp3s. And cars–can’t forget about them, we can tax fuel efficient cars to prop up the gas guzzlers, and tax hybrids to prop up the fuel efficient ones, and the plug-in electrics to prop up the hybrids. We can have a never-ending cascade of taxes and fees flowing all around making the world a better place for… for… ah… I don’t know… er… something… maybe… rainbows?… ponies?…

monkyyy says:

Re: Re: Taxes for Everyone. Hooray!

government is very much in touch
?If we were merely dealing with the law of averages, half of the events affecting our nation’s well-being should be good for America. If we were dealing with mere incompetence, our leaders should occasionally make a mistake in our favor. We . . . are not dealing with coincidence or stupidity, but with planning and brilliance.? -grey allen

Anonymous Coward says:

I think what you guys miss out on here is the role played by good investigative jorunalism (which costs money!) in society, to act as a control of corrupt elites. The phone hacking scandal here in teh UK was uncovered by a journalist, who worked for years at the story, similarly the MP expenses scandal last year…not to start on issues such as google news result filtering, which make online news pretty problematic at the moment.

Keroberos (profile) says:

Re: Re:

No, I don’t think we’re missing anything. We all understand the role quality journalism plays in society. We just want the news agencies to develop a 21st century business model that will work in todays market, not just go whinging to big mommy guvmint to force their 20th century way of doing things on the people who don’t want to consume their news that way anymore.

Loki says:

First of all, most newspapers do very little investigative reporting

Most of them prefer to do what I called edited reporting. I was part of a group years ago that would routinely compare and analyze high profile news stories from a wide variety of news outlets, and it was quite fascinating to see how frequently the more independent and unaffiliated news agencies, or independent bloggers would have more generally well rounded and inclusive stories, and how often the larger news agencies would add or omit certain details depending on how they wanted to spin the story.

Anonymous Coward says:

The Theatre??

Whats the deal here? Live action actors in the theatre haven’t been losing their shit since the invention of movies bemoaning that they aren’t mega rich. Whats the deal here? How is it that they can expect to always have to work a second job when musicians, movie makers, newspapers, etc all feel entitled to free, massive amounts of money? I’d say theatre, being a driver of culture, deserves free money before every other business that isn’t as popular as it was in its heyday. Maybe its because history shows that theatre never made many people rich and musicians, “journos”, hollywood, etc, need to wake up to that fact- that they are not entitled to a comfortable, large income and had better get a second job if they feel their income is too little.

Niall (profile) says:

Re: The Theatre??

In fact, most film/TV actors who want to be seen as ‘serious’ actually try and do theatre, because that has a certain ‘cachet’. A lot of the well-admired Btitish thespians started in theatre before moving to film/TV (i.e. Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan).

If you count panto (ugh!) then a lot of other people use it as a vehicle to stay ‘relevant’ when they aren’t able to be splashed all over the gossip pages…

Anonymous Coward says:

There are plenty of taxes levied to do thing that the government thinks is for the greater good of the public. That is to say that the actions of the public are against their own good, and as such, the law makers are required to step in to apply rules that are unnatural but obtain the desired results.

One of my personal faves is putting a tax on gas to support public transit. It is possibly the most self-defeating tax in the world, because if it encourages people to drive less and instead take the subsidized public transit, there will in facr be less money to subsidize the public transit – because less gas was sold.

There are certainly enough people who feel that the print media business is significant enough and important enough to merit protection and support. It’s perhaps one of the best cases where they can see the loss of information and news, and realize that there is little to replace it. Remember, most websites depend on the print news as sources of their own content. This story is based on a piece from the Guardian (print paper).

While the public and advertisers may not be supporting print journalism directly, they do profit from it all the time. A tax like this, while appearing to be regressive, may in fact be supporting what is good for the public.

See Mike, it’s not always just about numbers. Sometimes you have to go looking at the larger cause and effect to see what may be going on.

Keroberos (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The thing is–if we are going to support journalism–is propping up failing print newspapers the proper way to go about it? Print newspapers are only one method of transmitting news to the public (and looking at their falling subscription numbers–not a very good one, or one that the people want). People don’t get their news from print newspapers anymore–they get it on the internet or television. Maybe we should funnel money at purely internet or television based news outlets if we truly think quality journalism requires money to create.

This is the problem with levies like these–it isn’t about funding journalism–it’s about propping up failing print newspapers; two entirely different things that the print newspapers keep trying to conflate.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

” People don’t get their news from print newspapers anymore–they get it on the internet or television.”

What you have a is a problem of delivery versus source.

Too much of the internet (including Techdirt, Wired, and other popular internet sites) base the content of their sites on “reported in this newspaper” or “according to that newspaper”. It seems that for the most part, only the print people are actually doing very much work to get the news, aside from what falls on their head.

Television? Burning building, film at 11! The most in depth for most TV news is how big the weather girl’s cleavage is.

So there really is a problem; Most of the journalism being done is for the print media (newspapers, magazines, reviews, journals, etc), and most of the places people go to read it are sponging off of them.

So you could give a ton of money to internet sites, but you wouldn’t have more material, because they would be losing their sources.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

To be fair, a lot of techdirt is
according to this or that news source ……
and then provides the actual data which is quoted in said news source as supporting silly/stupid/criminal plan and shows why it doesn’t do anything of the kind.

So, yeah, without certain news sources techdirt in particular would have less to write about, but then they wouldn’t need to be writing it because the disinformation wouldn’t be out there in the first place.

Because everyone knows that despite there being no valid figures demonstrating any harm from piracy, piracy is a problem that needs to be tackled with enhanced legislation massively increased enforcement.
Everyone knows that more people have lost work in the movie industry due to piracy, than have ever worked in the movie industry from it’s inception until today and that more money is lost to the music industry yearly due to piracy than the cumulative total money made by the music industry from the birth of recorded music until today.
Record box takings year after year are the ultimate proof that cams are killing cinema and despite massive ticket price hikes the movie industry has not totally eliminated the audiences.
Something must be done.

Keroberos (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2

To be fair, a lot of printed news media is
according to this or that news source ……
and then provides the actual (or made up–depends on what will sell more papers/magazines–you’d have to put the paper/magazine down to check the sources online) data which is quoted in said news source (if they feel like telling you they got this somewhere else) as supporting silly/stupid/criminal plan and shows why it doesn’t do anything of the kind.

So, yeah, without certain news sources printed news media in particular would have less to write about, but then they wouldn’t need to be writing it because the disinformation wouldn’t be out there in the first place.

All news media works this way.

Keroberos (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Television? Burning building, film at 11! The most in depth for most TV news is how big the weather girl’s cleavage is.

You could say the same about most print media also. And it depends on where you get your TV news–I stay away from the networks; but PBS does an excellent job of televised journalism.

So you could give a ton of money to internet sites, but you wouldn’t have more material, because they would be losing their sources.

Or..I don’t know…maybe they could get their own sources and create their own material with that money. And they’d probably be more efficient at it too. Where do you think print journalists get their story ideas from? Press releases, tips from other journalists and insiders, wire service stories, do you think these will all disappear if the newspapers fail? I doubt it.

Yes, historically journalism has been done for print media, but throwing tax dollars at print media isn’t going to solve the problem of no one wanting dead tree newspapers. If you want to fund journalism fund journalists, not dead tree newspapers. Or better yet let the market sort itself out. If people value quality journalism, some one will find a way to profit from it. As much as print newspapers did? Probably not–but they’ll be a hell of a lot less waste. Don’t waste our money propping up an inefficient system merely because that’s the way we always did it.

Anonymous Coward says:

no tax needed

here are some tried and tested options:
– paid advertisement
– subscription(paywall) to remove ads
– subscription(paywall) grants acess to the full stories of investigative journalism (nonpaying customers only get to see the first paragraph of those, while the copy/paste headlines remain free for all to attract traffic)

Dave says:

Total twaddle

I’m sure folk would more than happy to fork out a subsidy to prop up an ailing business – oh and there’s that shop on the corner who’s going through hard times, not to mention the pub down the road that looks like it’s going under. What about the factory t’other side of town that looks on the rocks? Sure I’m gonna dip into MY pocket for every Tom, Dick or Harry that thinks they deserve a hand-out, especially the newspaper business that hasn’t exactly had a good press (joke – get it?) lately with the NOTW case, etc. Stuff THAT idea where the sun doesn’t shine. Preposterous cheek and a damn sauce if you ask me.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re:

Back in the 30s he was quite a bit further to the left than he became later on – he believed in moderately high but consistently-applied taxation, coupled with a universal basic income, and in environmental protection etc. In terms of modern political parties, he was then probably closest to the Pirates or some nations’ red Greens.

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