With many newspapers struggling to stay in business, a lot of ideas have been tossed around about how to keep existing papers alive. One idea, which has reached the US Senate in the form of a bill introduced by Senator Benjamin Cardin, is to allow newspapers to operate as non-profits
, which would exempt them from taxes on subscription and advertising revenue, while also allowing them to raise funds via donations, similar to how public broadcasting companies operate. This approach would seem to have many potential issues. First of all, to qualify for the program, a paper would no longer be allowed publish editorial endorsements. This could have the twin effect of chilling editorial commentary in support of or against various candidates' positions, and driving more bias into the reporting. It would also put the government in charge of what could or could not show up in a paper's editorial pages. Second, to be successful, the papers would be heavily dependent on donations, which could raise questions about objectivity. But the biggest problem with this approach is that it simply props up a failing business model, rather than forcing the newspapers to adjust to the new realities of the marketplace. In the senators own words:
"We are losing our newspaper industry," Cardin said. "The economy has caused an immediate problem, but the business model for newspapers, based on circulation and advertising revenue, is broken, and that is a real tragedy for communities across the nation and for our democracy.
Whether the loss of newspapers (as opposed to journalism) is a tragedy "for our democracy" is certainly debatable
. But the senator is right about the business model being broken. And if that's the case, wouldn't it be wiser to experiment with new
models, rather than put the old one on life support?