Legal Remedies for Saving Public Interest Journalism in America
38 Pages Posted: 12 Jun 2011
Date Written: June 7, 2011
To say that newspapers have fallen on difficult times would be a tremendous understatement. As the vultures have started to circle, telling headlines have captured the state of the industry. The New Yorker proclaimed that the news business was going “out of print.” NPR published an article, “Chronicling the Death of American Newspapers.” The struggles of the newspaper industry should be alarming not only because of the obvious job losses, but also because of the broader repercussions for American democracy.
In this article, I show that the government has a policy imperative to protect American public interest journalism, which is withering as a direct result of the newspaper crisis. Such a relationship between the government and press has clear precedent and purpose. As the Framers recognized, a free press helps expose corruption and gives people the information they need to be active citizens. Notably, newspapers have traditionally been more effective at achieving these twin pillars of public interest journalism than other news media. This is largely because newspaper reporters are responsible for producing the vast majority of original journalism content in this country, feeding derivative news media like the Internet, radio, and television.
Various scholars have proposed a range of legal remedies that Congress could use to help protect the public’s interest in newspapers. Some have called for Congress to expand intellectual property rights of newspapers to better protect them against online aggregators who appropriate their work. Others have suggested that Congress fund newspapers through direct spending. Still others have argued that newspapers deserve a special tax subsidy.
I advocate a modified version of the last idea: a tax subsidy for public interest journalism specifically. Such a subsidy would effectively lower subscription costs, encouraging public interest news consumption. It would also make consumers more aware of the societal value of public interest journalism, decreasing their likelihood of accepting other products as substitutes. Finally, a tax subsidy could help usher in a new era of nonprofit news production that would inherently have the public’s interest in watchdogs and political participation at heart.
Keywords: Newspapers, Media Law, Media Regulation
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