A Public Press? Evaluating the Viability of Government Subsidies for the Newspaper Industry
56 Pages Posted: 2 Feb 2012 Last revised: 12 Mar 2012
Date Written: November 1, 2011
Despite the availability of information from online news organizations and new media outlets, newspapers remain the primary contributor of new content to the marketplace of information and ideas — integral in setting the agenda for public discourse, connecting readers with their communities, reducing the costs of citizen oversight on elected officials, and producing investigative and local news reports. But newspaper economics have sparked massive reductions in editorial operations and threaten the press’s role in American democratic society. The strong public interest in preserving the newspaper industry should compel Congress to stabilize the press.
Journalists, politicians, and legal scholars have discussed many possible solutions. This Comment evaluates the practical and constitutional questions raised by two potential public subsidy programs — direct government funding and indirect support by facilitating newspaper conversion to nonprofit status — and whether such programs could be administered without jeopardizing the Fourth Estate’s independence. This Comment argues that direct subsidies, though they could be tailored to survive constitutional challenge and to protect editorial independence, cannot deliver a feasible long-term solution. Indirect subsidies likely would only be available to newspapers following an amendment to the U.S. tax code and even then would provide limited benefit to qualifying newspapers until they have developed a fundraising base. Yet, this Comment concludes that subsidies could stabilize the press practically if Congress combined direct funding and tax-based incentives into a hybrid similar to that utilized by public radio.
Keywords: newspapers, press, journalism, tax, nonprofit, subsidies, First Amendment, editorial independence, content-based subsidies
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