Newspapers as charities, utilities, infrastructure

In the panic over the possible sale of Knight Ridder’s papers, some are grasping for new business models that aren’t business models at all: They are suggesting that newspapers should be taken over by charities or — this is new to me — even viewed as public infrastructure. I understand the nervousness and the need to seek alternatives — especially in the face of news that the dreaded Carlyle Group may be a buyer. Welcome to The Philadelphia Daily Fair & Balanced.

The Daily News’ Attytood blog has been lighting candles, crossing fingers, and blogging incantations in hopes that the local Pew Charitable Trust might take over the paper, following the example of the Poynter Institute’s benevolent ownership of the St. Petersburg Times. White Knights, indeed.

If that happened, it would be a fine thing for Philadelphia. But it is by no means the solution for the problems of newspapers today. Indeed, I think it is a dangerous dream, for it continues to separate newspapers from their publics, their markets, their real masters.

: Now see Editor & Publisher, which gives us what I think is a naive view of how to save papers: Turn them into charities, with legislation to give tax breaks, even.

Joe Mathewson, who, amazingly, teaches business journalism, dismisses those of us who argue that the marketplace matters.

But does “healthy” have to mean “profitable”?

Let’s dream for a moment about newspapering freed from the profit motive. Purists may argue that newspapers, like any other enterprise, should have to earn their way in the marketplace, and if they fail the market test, so be it.

But in fact newspapers, as important to the civic health of our society as public transportation, have a claim on public allegiance that goes beyond financial measure.

Newspapers as infrastructure? That’s a new one to me. We’ve seen them portrayed as everything up to religion. But newspapers as roads and buses? Sorry. I don’t buy it. News comes in many forms, in many media, and there is no law of nature or principle of democracy that says a paper is public infrastructure that should have public support. In fact, I’ll argue that is another dangerous dream, for it potentially puts journalism and free speech at the mercy of government support and thus government control, which should be the last thing we’d ever want.

Mathewson wants legislation to make it happen:

There are two tax-favored models before us: public broadcasting and real estate investment trusts. Some rather simple tax legislation would be required, available solely to newspapers, not to broadcasters or to companies that own both — which incidentally would free these papers to cover the federal government without fear of jeopardizing their corporations’ interests at the Federal Communications Commission. Such special legislation wouldn’t be novel, for Congress long ago recognized the importance of healthy newspapers when it authorized joint operating agreements as an exception to the antitrust laws.

A newspaper company, like a public broadcaster, could be organized as a not-for-profit, tax-exempt corporation. It could still sell papers and advertising, it could still develop new Internet revenues, it would still pay market wages and salaries (or maybe better), it could re-invest in improving its own staff and facilities and operations, it just couldn’t make a profit. And it wouldn’t pay taxes or dividends….

But if the owner is an otherwise-profitable company, a deductible gift might do more for the bottom line than a fire sale. Congress could encourage such donations by allowing the company to deduct the full value of the newspaper as a charitable contribution, creating a special exception to the current ceiling on corporate gift deductibility, which is 10% of taxable income.

Another possible transition from for-profit to not-for-profit might be a buyout and donation by civic-minded wealthy individuals or families, the same folks who give millions to build a new library or a new hospital wing…. Facilitating this, too, would require an amendment to the tax law, to waive for this purpose the 50-percent-of-adjusted-income ceiling for personal tax deductions — just as Congress did for 2005 contributions to Katrina relief, and all other 2005 charitable gifts.

Law enforcement might help in this. When Larry Ellison of Oracle was charged by the state of California with a securities-trading violation, he settled by agreeing to donate $100 million to charity. That would have been enough to buy a good-sized newspaper and donate it to a not-for-profit, maybe even endow it.

Mind you, these are still businesses with considerable margins, albeit margins that will be sure to shrink. And there are plenty of other means of providing news: online, radio, TV, magazines.

And I’ll fret again that newspapers are in the pickle they’re in because they have operated as isolated monopolies. Make them isolated charities or publicly supported utilities and you’ll have disasters.

: Note that the Carlyle Group is, at the same time, looking to buy a hunk of Dunkin Donuts. They’re just cash cows.

: Note also that Knight Ridder’s paper in Akron is running out of pencils. Maybe they should find a few and try selling them on streetcorners. New revenue streams.