Tag Archives: Huffington Post

How the IRS is killing nonprofit media

This article appeared earlier at The Huffington Post.

Outrage over the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of Tea Party and other right-wing groups continues to boil — yet a potentially more consequential IRS practice has scarcely gained any attention.

Over the past few years the IRS has virtually stopped approving 501(c)(3) status for nonprofit news organizations. Given the well-documented decline of traditional for-profit newspapers, nonprofit journalism can be a vital alternative, especially at the local and regional levels. But even when applications for 501(c)(3) status aren’t rejected outright, they are stacking up, unacted upon, for months and even years.

A recent Council on Foundations report titled “The IRS and Nonprofit Media: Toward Creating a More Informed Public” put it this way:

There is significant anecdotal evidence that the IRS has delayed the approval of nonprofit media, potentially slowed the development of those already created, and harmed communities by leaving them without essential coverage, due to the application of archaic standards.

Starting in the middle part of the last decade, a number of nonprofit entrepreneurs launched community websites that were built roughly on the public radio model, funded by grants, sponsorships and contributions from readers. Gaining 501(c)(3) status allowed donors to make make those contributions tax-exempt.

In researching “The Wired City,” my book on the New Haven Independent and other community news sites, I was struck that nearly all of the best-known nonprofits — the Independent, Voice of San Diego, MinnPost, the Texas Tribune, the Connecticut Mirror and others — had been started during the same time period, from 2004 to 2009.

“There was an initial bubble of nonprofit start-ups, but you haven’t seen that great wave spreading across the country,” Andrew Donohue, the then-editor of Voice of San Diego, told me in 2011. He saw that as potentially a good thing — a sign that journalists were trying a variety of models, for-profit as well as nonprofit. Since then, however, it has become increasingly apparent that the IRS is a principal agent in stifling that great wave.

Consider some of the consequences of the IRS’s actions and inaction:

• In February 2012, the Chicago News Cooperative went under, in part because of its inability to obtain 501(c)(3) status from the IRS, as Ryan Chittum reported in the Columbia Journalism Review.

• Because the IRS does not consider journalism to be among the educational activities covered by the 501(c)(3) rules, the agency told the Investigative News Network to remove the word “journalism” from its articles of incorporation. The INN complied and won approval, according to an article about the Council on Foundations report by Justin Ellis of the Nieman Journalism Lab.

• In a similar vein, according to the report, the Johnston Insider of Rhode Island received a message from the IRS telling it: “While most of your articles may be of interest to individuals residing in your community, they are not educational.” Because of that and other reasons, editor Elizabeth Wayland-Seal announced that she was suspending publication.

What adds to the absurdity of the IRS’s stance, as the report notes, is that we are already accustomed to relying on nonprofit, tax-exempt media for much of our news and information — not just from community news sites but from long-established outlets such as NPR and local public radio stations, “The PBS NewsHour” and magazines such as Mother Jones, Consumer Reports and National Geographic.

Here is how the media-reform organization Free Press, which has assembled a useful repository of information about the IRS and nonprofit news, describes the problem:

Nonprofit journalism is not a silver bullet for the future of journalism. But fostering a more diverse media system is. If the IRS decides against allowing nonprofit status for newsrooms, it will essentially be arguing that all journalism should be done for profit. The problem is, the market has shown it will not support the full extent and diversity of news and perspectives we need.

Four years ago, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, proposed a bill that would have allowed newspapers to become nonprofit organizations. At the time it struck me as superfluous. Now it appears that it warrants another look — not just for newspapers, but for other forms of media as well.

Absent legislation, President Obama should appoint a new IRS commissioner who understands that providing quality local journalism is indeed the sort of educational activity that should be covered by the provisions of 501(c)(3).

At a historical moment when it has become increasingly difficult for the traditional media to provide the information we need to govern ourselves in a democracy, the IRS shouldn’t stand in the way of promising alternatives.

A new scandal worthy of our outrage

The problem with getting all worked up over the IRS scandal is that we don’t have any outrage left over for the stories that really matter.

Tonight we learn that President Obama’s Justice Department “secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for The Associated Press in what the news cooperative’s top executive called a ‘massive and unprecedented intrusion’ into how news organizations gather the news.”

And here’s some context: a piece I wrote for the Huffington Post in February 2012 headlined “Obama’s War on Journalism.”

This is the one to watch.

Rory O’Connor reviews “The Wired City”

Veteran progressive journalist Rory O’Connor has written a favorable review of “The Wired City” for the Huffington Post. He writes:

When we as a democratic society are at what Kennedy accurately calls “a historical moment when nonprofit media — supported by foundations, donations, and, indirectly, taxpayers, since contributions are tax-deductible — are in many cases more stable than for-profit media,” his book offers a valuable window into one possible future….

Researching his book, Kennedy concludes, “left me profoundly optimistic about the future of journalism.” Reading it will do the same for you.

O’Connor, an old friend, is, among many other things, the author of “Friends, Followers, and the Future: How Social Media are Changing Politics, Threatening Big Brands, and Killing Traditional Media.” I interviewed him about  his book for (sniff) the Boston Phoenix last May.

WTKK and the ongoing collapse of corporate radio

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This commentary was previously published by the Huffington Post.

Update: I’ll be on New England Cable News on Friday at 7:15 a.m. to talk about WTKK and the future of radio.

At 10 a.m. on Wednesday, Jim Braude and Margery Eagan signed off for the last time from the morning talk show they had hosted on Boston’s WTKK Radio (96.9 FM). A few minutes later, the station reemerged as Power 96.9, a faceless entity blasting out robo-music of some sort. And Boston found itself with just one full-time talk radio station. (The station was quickly redubbed Nova 96.9, apparently because of this.)

The demise of WTKK has been portrayed as another nail in the coffin of right-wing talk radio. The estimable D.R. Tucker calls it part of “a downward spiral for a key element of the conservative entertainment complex.” And, yes, that’s surely part of it.

But what we are really seeing is the demise of commercial radio in general, as corporate owners (Greater Media in WTKK’s case) attempt to squeeze the last few nickels of profit out of a medium that may be in its final stage of collapse.

By the end, WTKK wasn’t even a right-wing talk station. Braude, a liberal, and Eagan, a moderate, hosted a civil show that was more about entertainment than politics. Moderate politics and humor were the rule during midday. The only right-winger was afternoon host Michael Graham, whose idea of a good time was to make fun of people with dwarfism.

It was a far cry from the days when WTKK’s signature host, Jay Severin, would call Al Gore “Al Whore” and refer to Hillary Clinton as “a socialist” and “a pig.” Then again, Severin himself was long gone, having made the mistake of joking about sex with interns at a moment when his ratings were falling.

During the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, Boston was a terrific town for talk radio, the home of pioneers such as David Brudnoy, Jerry Williams and Gene Burns, among others. Yes, they leaned right, but their approach was intelligent and respectful (OK, Williams often wasn’t respectful), and they were immersed in the local scene in a way that few talk-show hosts are these days.

So now we are left with one full-time talk station, WRKO (AM 680), home to right-wingers Rush Limbaugh and Howie Carr, a local legend whose shtick descended into bitter self-parody years ago. (Limbaugh’s syndicated show recently moved back to WRKO from a weak AM station owned by Clear Channel.) It certainly hasn’t helped either WTKK or WRKO that their ratings pale in comparison to two full-time sports stations — a phenomenon that didn’t exist during the heyday of local talk.

The only bright light is Dan Rea, who helms a very conservative evening program on all-news station WBZ (AM 1030). Rea, a former television reporter, eschews the shouting and demeaning putdowns in favor of smart conversation.

What happened to talk radio in Boston? I would point to three factors. And I would suggest that none of these are unique to our part of the country. Boston may be on the leading edge, but these same trends could sweep away talk elsewhere, too.

Corporate consolidation. Since the passage of the lamentable Telecommunications Act of 1996, corporations have been buying up radio stations in market after market, transforming what was once a strictly local affair into a bottom-line-obsessed business.

As far back as 1997 I wrote in the Boston Phoenix that the rise of chain ownership would eventually kill local talk. We are now seeing that come to fruition. The automated music stations that are on the rise may not garner many listeners. But they are cheap, which means that their owners can bleed some profits out of them regardless.

“In our current media environment, corporate owners seem to have less tolerance for the station that is unusual, the station with the niche audience,” media scholar and radio consultant Donna Halper wrote for Media Nation earlier this year. “Part of what makes radio unique as a mass medium is its ability to befriend the listener. So losing a favorite station is much like losing a friend.”

The rise of public radio. Boston is home to an exceptionally vibrant public radio scene. Two stations with strong signals — WBUR (90.9 FM) and WGBH (89.7 FM) — broadcast news, public-affairs programming and (yes) talk all day and night, and enjoy some of the largest audiences in the Boston area. (Disclosure #1: I’m a paid contributor to WGBH’s television station, Channel 2.) Other, smaller public stations broadcast far more eclectic musical offerings than anything on commercial radio.

This trend is related to corporate consolidation, as it was the slide in quality on the for-profit side that sent many listeners fleeing to nonprofit radio. If anything, that trend will accelerate.

Technological change. Earlier this year The Phoenix sold the FM signal for its independent rock station, WFNX, to Clear Channel — but kept streaming online. The Boston Globe, meanwhile, hired a few of the people who were laid off when WFNX left the air and now streams its own indie rock station, RadioBDC. All of a sudden, we’ve got a war between two local music stations, neither one of which can be heard over the air. (Disclosure #2: I’m an occasional contributor to The Phoenix.)

These days it’s not difficult to stream Internet radio in your car, which is where most radio listening takes place. Pandora, Spotify and out-of-town music stations (WWOZ of New Orleans is a favorite of mine) are powerful draws, which gives the local flavor of online stations like RadioBDC and WFNX a considerable edge over computer-programmed corporate radio — or, for that matter, subscription-based satellite radio.

It is this last development that gives me reason for optimism. Radio has always been held back by the physical limits of the broadcast spectrum. In a world in which those limits don’t exist, “radio” stations must compete on the strength of their programming rather than their stranglehold on the AM and FM dials.

Seen in that light, the end of WTKK is just another step on the road toward what may be a brighter, more diverse radio future.

Andrew Solomon, dwarfism and my daughter

One day in the summer of 2003 I found myself in a hotel lobby, engaged in an intense conversation with Andrew Solomon. His book on depression, “The Noonday Demon,” had won the National Book Award. Now he was working on a new project — about families with children who were so different from their parents that they called into question the very meaning of identity.

Solomon wanted to interview me because our daughter, Becky, has achondroplasia, the most common form of dwarfism. She had survived a rather harrowing infancy during which her too-small airways left her struggling for survival. She needed a tracheotomy, oxygen tanks and home nursing until she was nearly 3 years old …

Read the rest at the Huffington Post.

Obama shakes up the media dynamic in his favor

President Barack Obama’s commanding performance in the third and final debate mattered to the viewers at home, of course. But as we will see in the days ahead, it will matter even more in setting the tone for how the media will cover the campaign in the final run-up to the election.

Pay no attention to the silly pronouncements coming from Gov. Mitt Romney’s side — such as Bret Stephens’ analysis in the Wall Street Journal that Romney succeeded by coming across as “a perfectly plausible president.”

In fact, Romney’s timid me-too rhetoric on issues over which he’d been hammering Obama for months played poorly with the public. New York Times polling expert Nate Silver averaged the instant polls coming out of Monday night’s debate and found that Obama did even better than he had in the second one — a 16-point spread, compared to just 10 points a week ago.

Read the rest at the Huffington Post.

New York Times repeats a $5 trillion falsehood

This is pretty bad. In a profile of Stephanie Cutter, President Obama’s deputy campaign manager, the New York Times repeats a demonstrably false allegation advanced by Paul Ryan and others. Times reporter Amy Chozick writes:

Ms. Cutter doesn’t always stick to the talking points. In a recent CNN interview, she said Mr. Romney’s tax cuts “stipulated, it won’t be near $5 trillion,” as the Obama campaign had earlier claimed. The gaffe became fodder for a Romney attack ad three days later and was raised by Representative Paul D. Ryan in the vice-presidential debate on Thursday night.

Chozick links to the transcript of Cutter’s exchange with CNN’s Erin Burnett, but apparently she didn’t bother to read it; the headline, “Cutter Concedes $5 Trillion Attack on Romney Is Not True,” is simply wrong. Because here’s what Cutter actually said: the tax cut could be a lot less than $5 trillion if Romney closes loopholes and ends deductions; but Romney hasn’t specified any; therefore, yes, it’s a $5 trillion tax cut.

“The math does not work with what they’re saying,” Cutter told Burnett. “And they won’t name those deductions, not a single deduction that they will close because they know that is bad for their politics…. Last night, he [Romney] walked away from it, said he didn’t have a $5 trillion tax cut. He does.”

I wrote about this last week for the Huffington Post.

Obama changes the media narrative — in Romney’s favor

In my latest for the Huffington Post, I argue that, contrary to what Obama supporters will tell you, the president’s poor performance in Wednesday’s debate will matter a great deal in the days ahead.

Blame Jim Lehrer’s comatose moderating style and Mitt Romney’s falsehoods all you like. Obama could have risen to the occasion, and he didn’t.

The Newseum caves in on reporters’ access

Yes, that’s the First Amendment carved onto the vertical slate in front of the Newseum.

For many of us, it began with a tweet Thursday morning from Boston Globe editor Marty Baron:

[blackbirdpie url="https://twitter.com/GlobeMartyBaron/status/213267379352907778"]

Clicking led to a blog post by Globe political reporter Matt Viser, who had covered an event by Mitt Romney in Washington at the Newseum, a museum about journalism and the importance of the First Amendment. Toward the end, as Baron noted, came this rather startling paragraph:

Romney stayed to take questions. But following his 28-minute address — held at the Newseum, which is situated between the US Capitol and the White House — reporters were escorted out of the room and weren’t allowed to listen to the questions.

In the Newseum? The irony couldn’t have been any thicker. (And not just Romney. See update below.) As Huffington Post media reporter Michael Calderone put it a short time later:

[blackbirdpie url="https://twitter.com/mlcalderone/status/213290979799736321"]

Also jumping in was New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, who guessed — correctly, as it turned out — how the Newseum would respond:

[blackbirdpie url="https://twitter.com/jayrosen_nyu/status/213290735695446018"]

Media blogger Jim Romenesko wrote that he contacted Newseum spokesman Jonathan Thompson and “suggested … that the Newseum put a clause in its room-rental contracts requiring journalists be respected in the House of Journalism — for example, not be marched out of a room when it’s time for politicians to face questions.” Please click to read Thompson’s response, but the short version is that Rosen’s prediction was on the mark. You’ll also see my suggestion for how Thompson should have responded.

So those are the facts. What are we to make of this?

First, I’m inclined to give the Romney campaign half a pass here. It is hardly unusual for presidential candidates to hold events from which the media are excluded. You may recall that one of the worst moments of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign was when he complained to supporters at a no-media event about Pennsylvanians who “cling to guns or religion.” In that case, a supporter named Mayhill Fowler, who also blogged for the Huffington Post, decided to write it up.

But Romney only gets half a pass because he and his handlers should have known that excluding reporters from an event in the “House of Journalism,” as Romenesko called it, would create unwanted controversy in a way that excluding them from a fundraiser in a hotel banquet hall wouldn’t.

Second, and more important, the Newseum’s response was reprehensible. I’m reasonably sure officials there didn’t know Romney was going to lower the cone of silence. Maybe it’s never happened before. But the proper response would have been to express chagrin and promise that steps would be taken to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Reporters should never be kicked out of an event at the Newseum, whether it’s private or public. But as of this writing there’s been nothing from the Newseum other than Thompson’s statement and this tweet from Thursday:

[blackbirdpie url="https://twitter.com/Newseum/status/213309765412073473"]

No doubt the Newseum needs the rent money. According to its tax filings for 2010, the most recent that’s publicly available at GuideStar, the museum took in $73.4 million and spent $78.8 million, for a deficit of $5.4 million.

On Thursday, though, Newseum officials stepped in it in a way that could end up costing them a lot more in future donations than they’ve ever made in private rentals. My guess is the proverbial high-level conversations are taking place right now.

By the way, Viser is back with a more comprehensive story today.

Update: Politico media reporter Dylan Byers takes a swipe at Calderone, his predecessor in the job, saying that Obama “did the exact same thing” at the Newseum back in March. Yes, it should have been news then. And it only underscores that it’s long past time for the Newseum to prohibit private groups that rent its facilities from banning reporters from their events.

Photo (cc) by David Monack and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.