By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Tax incentives, yes. Government subsidies, no.

Len Downie

Len Downie

Len Downie, former executive editor of the Washington Post, and Michael Schudson of Columbia University will release a report tomorrow that calls, among other things, for direct government funding of local journalism. Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute says such funding could amount to $500 million a year.

Despite Downie’s sterling credentials — and he’s looking better every day — I suspect this isn’t going anywhere, nor should it. True, Downie and Schudson try to draw parallels to existing models such as the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities in order to make their proposed Fund for Local Journalism seem less exotic. But it still amounts to a direct government bailout for the news business, which would severely compromise journalism’s ability to act as a watchdog on government.

Indirect government subsidies in the form of non-profit status and the tax incentives that go with that status make much more sense. Not that every news organization should go non-profit. But many non-profit news organizations are already doing good work, including public radio and television (which, alas, do receive some direct government funding) and community Web sites such as Voice of San Diego, MinnPost and the New Haven Independent.

If legislation is needed to bring non-profit news more into the mainstream, that might not be a bad idea. But when government starts writing checks, it will, inevitably, demand to have some say in what it’s paying for.

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  1. Sterling credentials!?!? Len Downie was a wholly owned subsidiary of Bushco, a poster boy for how not to run a news organization, one of the chief “complicit enablers” of the Iraq War in Editor & Publisher’s Greg Mitchell’s apt phrase:

    • Dan Kennedy

      John: The Post and especially the Times did not cover themselves in glory in the run-up to the war in Iraq. But to deny that Downie was an outstanding editor is to deny reality. Look at what’s happened to the Post since he left — chaos and corruption as far as the eye can see.

  2. Newshound

    Absolutely nothing should happen to distract from the First Amendment remaining absolute.

    When all is said and done, this is absolutely our most important protection even if it accurately excites near riot conditions to protect our freedom and our other most important Amendments, such as the much lesser 21st.

  3. Newshound

    At all expense, no matter what, politicians must be kept out of the news business.

    Once a benefit is granted it becomes absorbed in the industry and the threat is always there to taken away.

    There should never be special provision for the media. The non profits that exist are not operating under tailor made rules and regulations that are as subject to threat.

    Even if the New Haven Independent were not organized as a non-profit, without profit there is no tax.

    The grassroots media of today starts as simply as a blog, or with an obsolete computer, printer and a few reams of paper. That is basic and deserves protection against a well-established giant that somehow benefits with falling into government-authority-political favoritism.

  4. Newshound

    Principle always. The media should never surrender.

  5. charles pierce

    So managing to get through your tenure without producing “chaos and corruption as far as the eye can see” is now our standard for “an outstanding editor”? Downie was the enabler of every trend — including and especially the corruption of access — that has led to what we see now in the WaPo.

    • Dan Kennedy

      OTOH, Brauchli’s tenure may not last the afternoon.

      Few news orgs did good work pre-Iraq, and the Post’s record is much better than the Times’. Here is some worthy penance.

  6. Aaron Read

    A clarification: yes some public radio/TV stations receive DIRECT government support…but if you’re thinking of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting money that virtually every pubradio/TV station gets, that is NOT direct gov’t funding. That’s rather the point: CPB is funded by Congress, yes, but CPB makes the decisions about how to allocate funding, and CPB is not strictly a government-operated organization. There are government-appointed board members, but there are board members that are not government-appointed, too.

    On the radio side, at least, the most common direct government funding we get is the US Dep’t of Commerce PTFP (Public Telecommunications Facilities Program) grants, which are strictly for equipment/facility upgrades (and a giant pain in the ass to apply for and manage). And, FWIW, were nearly eliminated out of this year’s budget by none other than John McCain.

    I don’t see why a similar-to-CPB model can’t work for newspapers. The big fear is that a newspaper will back off on critical coverage of government if government is paying their bills. That’s a legitimate fear if the paper becomes too dependent on that funding source. But if there’s a buffer organization in there, like a CPB-ish organization, AND if you distribute the funding on a national scale to insulate any one paper from being singled out too easily for retribution due to negative press, AND if you install incentive rules (like CPB has) that demand that papers ensure they have other sources of funding, I think it could work just fine without any ill effects.

    To speak more to that last point: that’s something a lot of people outside of the biz aren’t aware of. CPB will cut off your annual funding (the “Community Service Grant” or CSG) if you don’t meet certain benchmarks in terms of audience served and/or revenue raised. It serves two purposes: first, it helps prevent stations from getting too dependent on CPB funds, because if you’re serving a given audience size, by definition you’ll have enough resources to run successful fundraisers and/or underwriting campaigns. Second, it also helps make sure CPB isn’t propping up a station that’s just doomed to failure because of lack of community support or bad management at the station (or both).

    I think similar benchmarks for newspapers (both print and online tallies) would be an effective way to fund them through government revenues.

    At the opposite end are situations like that minority paper in Boston that got a direct $200k grant (or was it a loan) from Mayor Menino. Which was a terrible idea that guarantees the paper will muzzle itself out of fear of offending a rather less-than-impartial person holding the purse strings.

  7. lkcape

    Answer the underlying question, Dan, as to why few news orgs did good work pre-Iraq. And then there comes the question: Has anything changed.

    Profit or non-profit, the quality of the product is a serious issue for the media.

    A good product may not need the protection of non-profit status.

  8. charles pierce

    Apples and andirons, my friend. The Pulitzer was for Priest’s work covering aspects of the “war on terror” unrelated to the run-up to the Iraq War, which was the topic under discussion. (Does Risen’s work on warrantless wiretaps in the NYT mitigate Judy Miller?) The editorial and op-ed page of the WaPo were the primary transmission belt for the philosophical underpinnings of the war.

    • Dan Kennedy

      Does Risen’s work on warrantless wiretaps in the NYT mitigate Judy Miller?

      Uh, was Judy Miller the editor of the Times? And since your main beef is with the editorial and op-ed pages of the Post, then I would have to say you are definitely knocking on the wrong door. The Post’s editorial-page editor reports directly to the publisher, which is the same arrangement that most big papers have these days.

      Downie is famous for claiming he never even read the Post’s opinion pages (or anyone else’s), and wouldn’t vote lest it taint his objectivity. A bit too precious for me, but you certainly can’t hang the Post’s editorials on him. And if he deserves blame for the Post’s pre-Iraq coverage (and he does), why does he get no credit for Priest’s reporting?

  9. Neil

    This post is not a referendum on Len Downie. It’s a referendum on his proposal to provide direct funding to news organizations.

    Dan argues against direct funding and for government support in the form of tax incentive or tax exempt status but does make explicit his reasons and arguments for and against, except by implication that direct funding would make the news organization more susceptible to government influence thereby co-opting its independence.

    Funds granted by one Congress can be unfunded by the next so the issue of substaiability rather then just independence comes into consideration. The same can be said about tax incentives.

    Is it true direct subsidy is structure more susceptible to government co-option of the news organization’s independence? Aren’t tax incentives just as likely to be used as lever or just as likely to be revoked?

    What’s the taxpayers interest in underwriting public news? I don;t ask that question idly. I see a clear benefits in watching the NewsHour, Frontline and Greater Boston (for different reasons) and they are a public private funded journalism so I see a valuable result but that’s just me. Public television has a long record of producing good journalism without too much government co-option.

    There is an interesting debate to have here but I’m not sure we’ve put our finger on it yet.

  10. Brian

    Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe the BBC is directly funded by the British government. I can’t place it now, but I’ve read somewhere that during WWII Churchill wanted the BBC to change their coverage to better improve the moral of the people, but they refused on the grounds of journalistic integrity.

    • Dan Kennedy

      The BBC definitely gets government funding, and Britain also does not have a free press.

  11. Len Downie never used to vote when he was Wash Post ME because he said he didn’t want to compromise the objectivity of the paper by making it look as if it were beholden to a candidate or party. Now he’s all in for govt. subsidies. There are no atheists in foxholes, I guess.

    • Dan Kennedy

      But, Sheldon, Downie still wouldn’t vote. 😉

  12. charles pierce

    Oh, lord. OK, first of all, Downie’s current idea is doomed from the start, and ought to be. If you’re going to have the press and religion in the same Amendment, I’d rather not have government involved in the Establishment of either one.
    And Downie still ran that place when it was cheerleading for the war. That he expects the world to believe in the Easter Bunny is not my problem.

  13. Newshound

    No matter how much creditability or merit, there shall or at least should not be any government involvement in a free press.

    Any protection of the established media can interfere with bare-bones start-ups at the grassroots level, thus a horrible flaw and potential end of a free press in America, even if it presently works in some isolated circumstances or other places on the planet right now.

  14. mike_b1

    Before newspapers start patting themselves on the head for being such wonderful watchdogs, they should be forced to sit quietly and listen to Harry Markopolos explain how finance works.

    The question is, if mass media’s raison d’etre is exposing corruption and waste, are there not better (read: more efficient, less expensive) vehicles for doing just that?

    • Dan Kennedy

      Mike: To which I would add and get the public to care. Mass media are still necessary for that.

  15. mike_b1

    Mass media got the public to care about Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme? When $50 billion or so goes missing, I don’t think it takes Fox News or CBS to pique public curiosity.

    • Dan Kennedy

      Mike: Pulling out one example like that is bogus. Sal DiMasi would be a much better example. The Globe kept hammering away at the guy until, finally, the public and the authorities got interested.

  16. Newshound

    We don’t need one valid example in the last 100 years to have enough sense to know that the press remains the Fourth Estate and separate from government interference-assistance-control forever.

    By the way, just in case, there are almost infinite examples in the last 100 years, and sadly for civilization, way too many just this year alone.

  17. O-FISH-L

    Dan, speaking of the public, what makes anyone think that we would sit by dutifully while our pockets are picked to the tune of another $500m, for an industry that is widely distrusted, if not disdained?

    I didn’t even call my Congressman to oppose health care, but I’d be on the horn to oppose this.

    Competition is the life of trade. Regardless of size, the strong (unbiased, fair) media outlets will thrive without a massive government handout, while the ones that should die off, will. Good riddance!

  18. Newshound

    O-Fish – the media does not get a free lunch or ride on Air Force One because of freedom, independence and integrity.

    Good journalists will starve before they surrender, so to speak. It is a basic Constitutional guarantee to be protected always, and if any journalist doesn’t have that passion they’d be better off diverting their education to another field.

    And, O-Fish – I agree that media and communication will thrive without any government handout. We have seen this in an enormous way with the success of Yahoo, Google, and just today’s announcement of record breaking $1.67 billion quarterly profit by Apple – and even though pretty small in government spending or handout comparisons, big for business with such a successful report card.

    It is a lot harder to honestly earn money than to recklessly give it away.

  19. Bob Gardner

    I would say that I’m horrified by Downie’s proposal, except that it seems less like a proposal than a description of what we already have with the CPB.
    What would be the difference?

  20. mike_b1

    Dan, I wouldn’t be so proud of taking down Sal DiMasi, not after the raft of criminals — aka the Mass. legislators — who have walked away scot-free. After years of graft by Billy Bulger, for example, it was Mitt Romney of all people who finally stood up to him. I’m no fan of Gov. Carpetbagger, but at least he did the right thing in knocking Bulger down a notch.

  21. Aaron Read

    @Bob Gardner: That was my point exactly. I keep hearing why government subsidies will automatically be the death of newspapers and, frankly, I haven’t heard ONE WORD of solid evidence that this would be the case.

    Instead I keep hearing vague assertions that the relationship public radio/TV has with CPB “isn’t the same thing” and thus is completely irrelevant. That’s not true, it’s the most relevant point there is! Government CAN support quality journalism with compromising journalistic integrity. It’s not always easy, nor perfect, but it CAN work.

  22. mike_b1

    Aaron, I guess one corollary would be govt’s funding of various scientific research, which it does without inherently compromising the results. The media like to think they are a unique case, but there’s certainly a bit of the “this is how we’ve always done it” heel-digging evident as well.

  23. Aaron Read

    @Mike_B1: EXCELLENT analogy, Mike…because it proves how this is not a black or white issue. There are many, many cases of federal officials yanking the purse strings in political attempts to override scientific logic. And in some cases it works and some cases it doesn’t.

    Where it tends to have the greatest effects are situations where the institution performing the controversial science is too dependent on funding that comes directly from a financial source that is too easily manipulated by federal officials.

    Science that has some buffers in place, like – for example – general grants to a University, that in turn distributes those funds to individual experiments or departments, have a far, far less susceptibility to government interference.

    It’s not a perfect analogy, of course: science tends to be more vulnerable to gov’t meddling because science tends to cost more (thus making it harder to have a distributed funding portfolio) and science tends to have lots of research that ultimately proves to be a dead-end…whereas journalism tends to have a better “return on investment”. If you investigate a given topic, odds are usually pretty good you’ll find SOMEthing worth reporting on.

    But still, it can totally work.

    • Dan Kennedy

      Public television has one newscast — “The NewsHour” — and to say it fails to hold the government to account is an understatement. “Frontline” is an exception. Bill Moyers has been driven off public television several times, with the right threatening to withhold tax money. So does government funding of news on public television work? Uh, no.

      Public radio receives little enough from the government that the effect isn’t nearly as negative. But if it were as dependent on government funding as public television is, then you can be sure the effect would be the same.

      During the run-up to the war in Iraq, all the major media corporations were seeking deregulatory goodies from the FCC, then headed by Colin Powell’s son. Consider how the network newscasts and especially the cable nets turned the war into branded entertainment. A month or two after “Mission Accomplished,” Michael Powell’s FCC showered the corporations with more than they had ever dreamed of. Fortunately, Congress and the courts stepped in and put a stop to it.

      One of journalism’s main responsibilities — perhaps its greatest responsibility — is to serve as a watchdog on government. You can’t take money from the government and then hold them accountable. This really isn’t a difficult concept.

  24. mike_b1

    Dan, please to explain how individuals do that very act (whistleblowing) to their employers all the time, then?

    Wouldn’t this be interesting: Congress funds journalism, and also enacts a shield law?

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