What Jeff Jacoby gets right — and wrong — about tax subsidies for local news

Photo (cc) 2020 by Dan Kennedy

The Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby devoted his Sunday column to laying out his case against the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, which is aimed at easing the community news crisis through a series of federal tax credits. Jacoby’s opposition was no surprise, but I think it’s worth taking a look at his two major objections. One of them ought to be taken seriously; the other is grounded solely in his own boutique political philosophy.

The act would become law if it is included in the final reconciliation bill now being considered by Congress, assuming that Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema will allow it be dragged at long last across the finish line. Here is a good overview of the bill by Steve Waldman, a founder of the Rebuild Local News Coalition. It would provide three tax credits for a five-year period, giving local news organizations some runway as they figure out how to transition to the confounding economic realities of the digital era:

  • News consumers would be able to write off $250 a year that they spend on subscriptions or on donations to nonprofit news organizations.
  • News organizations would receive tax benefits for hiring or retaining journalists.
  • Local small businesses would receive tax credits for advertising in local newspapers and news websites and on television and radio stations.

Jacoby’s argument is that tax credits amount to government subsidies, and even though these would be indirect, they could still be wielded by government officials to reward their friends and punish their enemies. “Government subsidies, almost by definition, are antithetical to the spirit of an independent press and the First Amendment,” Jacoby writes. “A newspaper that takes money from the government is apt to pull its punches when it covers that government — especially if it grows addicted to tax breaks that will have to be renewed every few years.”

There’s no question that could be a problem. The optimistic view is that the tax subsidies will end after five years, so there’s not much incentive for news organizations to soft-pedal their coverage. But I can easily envision a lobbying effort to extend those tax breaks, and then you end up in exactly the situation that Jacoby warns against.

There’s also the possibility that news organizations, especially those owned by corporate chains and hedge funds, will not use the five years wisely by making the kinds of investments that might move them toward financial sustainability, like customer-focused digital products, seamless payment systems and newsrooms robust enough to be produce journalism that people will be willing to pay for. (All steps, by the way, that Jacoby’s employer has taken to good effect.) Instead, they’ll just pocket the savings and ask for more. These are real concerns.

Jacoby’s other concern can be dismissed easily enough by anyone who doesn’t share his purist libertarian views: he’s opposed to government subsidies for any sector of the economy and for any reason. As he writes, “I have never found that a persuasive claim and over the years have opposed targeting tax credits to many politically wired special pleaders, including biotech firms, video game makers, arts organizations, convention centers, higher education, movie and theater producers, Fortune 500 corporations, and public broadcasting.”

Here Jacoby has identified what many of us would regard as the flaw in his argument, because the tax credits envisioned in the Local Journalism Sustainability Act are not materially different from those granted to nonprofit news organizations in general. From PBS to nonprofit hyperlocal websites, nonprofit status enables donations to be tax-deductible and enables the news organizations themselves to avoid paying taxes.

Jacoby appears to be taking a more extreme position now than he has in the past. In his current column, he writes that he opposes tax credits for public broadcasting, which seems to go a step beyond his previous position: In 2011 he called for an end to direct government payments to public broadcasting, arguing that the system would do fine without such payments. There is nothing in that column to suggest he opposes the indirect government benefits that public media receive as a consequence of their nonprofit status.

As I’ve written before, I think it’s worth taking a chance on the Local Journalism Sustainability Act. Although there are some hazards, a few of which Jacoby has identified, overall it strikes me as a worthwhile response to the decline of community journalism.

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3 thoughts on “What Jeff Jacoby gets right — and wrong — about tax subsidies for local news

  1. pauljbass

    The could rename it the Bail Out Alden Capital/Gannett Squelch Innovation Prop Up A Failing Business Model & Preserve Elite Corporate Journalism Act. I know. Too long and too many hypens.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      FWIW, I’ve also called for tax incentives and disincentives aimed at pushing corporate chains to sell to local owners. It’s not ideal.

      1. pauljbass

        I know good people with good intentions have thought hard about this. I recognize I could be wrong to believe all these efforts to have government “rescue” local journalism will offer little if any help to grassroots innovative non-corporate journalism while perpetuating the dominance of corporate players (and corporate-minded refugees who have come to dominate the capital in the “non-profit” sphere), keeping alive a failed exploitation model whose failures preceded (but were hastened by) the rise of the internet. I honestly believe I could be wrong about this, and I support the efforts of everyone trying lots of different ways to rebuild and support new efforts to produce quality news reporting.

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