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Unsure on government aid for newspapers

“The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” — Ronald Reagan

Congress first invested in the news business in 1792, when it passed the Post Office Act, aiding newspapers’ bottom lines by allowing publishers to deliver papers through the mail for a fraction of what other businesses pay.

Since then, the government — from Congress to city halls — has subsidized newsgathering and news delivery in mostly small, indirect ways, such as when cities allow newspapers to place vending machines on public walkways at no charge. Taxpayers directly fund newsgathering through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which covers a tiny fraction of the budgets at National Public Radio and local public radio stations. Universities and high schools often underwrite campus newspapers and radio stations.

So it’s not without precedent.

Now, however, some lawmakers want to invest more in news outlets than at any point in the history of the republic.

I have mixed feelings.

The bipartisan Community News and Small Business Support Act, sponsored by U.S. Reps. Claudia Tenney, a Republican from New York, and Suzan DelBene, a Democrat from Washington state, would gift small news outlets tax credits of up to $25,000 for every journalist they employ and would give small businesses up to $5,000 tax credits for running ads with small news outlets.

To my knowledge, no one has ever tallied up all the current public investments in the news businesses, but I can tell you it ain’t much.

Grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, for example, make up less than 1% of NPR’s annual budget. The cheaper mail delivery shaves significant sums off newspapers’ delivery costs, but delivery makes up a relatively small share of newspapers’ total budgets.

Tenney and DelBene’s plan, however, allows news outlets that employ up to 750 people to claim the payroll tax credits, meaning some newspapers could save millions of dollars in taxes. That’s unprecedented.

I understand the desire to help.

Northwestern University researchers say an average of 2.5 newspapers close every week, and more than half of U.S. counties now have either no newspaper or only one newspaper, usually a weekly.

Plenty of research illustrates how the closure of a newspaper hurts a community: Public corruption goes up. Voter participation goes down. Public debt increases. Local businesses close.

It’s admirable for Congress to want to prevent that, and plenty of newspapers could use the help.

But the idea of news outlets taking government handouts makes me nervous.

I do not think any news outlet would feel beholden to the federal government and don kid gloves when reporting on Congress or the White House. They certainly haven’t done so because of the postal subsidies. University newspapers still aggressively report on their campuses. The Washington Post still reports fairly on Amazon, even after Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought the Post in 2013.

Journalists take their independence very seriously, and all but the most unscrupulous media owners respect that independence.

However, that wouldn’t stop the perception that the government had bought and paid for the press.

Already dogged by accusations of a liberal bias, the media’s critics would have a field day if a Democratic president signed Tenney and DelBene’s bill. They’d attack the press for kowtowing to the government that bolstered its bottom line, even if the media did no such thing.

That could only hurt the media’s credibility, and too many people already say they don’t trust the press.

Just ask NPR, which faces routine carping for the money it takes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

The most recent draft of Tenney and DelBene’s bill has no strings attached to the tax credits except a requirement that media outlets continue to employ journalists.

The bill should state explicitly, however, that media outlets would owe the government nothing else in return for the tax breaks and should state explicitly that the government still would have no input over news outlets’ coverage or business decisions.

And the media — including and perhaps especially the outlets that benefit from the tax credits — should aggressively cover the rollout of the program. I would want to know how much money the program cost the government and how many journalists’ jobs the program saved.

I do not reject the proposal out of hand, because the media has maintained its independence despite existing government aid and I know they would continue to do so even if the industry benefited from government charity.

But the media should tread carefully down that road and, if it accepts Congress’s help, should fiercely demand and demonstrate its continued independence.

Because, at the end of the day, all a news outlet really sells is credibility.

And no amount of money can buy that.

Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-354-3112 or jhinkley@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.

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