Tax breaks won’t help newspapers until newspapers start helping themselves
Originally published on BuzzFlash.com on Wed, 05/13/2009 – 1:15pm
What if the government was to give tax breaks to an industry that had not kept up with the times, lacked innovation, and hasn’t really delivered on the potential of what it could be in some time?
Wall Street? Auto industry? Try newspapers.
In Washington state, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a new law, giving newspaper printers and publishers a 40 percent cut in the state’s main business tax. In the state’s largest market, Seattle, the city had two long-time papers, the Times and the Post-Intelligencer, the latter of which shut down and went to an online only format.
Government and newspapers — newspapers and government, a separation perhaps as important as church and state. But does this move in Washington state cross that line?
And even if it doesn’t cross that line, do we want to save newspapers?
Newspapers are in trouble for a number of reasons, some of which is their fault (declining credibility) and other points are things that just happened (Craigslist getting more classified ads). In Chicago, the two major newspapers have extended problems beyond these obvious ones. One (Chicago Tribune) is part of a overreach by its Zell-ous owner (Sam Zell), and the other (Chicago Sun-Times) was literally robbed from within (Conrad Black), and faces severe tax penalties.
But our reluctance to help newspapers, no matter how valuable we think they are, is that they don’t seem sorry for their own role in where they are.
We like what newspapers can be. The investigation into Walter Reed and veterans health care by The Washington Post is a great example of what newspapers can do. But we are angry at the cheerleading leading up to the Iraq War, and torture-justifying columnists at that same The Washington Post.
We are angry at The New York Times for holding a story about spying on Americans until after the 2004 election, and for employing (and praising the efforts of) Judith Miller, no matter what we might think of their overall coverage and insightful columnists.
And these are the newspapers we respect — mostly.
For what we think about newspapers in the United States, we abhor what TV news does even more. And often, they steal the good stories from the newspapers anyway. While the recession is stifling a lot of media outlets, TV news has a better chance of long-term survival than newspapers.
But our anger at newspapers centers around knowing that they have the potential to bring us deep, insightful analysis to topics glossing over or ignored on the television — and they let us down much too often.
As much as we get our news from the Web, and from smarter TV outlets such as “Countdown” and the “Rachel Maddow Show,” we do learn a lot from newspapers. But we are still angry at them.
We are also angry that in these economic times, instead of trying to make newspapers more relevant, they just become thinner. They cry, “Buy our papers,” but don’t give us much reason to do so.
All the tax breaks in the world aren’t going to help newspapers unless they help themselves.
The future might not be in the names that we grew to love: Seattle Post-Intelligencer, San Francisco Chronicle, Detroit Free Press, Rocky Mountain News, Cincinnati Post. The future might be smaller, more streamlined presentations of news and analysis with new names. Even if traditional newspapers die, the need for what a newspaper can provide is still insatiable. The ones who can figure that out will likely be able to pull it off without extensive tax breaks.