(Sorry, this is really long, but I didn't have time to write a short post.)
I watch very little TV. Nothing noble about this, there is simply not all that much I find interesting. But one place I do see it is at the gym, where every treadmill and elliptical is equipped with a screen. And this morning, as I was trudging along at 5 mph on a 3.5% incline, I watched a cable news conversation about the near and still possible demise of the Boston Globe.
That brought back memories from the 1980s when I lived in Mass. and subscribed to the paper for some of those years. It was a very good paper then, intellectually hefty, with real news and real writing. After I left it was absorbed by a syndicate, the NYTimes in fact, which was part of a general trend in newspapers back then.
Anyway, what got my attention was that the folks on TV were saying that the web and the economy are making the Globe (along with other papers including our near neighbor the Detroit Free Press) financially untenable. Now, in a pure free market world this would be sad but acceptable, as companies come and go like restaurants in Manhattan. But unlike restaurants, newspapers have a vital social and political function as well as an economic function.
So the conversation on TV revolved around the industry as a whole and how a city without a newspaper has no ‘tribune’, no institution that keeps its eye on those in power and calls them to account on behalf of the populus. Who will ferret out the sweet heart deals, the sold votes, the cheating and deception that tempt every politician? Cable news won’t. (This coming from a cable news station by the way, so I thank them for their honesty.) Google won’t. Comcast and Wikipedia won’t.
But how can newspapers, which are the only thing that have or can perform this function, going to survive in this new electronic information economy?
I am no economist, but it seems to me that newspapers are sort of like electric companies or health insurance companies. They provide an essential service that thus cannot be allowed to fold up entirely. So we should protect them from purely economic failure through the law, but then make sure this protection (which sometimes amounts to a virtual monopoly) does not give them unfettered power to raise prices or defraud.
I guess I propose creating a new sort of corporation, a 'news corporation' say, that would stand halfway between a pure profit making enterprise and a pure non profit.
As I walked home from the gym I thought, again being no economist but a thinker of sorts, that a news corporation might be allowed to make only as much profit as current T bills plus 1%. Anything up to that would be tax exempt, say, but if they made more, the profit would be doubly taxed at the for profit rate, to discourage corporate cheating.
Stockholders would likewise earn tax exempt interest up to that rate, meaning the price per share if it rose, but were it to rise above that the capital gains would be higher than for profits. A ‘limited profit’ corporation, which is what utilities used to be. Boring, but reliable.
Now (my walk is long so I can think at length) let’s make it better yet by allowing stock holders to claim as a charitable deduction any dividends they earn but return to the corporation in a given year, encouraging them to reinvest instead of taking dividends or selling the stock. The whole idea is to attract investors who more likely will keep the stock rather than selling it. Either the tax free earnings or the tax deductible reinvestment would make it useful to individuals and companies and pension plans, depending on their needs.
Finally, like old fashioned utilities, they would be licensed or chartered in states to serve communities in that state. There could be no national limited profit news corporations. The whole idea is to make local news possible.
I know this does not address the other factor, the explosion of national information services like cable and satellite and web based sources. But none of these can provide the essential local coverage and attention cities and counties and states need to assure the honesty democracy requires.
For two centuries we protected the press from the power of government. Now it is time to protect the press from the power of the market. Without real news, impartial news, local accessible and reliable news, we cannot survive as a free people. Something must be done, something more than praying to the gods of the free market.