Newspapers as non-profits? Not a bad idea

If President Obama can argue that AIG going bankrupt would have led to a collapse of the whole financial system and, therefore, was worthy of government assistance, then there's also a valid argument that newspapers, carrying out their roles as watchdogs of government, are worthy of some help from Washington, too.Hold on.

If President Obama can argue that AIG going bankrupt would have led to a collapse of the whole financial system and, therefore, was worthy of government assistance, then there's also a valid argument that newspapers, carrying out their roles as watchdogs of government, are worthy of some help from Washington, too.

Hold on. I'm not talking bailout here but instead a proposal by Maryland Sen. Benjamin Cardin, who has suggested that newspapers be granted non-profit status. Today, the Senator introduced the Newspaper Revitalization Act, a bill that would allow newspapers to operate with a status similar to public broadcasting companies.

As a non-profit, a newspaper would be tax-exempt and private, meaning it wouldn't be weighed down by the lofty expectations of Wall Street. It would not be allowed to make political endorsements but could still cover campaigns.

When I think of journalism, I think of what I read in newspapers, magazines and the Web - not the stuff that I see on TV or hear on the radio. I mean no disrespect to my TV and radio brethren - but they offer news in soundbites. There's not a whole lot of depth going on there. But that's OK - we give you 22 minutes, you give us the world, right?

In most cases, we're not lacking for information from around the world. The Internet has taken care of that. There are Web outlets out there that already are watching big business, big industry and big government. Here at ZDNet, we've got our eyes on a lot of developments in the tech industry.

What we're not doing is sitting in on city council meetings on the lookout for changes to the zoning ordinances or hikes to property taxes. We're not investigating environmental impacts from the new airport expansion or looking into motives of a developer who's suddenly hanging around city hall regularly. That's local stuff that should be covered at the local level and offered to local citizens. I imagine there are probably potential donors in cities and regions that would be willing to invest in local "journalism," instead of "newspapers."

For several years, I sat on the board of directors for the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and, along with my fellow board members, did my part to raise funds. It was a never-ending effort. But donors - even outside of big media companies - understood the importance of journalism and were willing to invest in it. Couldn't the same efforts be made at local and regional levels, as well?

I look at what's being done in San Diego, where professional journalists are digging in on local issues for a new non-profit called Voice of San Diego. Today's news: Mayor's office wants police officers to take some concessions; San Diego State basketball team extend post-season; and big changes during hard times in the San Diego Unified School District.

Hey, someone has to inform the public about these issues, right? With newspapers in cities around the country laying off their news staffs, they're more likely to miss these important stories.

Also see: Note to newspapers: I can't read what you don't sell

I imagine that local and regional non-profit news outlets would have to make the same pitches for funds. But aren't they killing themselves now by trying to sell ads? Instead, they could channel those efforts of selling ads into soliciting donations toward responsible journalism.

As you think about the importance of the press in a democratic society and the need for a government to support its future, I leave you with an excerpt from a recent column written by Leonard Pitts Jr. of the Miami Herald. In his March 18 column, "Don't expect sympathy cards from crooks, corrupt politicians," he writes:

On the day the last newspaper is published, I expect no sympathy card from Kwame Kilpatrick. Were it not for a newspaper -- The Detroit Free Press -- his use of public funds to cover up his affair with one of his aides would be unrevealed and, he might still be mayor of Detroit. Nor will I expect flowers from Larry Craig. Were it not for a newspaper -- The Idaho Statesman -- we would not know of his propensity for taking a ''wide stance'' in airport men's rooms and he might still be serving in the U.S. Senate. And I doubt there will be a toast of commiseration from Reynaldo Diaz and Oscar Rivero. Were it not for a newspaper -- The Miami Herald -- they would still be living large on money scammed from an agency that builds housing for the poor.

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