The push for government support for newspaper continues and this week publishers and their supporters—including the Newspaper Association of America—went before the House Joint Economic Committee detailing how the current economic climate has harmed their finances and arguing for preferential changes to tax and pension laws. They asked to be allowed to extend application of the net operating loss provisions from 2 years to 5 years and for changes in laws to allow them to underfund pension funds for a greater period of time. Both would improve their operating performance and balance sheets.

This is a case of the newspaper industry seeking long-term business benefits to solve a short-term crisis caused by poor management decisions and the recession. The leading newspaper firms and their representatives are making concerted efforts to dupe legislators and the public into believing their troubles are part of the general trends in the industry, rather than the result of management decisions and the financial crisis that is diminishing. If the provisions are passed, the public treasury will be diminished for years to come and risks for employee pensions will be increased.

Newspaper executives and other witnesses were sympathetically treated at the hearing this week, but it is unclear whether they will be able to achieve the policies they advocated.

Another proposal that the commercial firms are uninterested in themselves, but expressed sympathy for, would broadening laws regarding charities to include not-for-profit newspapers. Their support was astute because the House Joint Economic Committee’s chair, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), has introduced her own bill (H.R. 3602) to allow newspapers to become tax exempt under section 501(C)(3) of the tax code. Her bill somewhat mirror Senate bill 673 by Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., that was discussed earlier in this blog (Analysis of the Newspaper Revitalization Act, http://themediabusiness.blogspot.com/2009/03/analysis-of-newspaper-revitalization.html). There are some differences in Maloney’s bill that need to be highlighted.

Under Section (b) of H.R. 3602, companies would qualify for tax exempt status through a 3-part test.

First, companies would have to be “publishing on a regular basis a newspaper of general circulation” to qualify. This provision stipulates no periodicity so it does not limit qualification to dailies, which are experiencing the greatest economic and financial difficulties. This language provides the exemption only to established papers and would thus exclude startups until after they were regularly publishing, requiring startups to initially obtain financing through other than tax-deductible donations.

The language in this first test requires that publications be “a newspaper of general circulation” and this will lead to questions whether it applies to newspapers focused on specific audiences in a community—such as African Americans or senior citizens—or papers providing more focused content—such as news and information for a specific neighborhood or devoted solely to politics or crime. This ambiguity could be used by IRS examiners against some papers and could be used by some publishers to take advantage of a policy not intended for them.

The second provision requires that qualifying papers publish “local, national or international stories of interest to the general public and the distribution of such newspaper is necessary or valuable in achieving an educational purpose.” The provision regarding type of coverage is better than the Senate bill because it does not require publication of all 3 types of news—something not done in many local papers.

The third provision requires that content preparation “follows methods generally accepted as educational in character.” This provision is exceedingly vague and its application is unclear because it does not deal with the content of the paper, but with the preparation of the paper. How “the preparation of the material” follows accepted educational methods would seem to require that the papers be part of an educational activity, such as being linked to training in schools or universities. This would highly limit the applicability of the bill to existing newspaper operations.

Like the Senate bill, Section (c) permits papers to carry advertising “to the extent that such newspaper does not exceed the space allotted to fulfilling the educational purposes of such qualified newspaper corporation.” This would require papers to publish no more than an equal amount of editorial and advertising content. This is lower than the limit of postal service limit (75%) and would force most existing papers to drop about 1/3 of their existing advertising or incur damaging costs by printing more news pages than they do now. This would cripple the finances of any daily paper.

Finally, Section (d) of the legislation permits qualified companies to accept tax deductable charitable donations to support their operations.

This bill, like its Senate predecessor, is likely to have limited affects on the newspaper industry because it will not interest newspaper owners because most of their papers are producing profits and it will preclude their abilities to benefit from greater profits when the advertising recovery occurs.

There is a place for not-for-profit media and journalism, but H.R. 3602 S. 673 will not do much to improve coverage or the overall condition newspaper industry. It is likely to continue to gain support from the commercial newspaper industry, however, because it can be used to provide cover for government policies that they really want.

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