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Vincent Carroll: A local media dependent on taxes will be too tame at crunch time

Sometimes a poorly conceived response to a problem is worse than no response at all. Witness the Colorado Media Project’s proposed solution to the sad decline of local news gathering in this state. 

The media project, a group of concerned citizens, civic leaders and former journalists, wants government to step up and funnel tax dollars into worthy journalistic enterprises.

And they’ve released a 29-page report that makes a mostly thoughtful case for their cause. But count me as unpersuaded. 
The problem is real enough, as I know too well.

Vincent Carroll

I worked 40 years as a full-time journalist and in the final stretch watched as the staff around me disappeared one by one to downsizing.

I have given public talks lamenting the trend, citing examples of how enterprising reporting in this state had spurred reforms within complacent institutions that people of every political persuasion could applaud. 

The depressing facts in the report are indisputable. Yes, the traditional business model for local journalism, which depended heavily on advertising, is “broken.” Yes, the number of “professional reporters . . . across all media formats declined by nearly 44% between 2010 and 2018, from 1,010 to 570 reporters statewide,” while 21 newspapers have folded since 2004. 

Meanwhile, it may well be that some “Coloradans are increasingly disengaged from the news and information we need to make decisions about civic issues, candidates, and elected officials and the future of our state.”

I am surprised these days to run into educated Coloradans in jobs of significant responsibility who say they do not subscribe to a local newspaper or bother to consult websites like the Denverite, Colorado Politics, Colorado Public Radio or The Colorado Sun. But I do meet them, too often.

What to do? The Media Project offers a number of ideas, but its “fundamental recommendation,” as acknowledged in an op-ed by two members of its advisory committee, former Rocky Mountain News editor John Temple and former Denver Post editor Greg Moore, is “the use of tax dollars . . .  to help sustain and develop local public-service journalism.”

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

They’d allow voters to create “information districts” that would function like other special districts that fund the arts and basic services like waste water management and fire protection. The districts would levy taxes and distribute them “to independent entities via formula allocation and/or competitive grants.”

They urge the state itself to appropriate money to subsidize “local media organizations of all types,” and tout the potential for universities and libraries to take a more active role to plug gaps in news coverage. And they float the idea of “new taxes levied on digital advertising” to fund news gathering.

The project’s authors are at pains to stipulate that government officials should have no direct or indirect influence over how funds are distributed, but how realistic is that? 

It’s inconceivable that officials aggrieved by news reports won’t attempt to retaliate in some fashion or to influence future funding decisions. And for that matter, do we really want public money to be entirely immune to political oversight, as appears to be the report’s goal?

And then there is the potentially insidious effect on journalists themselves once their profession is comprehensively subsidized through taxes.

As someone who spent much of his career on editorial pages,  I witnessed dozens of instances when civic groups approached the newspaper to seek support for a new tax subsidy for this cause or that venture. How will journalists who themselves take tax dollars treat any such entreaty with credible skepticism? 

It’s far healthier for journalists to stand on their own, fully supported through voluntary relationships — whether through advertising, subscriptions, individual donations or philanthropy — rather than rely on money taken from people who in many cases would never have offered it on their own.

A local media dependent on taxes will continue to do good journalism, no doubt, but at crunch time it will be a tamer, more accommodating institution. Count on it. 

It’s true that newspapers have long benefited from laws requiring state and local governments to publish legal notices in them. Did newspapers rein in critical coverage as a result? Not really, for two reasons. The revenue was useful but rarely decisive in days of comfortable profits, but also because both sides understood there was no widely available alternative for those notices. That rationale has all but vanished with the internet, and like night following day politicians with grievances against the press — such as former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Maine Gov. Paul LePage —have pushed proposals to curtail the legal notices requirement.

Meanwhile, some smaller newspapers have become increasingly reliant on public notice ad revenue — not a promising development for legislative coverage.

It seems to me the Colorado Media Project has gotten ahead of itself. It claims that local news is a vital “public good,” a term meaning the product or service can’t be provided absent government assistance.

But isn’t this conclusion premature? Are we to dismiss 200 years of journalism history because the past 15 or so have been so difficult? Is it not possible that successful business models for news-gathering will evolve and succeed without the last resort of a government crutch?

The media project’s report itself notes the huge, largely untapped potential of philanthropy as a funding source. It also deplores the fact that Colorado is one of only 15 states “that does not provide state funding to support local independent public media outlets,” but also notes — with no sense of irony — that Colorado Public Radio “is the only Colorado newsroom with significant growth plans.” 

True, and yet where does CPR get its revenue? According to its website, almost wholly from voluntary contributions. Only 5% flows from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting with its federal funding.  

The report also rightly extolls The Colorado Sun as a “promising model for statewide news coverage,” attracting 6,000 subscribers and 40,000 daily newsletter recipients in its first year.

That’s encouraging, if nowhere near the reach of newspapers in their heyday. But who’s to say that a tax-subsidized news product would ever achieve a similar level of clout, either? 

Newspapers were once widely read in part because existing information and entertainment options were so narrow. Those days are long gone. Per-capita circulation began to decline long before the internet. 

The people I meet today who don’t pay for local news coverage aren’t living like isolated farmers of an earlier century. They exist in an environment seething with information.

They may not follow local news as closely as their parents but they’re generally aware of what’s going on. They’re still responsible citizens — unless you believe the fairy tale that the average voter of bygone eras was a fully rational agent who mastered the issues of the day.  

The Colorado Media Project believes “our democracy is threatened” by the collapse of local news coverage, suggesting the “harm could be catastrophic” if we don’t follow its advice.

This self-flattering forecast is convenient but overwrought. In a free society, we can’t predict what mechanisms citizens will devise to ensure accountability of their institutions. But that doesn’t mean they won’t succeed in that quest.

Vincent Carroll is a former editorial page editor for The Denver Post, the same position he previously held at the Rocky Mountain News.Reach him at vcfeedback@comcast.net 


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