Congressman Ben Cardin (D - Maryland) has introduced the Newspaper Revitalization Act to allow newspapers to become 501(c)3 non-profit corporations. He explains his motivations in this op-ed in the Washington Post.
This not-for-profit model is something I have thought a lot about before, and though I really don't know if it will work, I think it is worth a try. This bill confuses me a little bit, however. For starters, I am not sure why an existing newspaper cannot become a 501(c)3 corporation already, one of the categories is education and it seems pretty easy to argue that newspapers are educational. The other thing that confuses me is that political endorsements would be prohibited, but "they would be able to editorialize and take positions on issues affecting their communities." This seems like a hair-splitting argument. For instance, if the Sam Adams lies came out before the election, could The Oregonian editorialize that he should not get elected? Could it say it would be better to vote for the opponent?
I have explained the economics of the newspapers role in our democracy before - it is a public good, and a vital one, and thus the public has an interest in supporting it. Others have pointed out that it might be hard for newspapers to be a watchdog if they are beholden to the pubic purse controlled by politicians. This might be true, when Ken Tomlinson became the head of the Corp for Public Broadcasting, NPR was threatened. Though in the end NPR does not seem to have suffered too badly. This economics argument is distinct from the economics of the newspaper business by the way - that is another story.
So is non-profit status the answer? This legislation is designed to community newspapers not big city dailies, and yet it is the big city dailies that I am worried about. Could an OPB-like model of memberships, foundation and corporate support work for such large newspapers? I don't know, what are your thoughts?