Don't Buy Newspapers. Donate Them to Charity

Media Guy's Plan to Save the Dailies

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So Jack Welch wants to buy The Boston Globe (maybe). David Geffen wants to buy The L.A. Times (maybe). Philly uber-flack Brian Tierney already rounded up enough fellow investors earlier this year to buy the Inquirer and the Daily News.
Do you really want to trust 'Neutron Jack' Welch with stewardship of your local daily?
Do you really want to trust 'Neutron Jack' Welch with stewardship of your local daily? Credit: AP

And, as Edward Wasserman just noted in his media column in The Miami Herald, "Other hometown rich guys are reportedly eyeing at least three Tribune papers: the Baltimore Sun, Hartford Courant and Long Island's Newsday."

Wasserman added how silly it is, how delusional it is, that newspaper people across the country keep looking hopefully to rich-guy white knights to save the day. We're all forgetting, he points out, that lots of the mega-wealthy "amassed great riches by cutting corners, cutting costs and, for all I know, cutting throats." (Remember Welch's "Neutron Jack" nickname, given the thousands he laid off when running GE?)

Maybe because of the mogul hagiography that still passes for business journalism these days (especially in business magazines), we still somehow think that brand-name CEOs can and will fix everything. It's like we're back in the '80s and Donald Trump is saying to New York City, "Step aside, I'll fix Wollman Rink!"

Trump, you may remember, took a great leap toward being a national brand when he offered to take on the corrupt, overbudget, perpetually mired reconstruction job on the iconic Central Park skating rink -- and did it in record time, and under budget. Trump, the brand, suddenly seemed capable of miracles.

It's a measure of our collective desperation about newspaper journalism that many of us are so convinced that some of the greatest inky brands need injections of not just cash but branded cash.

I think what we need is something almost completely opposite. Something, in fact, approaching quasi-public funding that is specifically disconnected from investors (institutional or individual) and their egos and whims. What newspaper journalism in this country needs is to be taken away, by design (not by largesse or by the relative enlightenment of individual owners who believe in journalistic independence), from all sorts of specific market pressures.

So, an immodest proposal: We must overhaul the tax laws in this country so that the mega-rich don't have to buy and run newspapers to support journalism (especially since the real motive in such cases is usually not so much about supporting journalism but influencing it, distorting it, bigfooting it). We need to look to a model that echoes the Scott Trust -- the charitable foundation that props up one of the world's greatest newspapers, Britain's The Guardian, and keeps it, by charter, editorially independent.

Remember, it was easy -- from a tax perspective -- for Ron Lauder to shell out $135 million this past June for a Gustav Klimt painting for his pet tax write-off, the Neue Galerie, his tiny New York museum of German and Austrian art and design. We need to make it that easy for Richie Riches and Richie Rebeccas to systematically support newspapers not by buying and running them themselves, but by supporting Scott Trust-like organizations that fund and run newspapers independently.

There are random examples of this sort of thing here and there: Mark Cuban's support of corporate-fraud reportage site; the Poynter Institute, which supports, among other things, Jim Romenesko's media blog; Jay Rosen's "open-source" indie journalism site, which has gotten funding from the MacArthur Foundation; and any number of rich guys propping up conservative and liberal opinion journals. But the examples are always random, piecemeal, mere drops in the bucket.

If Geffen or Welch really wanted to go down in history, they'd engineer a series of Scott Trust-like charitable foundations that would exist solely to support and take over the operations of troubled newspapers across the country. And before it's too late, lawmakers must make it as financially advantageous -- and emotionally rewarding -- for billionaires to contribute money to such trust-funded newspapers as it is for them to shower cash on other nonprofits.

We need systematic charitable scale to ensure the survival of newspaper journalism in this country. Some might think it's pathetic that we've gotten to this point. But is a Klimt painting pathetic because it needed some rich guy to fund its preservation and to ensure its survival and continued exposure, in perpetuity, to the public?

There, I've said it: Many newspapers have, figuratively speaking, become total charity cases -- so let's just face reality and figure out the best way to make them literally so.

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