Consider a tax credit for employed journalists

Typically journalists are reporting on tax credits for other industries. Should news organizations make a case for one of their own?

Yes, this might sound like it comes at a strange time, as trust in the media is waning. But I think that’s a good reason why: we need to incentivize and instill trust.

In the U.S. tax code (and others), there are straightforward deductions for anyone’s business expenses, including reporters, but I’m imagining something more. This could be a payroll tax credit, rather than any direct distribution, so this is an indirect subsidy of a public good, rather than a direct government intervention. A payroll tax credit would essentially subsidize a news organization’s investment in information gatherers, making them cheaper than other roles in the organization.

Consider that 28 percent of budgeted 2018 payroll expenses for our small news organization that goes toward our newsroom. We’re putting 28% of our payroll toward a public good, professionally verifying freely available information. On the other hand, that means we’re a small business in which nearly a third of our staff cannot be ethically aligned too closely to our actual revenue-generating operations. Talk to a small business owner in any other industry: they’ll tell you just how insane that sounds. It’s similar (or more stark) elsewhere, including the big digital brands of today, all of whom missed financial projections in 2017 —¬†¬†including Buzzfeed, which just had a fascinating town hall in its independent newsroom live-tweeted its all-hands meeting raising the ire of fans enough to likely cause some brand damage.

My fear is despite some thrilling tests, since we are still very much in the first proper generation of commercially-funded web-based newsrooms. That experiment is still on-going — and I still worry for the outcome.

I, too, have enthusiasm for nonprofit journalism, expecting it focuses on the deepest and most intractable kinds of work. But if we listen to our friends in existing nonprofit causes, we know there’s an overwhelming perspective that there are already too many damn nonprofits.

The future I want is that there are cornerstone nonprofit journalism that focus on investigations in both global, national and local settings and that many niches and perspectives are covered by a healthy and robust marketplace of commercially (and community) supported for-profit news organizations that contribute journalism to their audiences. Often, there would be collaboration between newsrooms, particularly between nonprofit and for-profit, or those with various audiences.

In all forms, taxes are incentives. A tax credit could bolster a commitment to doing public interest journalism — or even simply consistently productive work.

Digital media brands with journalism DNA, in my experience, are often led by people who want to pursue something that delivers genuine public good — eschewing pay-per-click payment schemes. But commercial news organizations with independent newsrooms are giving considerable public good, which we want to maintain.

It could be a vehicle for encouraging public interest journalism. Perhaps a percentage of someone’s published work might have to meet some agreed upon industry standards.