Monday, March 01, 2010

Outside the box: a surtax on utilities to restore journalism ... by gimleteye

Our blog has taken plenty of pot shots at The Miami Herald over the years, but we've also recognized that high quality investigative reporting can accomplish what unpaid bloggers rarely do: break important stories that require the investment of time and research and are important, one way or another, to the public interest. Journalism is not an air plant: it needs a profit model. There has been an endless amount of ink spilled on this issue. I think the answer is simple: treat the consumer base and news as an extension of regulated utilities. Anyone who gets an electric utility or water bill, gets a surcharge to support paid journalism.

That the Great Recession/Depression has put newspapers under unprecedented pressure is not news. It takes blogs like ours to point out that the pressure of profits from advertisers constrained most if not all daily newspapers from tracking and reporting out the housing market bubble as it was rising; there was no criticism of these sacred cows and, as a result, no public pressure where it might have built in defense of reasonable measures to protect the nation's financial, insurance and banking systems. (The print journalism sources who did the best job, like Harpers Magazine, or -- in Florida-- The St. Pete Times, are not hooked up to the Wall Street quarterly profit squeeze.)

A reasonable people would conclude that being asleep at the switch-- as the mainstream press was, leading up to our economic crisis-- is a matter of national defense, not just a matter of talk and hand-wringing at Congressional committees.

Our own, only daily newspaper-- The Miami Herald-- so carefully balanced income and expenses that it missed reporting the political origins of the housing boom and bust, right in South Florida, completely. I've written this before: our democracy cannot survive the withering of independent journalism. It is a death by degrees. In 2009, Congressional hearings on "The Future of Journalism" took a close look at these issues. They were explored in detail. There, David Simon, former journalist with The Baltimore Sun and writer of the acclaimed series, The Wire, testified, " In short, my industry butchered itself and we did so at the behest of Wall Street and the same unfettered, free-market logic that has proved so disastrous for so many American industries. And the original sin of American newspapering lies, indeed, in going to Wall Street in the first place. When locally-based, family-owned newspapers like the Sun were consolidated into publicly-owned newspaper chains, an essential dynamic, an essential trust between journalism and the communities served by that journalism was betrayed."

But if journalism doesn't go to Wall Street or to Rupert Murdoch and the Fox News Circles of Hell, where does it go? I think it has to go on our electric or water utility bills. We need independent journalism the same way we need water and light. Of course, as we well know and report on our blog, there is a whole other set of difficulties with regulating the purveyors of electricity and water. Florida's dismal politics have allowed utilities to act in ways that are often contrary to the public interest in order to prioritize the 20 year investment schedules of the Engineering Cartel and Growth Machine. The mechanics of allocating income from a surtax on utilities, in order to insulate and firewall journalism and its beneficiaries from exactly the rat's nest of problems that afflict the relationship of consumers to utilities today, needs to be carefully sorted out.

There are all sorts of problems with this out-of-the-box idea to save journalism, but none are greater or more looming than the demise of American democracy.


Anonymous said...

hmm... 7:09 AM

maybe you should go back to bed

and sleep on your really bad idea

Geniusofdespair said...

Love the idea but do we trust FPL enough to deliver the bucks?

Anonymous said...

There are literally hundreds if not thousands of news outlets on the internet. Your creative idea is totally unnecessary. The 4th estate needs to stay independent of government control, which will inevitably follow the tax revenue.

Anonymous said...


Gimleteye said...

I've tilted at the Engineering Cartel and Growth Machine that control utilities as long as anyone; so I know how really bad this idea could be. Turning newspapers into non-profits could be a positive, interim step: it doesn't address the kinds of revenue problems that even the St. Pete Times is encountering because of an advertising base that springs, mainly, from the proliferation of suburban sprawl.

It is still all about TV when it comes to news. How big is the audience for Frontline compared to CNN. Or CNN, to Fox? The centripetal force of the Fox News Circles of Hell draws an increasing number of viewers towards its black hole. RE the web relative to TV: a small percentage of the public gets its news and views from the internet. Amazing as that is, to me.

Anonymous said...

wow...i usually agree wholeheartedly with you, but i think you missed the mark on this completely...