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Thanks, but no thanks

It is no secret that newspapers in America are in trouble and, fighting a losing war against internet companies, many papers, especially dailies, have merged, folded, sold out or gone bust.

Many are concerned. That includes local congressman Rep. Tom Tiffany (R-Seventh) who this past month threw his support behind the Local Journalism Sustainability Act. This legislation would grant up to a $250 income tax credit to people who pay for a newspaper subscription, grant newspaper publishers a payroll tax credit for hiring journalists and give small businesses a tax credit for buying ads in local papers.

Here’s how the congressman pitches for the bill: Our local news outlets, whether its small-town newspapers or local TV stations, help communities in our district stay informed on important news and current events in their neck of the woods...This bill would provide critical tax relief to both local media providers and the kind of mom-and-pop small businesses that hold our community together.

We appreciate Tiffany’s support and understanding of the role of newspapers (including the one you are holding) in northcentral Wisconsin communities.

And yet we need to say thanks, but no thanks.

The last thing the newspaper industry needs is to be forever indebted to the federal government for its survival. This would end local, independent journalism in America. Truth, basically, would wither and die.

And, further, the last thing the nation needs is for the federal government, which as of August posted a 2020 deficit of $2.8 trillion, to stimulate this or that sector of the economy through more tax cuts. The country should pay its bills.

Our suggestion to help this country’s ailing newspaper industry is something we’d think Tiffany, a self-proclaimed conservative, would embrace. It is the free market.

Currently, internet powerhouses, such as Google, Instagram and Facebook, enjoy a market advantage where they share content developed by news organizations but don’t necessarily pay for it.

That’s basically stealing, but the government looks the other way.

Not all governments, though. In Australia, that country’s Competition and Consumer Commission has proposed a bill for its Parliament that would require large internet companies pay media publishers for the content that appears on their sites.

There is no reason why the United States couldn’t do the same thing. Internet companies should not be able to pilfer content from their competitors. The federal government should insist on basic market principles. You can’t base an entire sector of the American economy on a free lunch.

Further, the federal government could support free market principles and treat all companies, whether internet platforms or media companies, the same when it comes to libel. Currently, a social media user can post the most vile, awful and untrue things online, the social media site can sell advertising to people who consume such content and the site cannot be sued. Yet a newspaper can be sued for the exact same words appearing in a letter to the editor.

A free market demands that companies be treated the same. Thus Congress should repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. It reads: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content.” These are the 26 words that, infamously, created the internet. These words say that a newspaper publishes things, but an internet company doesn’t. Yet, this is baloney. The largest internet firm and the smallest weekly newspaper are in the same business. They say things and sell ads. The law should treat them equally.

Maybe newspapers (that, in reality, are both online and in print) have a doubtful future. Maybe, in the end, the job of reporting the news will be funded by donations or even the government. But that shouldn’t happen, however, without first trying a practical, time-tested technique. That is the free market.