Targeted-ad tax could revitalize U.S. journalism, Free Press says

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Free Press, an organization that advocates for media reform, has proposed a tax on targeted digital advertising revenues that would create a multibillion-dollar Public Interest Media Endowment Fund.

The proposal aims to reinvent public interest media for the digital age by taxing revenues that big technology companies earn from targeted advertising. The technique  displays ads to digital audiences based on data gathered about the users, including demographics, purchasing history, opinions and online behavior.

Such targeting has been abused to “promote malicious and false stories, incite racists and manipulate voters,” wrote proposal co-authors Craig Aaron, Free Press president, and Timothy Karr, director of strategy and communications.

Free Press seeks to counter deception and misinformation published online by providing funds to local media organizations that serve the public interest.

A tax on targeted-ad revenues earned by outlets such as Google, Amazon and Facebook could raise $2 billion annually, Free Press estimated in the proposal released Monday.

Those proceeds would go into an endowment to “support production and distribution of content by diverse speakers — with an emphasis on local journalism, investigative reporting, media literacy, noncommercial social networks, civic-technology projects, and news and information for underserved communities,” the report said.

“We must also adapt public-interest media to the shifting dynamics of the U.S. population to reflect its diversity,” the paper said. “This change means building a public-media system whose practitioners look more like the people they report on. A lack of diversity continues to plague newsrooms in both for-profit and noncommercial news outlets.”

The endowment would provide grant money directly to news organizations, or distribute funds through an existing body such as CPB, “but with clear guidelines established and greater public input on how the money should be spent,” the report proposed.

Another option would be to distribute funds through block grants, similar to the mechanism set up for New Jersey’s Civic Information Consortium. Free Press advocated to establish the consortium to help counter the decline of local news coverage in New Jersey. The campaign secured $5 million in state funding last year. The consortium will award grants to news projects created in partnerships with one of five educational institutions in New Jersey.  

Free Press President Craig Aaron told Current Thursday that Gov. Phil Murphy signed the bill creating the consortium, but funding has yet to flow. The consortium is currently assembling its board, Aaron said.

“It’s time to recognize that free-market economics alone have failed to sustain a news ecosystem that serves all of the people,” the report said. “While this kind of endowment would not solve all of the problems facing U.S. journalism, it would make a sizable dent and open the door to other creative solutions.”

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