The idea of the IRS ruling raises obvious First Amendment issues. Nonprofit news organizations are prohibited by the IRS from endorsing candidates and face restrictions on pushing for legislation. That the agency effectively decides whether a press outlet can exist or not is a problem. The Mother Jones incident, coming as it did at the start of the Reagan administration and accompanied by scrutiny of other left-wing publications, raised questions about political interference at the time. And there’s something unseemly about the tax man telling a news outlet to remove the word “journalism” from its mission statement.

What’s needed to ensure a stable future for nonprofit news is for Congress and the President to approve a new part of the 501(c) statute that specifically exempts non-commercial journalistic organizations. It already has for other important American institutions, like labor unions and pension funds. It’s also carved out specific exemptions for activities that aren’t enshrined in the Constitution: 501(c)(7) for social and recreational clubs and 501(c)(13) for cemetery companies. Steven Waldman, in his “Information Needs of Communities” report for the Federal Communications Commission this summer, raises a new category as one solution for the questions surrounding nonprofit news.

If congressional action isn’t forthcoming, political pressure on the Treasury Department could facilitate a favorable ruling, Owens says. Litigation is also an option, though it’s one that would require backers with deep pockets. A suit could cost seven figures and the nonprofit news outlets obviously can’t afford that.

Until then, the future of nonprofit news will depend in no small part on deliberations in the Washington office of the IRS.

Further Reading:

The Chronicle of Philanthropy: Nonprofit News Outlets Face Long Waits for IRS Approval.

The Nonprofit Times. Backlog, Precedent Stall Tax-Exempt Status of News Groups.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.