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  • Last modified 29 days ago (April 24, 2019)

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The tricky business of reporting the truth

It’s true confessions time. We’ve been struggling all week to figure out what to do with a news tip we received and later were able to verify.

We often get tips and really appreciate them. Unfortunately, they sometimes are about things that, to the people involved, aren’t good news.

Some folks think we love it when that happens. Truth is, we’re just as worried about reporting bad news as our readers are about reading it.

One of the first things journalists learn is that it’s not their place to decide whether news is good or bad. We provide information. It’s up to readers to decide what it means and what, if anything, to do about it.

We always hope there’s more good than bad, and we often have to remind ourselves that even bad news can become good if reporting it prompts solutions to problems that otherwise might fester.

What’s particularly hard

Hard as that sounds, it’s actually the easy part. What’s tricky is when we have to report something the public might think we’re reporting merely because it somehow could benefit us.

That’s the situation we found ourselves in this week we learned that the Internal Revenue Service had filed a $113,765.87 lien against our competitor, Kansas Publishing Ventures, publisher of (among other things) the Hillsboro Free Press.

The lien was for unpaid withholding and unemployment taxes, interest, and penalties dating to December 2015.

If it were any other business, it would be big news — something the public would want to know. As every business owner knows, Rule No. 1 is that you don’t mess with the IRS. The IRS can seize darned near anything you have, especially if what you haven’t paid is money that really isn’t yours — money withheld from employees’ paychecks to pay their taxes.

We’ve been trying to find out just how serious a problem this is. It could be bad. It could be just a bookkeeping snafu. It could even be both.

Our problem is, we don’t want to be seen as piling on a company that competes against us for advertising revenue.

We know that what started out as just the Free Press and a shopper has expanded rapidly in recent years, taking on additional partners and refocusing its business on much bigger markets in Harvey and McPherson Counties.

We’re not sure how that’s been accomplished. Unlike paid publications, free ones aren’t required to report exactly who owns them and exactly how much debt they have.

To say that we don’t wish ill on the Free Press would be a lie. We like the individuals involved. But, honestly, we don’t like it that they siphon off scarce advertising revenue and use it to fund out-of-county ventures. And we don’t like some of the basic concepts behind free newspapers.

Not having readers as their biggest customers, free papers tend to report only some of the news, ignoring things big advertisers prefer they skip. In the process they lull readers into a false sense of security that they’ve heard all the news when, in fact, they’ve heard only whatever portion advertisers want them to know.

To most of you, this probably sounds like sour grapes. Maybe it is. What business really loves its competition? Still, we want to give them the benefit of the doubt and hold out the possibility that this isn’t a sign of worse news yet to come.

The real villain: government

Assuming there was never any intent not to pay taxes, the hoops small businesses have to jump through to satisfy federal regulations are so numerous we’re surprised more businesses don’t get caught up in situations like this.

The deck is stacked against the little guy. We, for example, have to pay several thousands each year — and monthly fees on top of that — to subscribe to software services that allow us to complete the myriad different forms necessary to properly collect withholding tax.

The IRS insists on getting its money electronically no later than 9 p.m. each payday. Every three months, you have to file another report, and every 12 months, yet another report on top of that — all in addition to issuing W-2s and a separate form reporting your W-2s, which in some cases can be submitted only through an online service that costs even more money to participate in.

That’s OK for the Walmarts of the world. One system can handle all their payroll needs. But it’s essentially the same system a small business has to have, and the little guy doesn’t get the benefit of the economics of scale that big competitors do.

All this is then repeated for the state. If you’re a paid newspaper, you also have to buy extremely costly services that sort each newspaper into the exact order in which every letter carrier in the nation delivers his or her route. The software’s the same whether you have three papers or three thousand.

Then there’s the ridiculous state law that requires us to research and charge different sales tax on each different subscription, depending on the tax rate in that locale. Amazon can buy one system to do this for all its businesses. We have to buy the same sort of system for just a tiny bit of commerce.

Unlike the Free Press, we’ve never particularly wanted to grow. We publish our papers for the county we call home. We don’t care that much about other counties. But we do care when we see small businesses like ours having to struggle to meet every regulation and sometimes stubbing their toes in the process, assuming there was no malicious intent not to pay.

The solution

The time has come for government to consider giving a break to the little guy by making it easier to comply with rules that gigantic corporations can assign to buildings full of people devoted to only that task.

We don’t give first graders the same homework and tests as we do seniors in college. But that’s exactly what we’re doing with government regulation, especially involving taxation.

One of the reasons small communities like ours are seeing fewer and fewer locally owned and operated businesses — businesses that try to contribute to the community instead of just feeding off of it — is because tax rules have become so cumbersome that little slip-ups here and there can drive local businesses into situations like our competitors may face.

Let’s be honest. We aren’t trying to come to the defense of the Free Press. Our selfish goal would be for it to simply go away. But we hate a system that has the potential to cause that to happen not because we’ve competed with them and won but because they were strangled by regulation.

Who knows? We could be the next victim. Or you. Or the place you work for.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified April 24, 2019

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