Government Takes On Journalism’s Next Chapter (NY Times 14/6/10)
Looking for the federal government to come to the rescue of newspapers? Don’t hold your breath.
The Federal Trade Commission has set out on the somewhat quixotic journey of trying to identify ways to save journalism as we know it from possible extinction.
Through a series of public forums, the last of which will take place in Washington on Tuesday, the commission has been gathering and analyzing an array of suggestions to help make the business of gathering and reporting news profitable again. A broad range of ideas — loosening antitrust statutes to allow news organizations to start charging for online content all at once; imposing a tax on iPads and other electronic devices to subsidize the cost of reporting; creating a public fund akin to AmeriCorps to pay young journalists — have been suggested.
But the commission could easily sidestep making any recommendations to Congress or invoking its regulatory powers, and instead issue something along the lines of an analysis of its findings.
The commission is expected to produce a final study late this year.
Susan S. DeSanti, director of the commission’s office of policy planning and the person overseeing the “reinvention of journalism” study, as it is known, said that coming up with a set of suggestions now could be premature, given the state of flux in the news business.
“In this case, one of the issues is that we’re in the midst of a profound transition in the news. Nobody knows exactly where this is going to end up, and nobody really knows at what point we are in this transition,” Ms. DeSanti said.
It would not be unusual, Ms. DeSanti added, for the commission to wrap up its work without recommending any concrete action.
If the sentiment of the commission’s chairman is any guide, a tax on electronics to subsidize journalism or any further antitrust exemptions for news media outlets are nonstarters. The chairman, Jon Leibowitz, said in a Senate hearing last week that the commission had a “very strong allergy” toward antitrust law exemptions and that he personally thought a journalism tax would be “a terrible idea.”
Both concepts were included in a draft of possible policy changes that the F.T.C. issued last month. Those ideas, like most of the other proposals in the draft, were met with a howl of criticism, even though the commission did not endorse any of them.
Much of the criticism came from the political right, which is not receptive to the notion of the government’s propping up news media organizations with higher taxes.
The editorial page of The Washington Times pilloried the suggestions laid out in the report, writing in an editorial, “When it comes to the media, consumers lose most when government suppresses innovation in the name of ‘saving’ old business models.” The paper derided one proposal that would allow news organizations to charge news aggregator Web sites for using their content as a “Drudge tax.”
Other criticism centered on what to many journalists is a glaring impropriety: allowing the government to meddle in the workings of a free press.
Steven Brill, who ran a news media watchdog publication and is now developing a system for newspapers to charge readers for access online, said journalists should find it uncomfortable that the government is considering ways to subsidize their work.
Mr. Brill, like others who have been following the commission’s work, doubts there will be any significant policy changes recommended, in large part because there is no public appetite for government intervention to save the news media.
“You’re going to create a fund so a bunch of kids from Ivy League colleges can get jobs going to zoning board meetings with pens and pads?” he said. “It’s like you’re living on another planet if you think this is going to happen.”
Other critics have taken a free-market approach: let the market, not the government, determine what outlets survive.
Jeff Jarvis, an associate professor at the Graduate School of Journalism for the City University of New York, who testified before the commission, wrote in an opinion piece in The New York Post that government intervention was inappropriate and unnecessary to preserve journalism’s future.
“I believe that future is entrepreneurial, not institutional,” Mr. Jarvis wrote. “But those entrepreneurs don’t need government help. They need to be left alone with the assurance they won’t be interfered with by the F.T.C.”