The Federal Trade Commission has been nosing around how to save journalism and in its just-posted “staff discussion draft” on “potential policy recommendations to support the reinvention of journalism,” it makes its bias clear: The FTC defines journalism as what newspapers do and aligns itself with protecting the old power structure of media.
If the FTC truly wanted to reinvent journalism, the agency would instead align itself with journalism’s disruptors. But there’s none of that here. The clearest evidence: the word “blog” is used but once in 35 pages of text and then only parenthetically as an example of buying ads on topical sites (“e.g., a soccer blog…”); otherwise, it’s only a footnote. The only mention of investing in technology — the agent of disruption — comes on the 35th page (suggesting R&D for tools such as “improved electronic note-taking”). There’s not a hint of seeing a new ecosystem of news emerge – the ecosystem we study and support at CUNY — except as the entry of nonprofit entities that, by their existence, give up on the hope the market will sustain news.
If the FTC truly wanted to rethink journalism and its new opportunities and new value in our democracy, it would have written this document from the perspective of the people it is supposed to represent: the citizens, examining how we can benefit from news that is newly opened to the opportunity of collaboration and greater relevance. Instead, the document is written wholly from the perspective of the companies and institutions of the industry.
The document, like good government work, does a superb job of trying very hard to say very little. From its hearings and research, the staff outlines proposals I find frightening, but many of them as politically absurd as they are impossible — e.g., what I’ll dub the iPad tax to put a 5% surcharge on consumer electronics to raise $4 billion for public funding of news — and the document doesn’t endorse them.
Still, it’s the document’s perspective that I find essentially corrupt: one old power structure circling its wagons around another. Change? That’s something to be resisted or thwarted, not embraced and enabled. The FTC’s mission in this administration of change — its justification for holding these hearings and doing this work — is to foster competition. Well, the internet is creating new competition in news for the first time since 1950 and the introduction of TV. But the commission focuses solely on newspapers, apologizing that it ignores broadcast — but not even apologizing for ignoring the new ecosystem of news that blogs and technology represent.
“This document will use the perspective of newspapers to exemplify the issues facing journalism as a whole,” the FTC says. And later: “[N]ewspapers have not yet found a new, sustainable business model, and there is reason for concern that such a business model may not emerge. Therefore, it is not too soon to start considering policiies that might encourage innovations to help support journalism into the future.” That is, to support newspapers’ survival. There’s the problem.
Among the ideas the FTC presents:
* “Additional intellectual property rights to support claims against news aggregators.” The document even takes on the language of Rupert Murdoch and company describing aggregators as “parasitic.” It espouses their perspective, that search engines and aggregators “use” content when, from my perspective, such use promotes and adds value to that content (and we’ll soon see how Murdoch’s properties do without it). The FTC doesn’t broach the concept of the link economy and the value and distribution created by aggregators — not to mention (and they don’t) that created by recommendations from readers via Twitter and Facebook (neither word appears).
The FTC looks at extending copyright and corralling fair use and also outlines the dangers, ending up with no recommendation, thank goodness. It also looks at proposals to extend the “hot news” doctrine of a 1918 court case by the Associated Press but doesn’t begin to grapple with the definition of hot (Tom Glocer of Reuters says his news has its highest value in its first three miliseconds) and it does acknowledge that news organisations “routinely borrow from each other.” Rip ‘n’ read, it’s called.
What disturbs me most in this section is that the FTC frets about “difficult line-drawing being proprietary facts and those in the public domain.” Proprietary facts? Is it starting down a road of trying to enable someone to own a fact the way the patent office lets someone own a method or our DNA? Good God, that’s dangerous.
* Antitrust exemptions. The FTC looks at allowing news organisations to collude to set prices to consumers and with aggregators. Isn’t that the precise opposite of what an agency charged with protecting competition for the benefit of customers should be considering? Shouldn’t the FTC recoil in horror at such sanctioned antitrust to protect incumbents’ price advantages? Not here.
* Government subsidies. After saluting the history of government subsidies for the press — namely, postal discounts, legal notice publication, assorted tax breaks, and funds for public broadcasting — the agency looks at other ideas: a journalism AmeriCorps paying journalists; increased funding for public broadcasting; a national fund for local news suggested in Columbia’s report on journalism; a tax credit for employing journalists; citizen news vouchers (a la campaign checkoff); grants to universities for reporting. It also looks at increasing the present postal subsidy (which would only further bankrupt the dying postal service in the service of dying publications); using Voice of America and Radio Free Europe content (aka propaganda) in the U.S.; and enabling the SBA to help nonprofits.
* Taxes. At least the FTC acknowledges that somebody’d have to pay for all this. In one section, the FTC looks at licensing the news: having ISPs levy a fee on us that the government then dolls out to its selected news purveyors — call that the internet tax. It’snothing but a tax and it would support incumbents surely. In another section, it examines the aforementioned iPad tax; a tax on the broadcast spectrum; a spectrum auction tax; a tax on ISPs and cell phones; and a tax on advertising (brilliant: taking a cut of the last support of news in America).
* New tax status. The document spends much space looking at ways to make journalism a tax-exempt activity and suggests the IRS should change its regulations to enable that. It also looks at changing tax law to enable hybrid corporations (“benefit” and “flexible purpose” corporations that can judge success on serving a mission and not just maximizing profits) as well as L3Cs.
* Finally, the document looks at the one thing that should be in its purview as a government agency: getting government to make its information open and accessible to view and analyse. Well, amen to that.
I’m quoted in the document from my testimony saying that I am “optimistic to a fault about the future of news and journalism. The barrier to entry into media has never been lower…. But what we do need is a level playing field.” And in a footnote: “If you’re talking about surviving, you’re talking about the perspective of the old, legacy players who had a decade and a half to get their act together, and they didn’t The future of journalism is not institutional, we now know, it is entrepreneurial.”
But this document does nothing to enable that entrepreneurial future. If you want to give somebody tax breaks — and I wouldn’t — give them to those who invest in innovation — whether as disruptors from the outside or as visionaries from the inside. I certainly would not change laws to favour incumbents over those innovators. I see no reason to provide tax subsidies to support an activity that is now a hundredfold more efficient than it used to be. Rather than restricting the flow of information by making it proprietary, I’d argue that it is in the interest of democracy to make it yet freer.
The real problem I see here, again, is the alignment of the legacy institutions of media and government. Here, the internet is not the salvation of news, journalism, and democracy. It’s the other side.
The real advice I gave the FTC is not quoted in the document. It’s this: Get off our lawn.
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