Debate the News: Summarizing the Comments Submitted to the FTC

In the lead-up to this month’s Federal Trade Commission workshop on the future of journalism, the agency invited the public to submit comments for consideration. More than 2,000 people responded at Free Press and SaveTheNews.org, and a number of other organizations and individuals filed comments as well.

After sifting through the 300-some pages of comments on the FTC’s Web site, it was clear that everyone agreed on two points: Nobody’s happy with the state of journalism today, yet everybody thinks that reputable journalism is worth saving.

So how to fix the former so that the latter flourishes? The advice runs the gamut, and I’ve culled some of the most interesting comments for your perusal.

One of the most interesting discussions was the one we have the most here at SaveTheNews.org: Can government subsidies and programs help journalism – and how – or will they, as some warn, interfere with journalism’s watchdog role?

The government’s role in journalism

While some comments discuss current laws, others explore new funding sources – mostly government sources – to help support or create media jobs. Commenter Aldon Hynes suggests a “Teach for America” type of program where new journalists are paid to learn their craft.

Commenter Eleanor Fox would like to see more funding for NPR and PBS, operations she sees as delivering critical quality journalism. Mary Francis would like more public access to the airwaves, which she believes will increase quality local news coverage and present a wider variety of perspectives.

Several commenters support subsidies in the form of grants. Mark McCarthy of Georgetown University suggests that government should support – both financially and structurally – public and nonprofit local newsgathering the way it supports libraries and scientific research. He writes: “The journalism crisis is not a period of transition, but a matter of finding a long-term funding mechanism to replace the advertising basis for journalism.”

Several people say that government should support both new and traditional media, niche and mainsteam publications. The National Association of Black Journalists suggests that the government ought to encourage stronger equal employment policies, the training and retention of minority journalists, and greater involvement of minorities in media policy setting.

Robert McChesney of the University of Illinois and journalist John Nichols (co-founders of Free Press) argue for keeping commercial media out of the new funding equation and say that government should instead subsidize public and not-for-profit media. They write: “The core challenge is the reliance on a commercial system that … is operated by interests that no longer regard the production of journalism as a profitable undertaking.”

The key question relating to all of these ideas is whether journalism can remain a vibrant “Fourth Estate,” a government watchdog, if it receives funding from those it is supposed to be watching. “Newspapers do not believe that direct government financial assistance is appropriate for an industry whose core mission is news gathering, analysis and dissemination – often times about the government,” wrote Sophia Cope of the Newspaper Association of America.

One alternative to government funding suggested by Jim Barnett is the nonprofit model – with financial support provided by readers and donors. Barnett sees nonprofits as a growing force for reputable journalism: “The profit motive is forcing newspapers to dig their own graves. The assets of most newspapers have become so devalued that owners opt to continue cutting staff and circulation to harvest whatever profit they can.”

Two of the commenters propose a more transparent government as a way to provide better journalism. J. H. Snider of iSolon.org suggests new Web tools to help automate data, to make for easier watchdog reporting. Patrick Kabat of the Information Society Project and Knight Law and Media Program at Yale Law School advocates strengthening the Freedom of Information Act: “We are concerned by the legal and information gathering costs associated with access to government information. These costs distort media markets, exacerbating market tendencies to undersupply investigative reporting and barring new media actors from entry.”

Along with debating government’s role in media, commentators weighed in on other issues, from how media mergers affect the media landscape to how to protect content.

Media consolidation

In general, media companies – including a group of TV stations – argue that consolidation has cut costs without cutting coverage, including local emergency reporting.

However, David Aiello of Agarom Partners says that media consolidation has been harmful for public service news, especially at the local level. He writes, “Knowledge and information must be allowed and regulated in order to flow freely to the smallest points.” Similarly, Brett Barndt writes that the drive for profit by media companies means more attention is paid to ratings and to ratings-driven stories that encourage divisiveness. This structure doesn’t allow or encourage reporting for the public good. “Concentration and control of news and information by media owners mean most citizens' voices and concerns are not heard anywhere in media to educate voters and hold businessmen and elected officials accountable for their choices and actions.”

Frank Hartzell, a former newspaper reporter and owner, seems to agree, suggesting that media mergers should not be allowed because they encourage “bottom line management and a wholesale assault on professionalism by global conglomerates.” Hartzell also advocates for the creation of a standards organization – similar to the bar for lawyers – that would ensure the use of best practices in journalism as it changes with new technologies.

Business models

Nearly every commenter on the current advertising-driven revenue model agrees that the practice isn’t working sufficiently, at least for print media. Many look to readers as the main source of future funding of the news. Both the Newspaper Association and the Magazine Publishers of America say the huge drop in ads over the last couple of years have made operations harder to sustain.

A number of the comments argue that we need to change readers’ expectation of free online content. Several propose online paywalls for content – with some limited free content. These comments point to the music industry as a model for the news. Mark Nadel in the Berkeley Technology Law Journal article suggests that media outlets use new technologies to customize media for groups or individual readers, with profit potential by delivering extras.

But the idea of paywalls and targeted ads may be in conflict. Mark McCarthy suggests that charging people for news would most likely decrease readership, and decrease advertising revenue along with it.

Wherever the money comes from, Lowell Peterson, representing the Writers Guild of America, East, says that there needs to be sufficient funding to produce the often-expensive investigative reporting that is too often replaced by cheaper infotainment and opinion. “Digital technology has the potential to expand participation in the public dialogue to unprecedented levels,” he writes. “At the same time its economic structure is insufficient to support the in-depth investigation and reporting the public needs in order to participate in a meaningful way.”

Copyright, fair use and antitrust

Several of the commenters – like Nina Link of the Magazine Publishers of America – called for changing or clarifying copyright laws to “protect” content for an unspecified amount of time, to limit “fair use” or to work together to create one everything-goes-up-at-once paywall without encountering antitrust challenges.

Ariel Fox of the USC Annenberg Center on Communication and Policy suggests that media companies aren’t doing enough to protect their content through existing law. Fox proposes that companies use services like Attributor to go after and take down copied content both online and in print – instead of focusing on changing the law.

As for paywalls and antitrust issues, some commenters representing broadcast and print interests argue that the music, sports and other industries have taken similar measures already, and that the news industry should follow suit. And yet, attorney Daniel Martin Bellemare asserts that antitrust laws already allow cooperative pricing, since the shared paywall essentially becomes a new product.

Kevin Smith, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, opposes any regulations that would affect online or print practices. Online journalism, he argues, like radio and TV news before it, requires time to mature, not new restrictions. He writes: “Regulation would be a potential threat to the free flow of information as guaranteed by the First Amendment.” The National Association of Broadcasters suggests that regardless of what rules are put in place, all media – including new and traditional platforms – should be subject to the same regulations.

Read the full comments.

This is a guest post written by Amy F. Reiter, who is a freelance writer in Silver Spring, Maryland. She is a former education and arts reporter at The (Champaign-Urbana) News-Gazette and visiting journalism instructor at the University of Illinois.

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good