Public Policy and Journalism Innovation

(Originally published at SaveTheNews.org)

In mid June the journalism tweetosphere and blogs were abuzz with rumors of a government plot to freeze journalism in time by propping up a range of failing business models at the expense of new innovation in news. The document that set off this flurry of digital doomsday warnings was a “Discussion Draft” of possible policy changes released by the Federal Trade Commission team working on their future of journalism initiative and the announcement of a June 15th roundtable discussion where the draft was debated.

For the past year the FTC has been examining how laws related to copyright, antitrust, advertising, and tax status could be changed to ensure that our communities have access to the news and information they need. Along the way it has sought public input and has heard from thousands of people (Free Press members submitted over 2,000 comments last fall). Now it is preparing its report and seeking feedback on its draft.

After reading some of the responses to this draft, however, you would think the deal is done. In fact, while the document may illustrate some bias (which I will address below), in most cases it simply restates the pros and cons of the policy recommendations that people submitted. This is clearly an agency that is still trying to figure out which side of these issues it will come down on.

I’m afraid that a knee-jerk reaction to some (admittedly troubling passages) in this document may have led to people throwing the baby out with the bath water. The main critique of the document was best summed up by Jeff Jarvis, associate professor at CUNY and editor of Buzzmachine.com, who argued that the FTC wants to protect journalism’s past at the expense of journalism’s future.

“The FTC defines journalism as what newspapers do,” Jarvis writes, “and aligns itself with protecting the old power structure of media.” Jarvis acknowledges that the FTC does not endorse any of the policies it is considering in the Discussion Draft, but that the tone and perspective from which it is written is troubling to him. Jarvis notes, “it’s the document’s perspective that I find essentially corrupt.” This “tone and perspective” argument was later echoed by Steve Buttry.

To be fair, there are elements of this document which I believe would do harm to both emerging forms of journalism and legacy news organizations. When I saw proposals like an expansion of “hot news” and possible limitations on “fair-use,” I was concerned. Similarly, when I saw the discussion of relaxing antitrust standards for news organizations (an idea the Department of Justice has roundly dismissed), I took pause.

However, I was encouraged that the FTC was looking into changes in tax code that might allow for new kinds of hybrid newsrooms and could foster creative partnerships between for-profit and non-profit newsrooms. Indeed, of the 35-page document:

  • Eight pages focus specifically on innovative new non-profit and hybrid models: The FTC had a robust debate at their second hearing about how current tax codes, restrictions on nonprofits, and credentialing have limited journalism entrepreneurs ability to think outside of the box about how to structure newsrooms in new ways.
  • Five of the pages focus on promoting an expanded public media system in America. While Jarvis focuses particular scorn on the idea of a device levy (like that which funds the BBC and other international world class public media systems), there are a range of suggestions in the document for how American could expand its investment in noncommercial media.
  • Six pages examine how to promote government transparency and give journalists more access to government data. Alexander Howard covers this section well in his post here.

Undergirding the responses to the FTC Discussion Draft is a false argument that government should not be involved in our media. Government has always and will always influence how our media system is shaped. The question is not “if,” it is “how.” When many of the smartest minds working on the future of journalism promote the notion that the government should just “Get off our lawn,” they take themselves (and many others) out of the debate, leaving it up to the corporate lobbyists in Washington DC to decide what the future of journalism will be.

I don’t need to recount the vast array of ways – both positive and negative – that government has supported the development of America’s free press in print, over the air, and online. David Westphal and Geoff Cowan at USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism have done that exceedingly well here. Instead of looking backwards, I want to look ahead.

I agree with Jarvis that we need to foster and bolster “journalism’s disruptors,” and not prop-up old business models. And there are ways to accomplish at least part of that through smart, creative government policy. We have been arguing for the past year that any journalism policy must:

  • Protect the first amendment,
  • Produce quality news coverage,
  • Provide adversarial perspectives,
  • Promote public accountability and engagement, and
  • Prioritize innovation and experimentation.

To that end, we have advocated for key policies currently in motion like Net Neutrality, broadband deployment, the Local Community Radio Act, and more as well as an expanded public media system that fosters innovation and is more diverse, inclusive and platform neutral. Other ideas we have proposed include:

  • A journalism experimentation fund (like DARPA for the news or an expanded federal version of the Knight News Challenge),
  • A journalism jobs program that emphasized training in digital tools and strategies (similar to the work the Poynter Institute is doing),
  • Federally funded research and assessment surfacing and sharing lessons learned from experimentations around the country (an NSF for news)

These are all ways that government policy could help support the emerging news ecosystem (both market driven and non-profit). Jarvis’s concern that his remarks at the FTC hearing last fall were not adequately represented in this document may be fair. But given that he summarized his own argument as “stay out of our business,” is he really surprised?

While I am concerned with aspects of the Discussion Draft as well, I think we should all be stepping up to give the FTC our feedback and help shape the next version of this document, rather than simply casting stones and drafting conspiracy theories. It was designed to spark discussion, and it has done that, but those with concerns should be sure their points are part of the public record. Here’s the link: http://public.commentworks.com/ftc/newsmediaworkshop.

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