Sustaining Democracy in a Digital Age

A Blog from New America's Media Policy Initiative

A subtle victory for policy interventions in media at the FTC workshop

Published:  June 16, 2010
FTC building (Wikimedia Commons)
The FTC headquarters in Washington, DC.

The Federal Trade Commission's final workshop on changes in the media business, “How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?," ended with the sense that only limited policy recommendations would come out of the session, at least in terms of recommendations by the FTC.

Yet in a larger sense, the convening of publishers, industry analysts and academics revealed a surprising development: a growing consensus that some public policy intervention in media is not only possible, it's already happened.
 
The event began with a defense of the policymaking process from the Federal Trade Commission, which was attacked from some quarters after the release of a “discussion draft” (PDF) of possible policy recommendations, a compendium of ideas they've heard in three separate events so far (full transcripts of those hearings and audio archives are available at this link).
 
Steve Buttry’s blog offers a good summary of the reactions to that draft. Besides first amendment concerns, the chief criticism was that the proposals included were focused on how to preserve the business of the newspaper industry. Buttry points to this comment from Jeff Jarvis:
"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."
FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz defended the agency’s role in setting public policy, describing much of the criticism as coming from the "far right" and "far left,” and denied the charge that the commission is overly focused on preserving incumbent media companies. “These policy hearings have always been more about the future of journalism than saving the past,” he said.
 
J. Thomas Rosch, an FTC Commissioner, with a Republican background, backed him up at the podium, dispelling the idea that the Commission has endorsed any policy at this time, including changes to anti-trust and copyright. “The authors of those articles and blogs don’t know the agency and they misdescribe what the agency has done.” His presence appeared to signal bipartisan cooperation at the agency.
 
Leibowitz indicated which policy proposals are not likely to be embraced by the FTC in its final report: an exemption of anti-trust laws (as large media companies have proposed) and proposals to impose taxes on cell phones and electronic devices. “Taxing anyone to subsidize journalism is just a non-starter,” he said.
 
Other proposals seemed still to be under consideration. These included recommendations for a “hot news” doctrine to allow media companies to claim short-term copyright on facts they report, an increase in funding for public media, and a variety of proposals to “lower the cost” of reporting.
 
John Sturm of the Newspaper Association of America threw his support behind hot news, but Barbara Wall of Gannett stopped short of pushing for it “at this time” content to watch how the question plays out in State courts. (Interestingly, over at a Digital Capital Week event occurring simultaneously a representative of USA Today, the national Gannett paper was expounding on the value of a partnership the paper has with Fark to aggregate the content of others.)  Sherwin Siy of Public Knowledge spoke out the most strongly against hot news, saying, “What we're talking about is a restriction of free speech."  Rick Edmonds, an industry analyst with Poynter, sounded unconvinced that the government should intervene.
 
Nearly every speaker noted that government intervention in the media is, in general, not a popular idea among those employed in the news industry. Yet most conceded permissible exceptions that would foster innovation and competition and give media businesses a hand in building new business models or repairing the old ones. In this sense, the argument for policy intervention won the day. As the New America Foundation’s president Steve Coll explained, policies are already in place that affect public media, and those policies are antiquated and inadequate to meet the current challenges. Making the case against public policy interventions today, he said, “means making a case for the status quo.”
 
Joel Kramer of MinnPost urged a change to the tax code to clarify that nonprofit news sites like his qualify for tax-exempt status on the basis of their journalism. None of the speakers disagreed, though Heerad Sabeti, an expert in benefit corporations, cautioned that B corps and L3Cs are “nascent and untested” corporate forms that were “not designed with journalism in mind.”
 
Dan Gillmor, a self-described optimist, grimaces at most forms of policy intervention. He argued for a content-neutral approach through the preservation of net neutrality and funding the provision of universal broadband access, and laying miles of dark fiber that would “light up with journalism.”
 
Jan Schaffer of J-Lab proposed funding small, scrappy media startups, while Vivian Schiller argued for an increase in funding for a retooled Corporation for Public Broadcasting that would fund local and regional journalism with “deep collaboration” with other local, non-NPR and -PBS outlets. (Kramer was skeptical about the collaboration, saying Minnesota Public Radio does not allow its nonprofit competitors to purchase underwriting.)  Joaquin Alvarado suggested that the successful ITVS model used by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to fund long form documentaries might provide a model for additional media funding in the future.
 
A discussion of reducing costs through opening up government generated enthusiasm as well as some observations that deserve further consideration. James Hamilton, a Duke University economist and professor of public policy [disclosure: he’s also my Master’s advisor], noted his fear that the data.gov movement to open up databases of public information misses the data needs reporters most often face: the piles of “unstructured data,” email correspondence and public records that officials are often reluctant to give up. Wading through this information would be much easier if the government would make available to journalists (and the public) the auto-scanning, data-mining software it is already producing, for instance, for the Department of Defense. Paul Starr of Princeton made one of the few concrete proposals suggesting that perhaps funds could be found for media via "spectrum usage fees".  The economists in the room, Hamilton and Harvard professor Susan Athey, endorsed varieties of behavioral advertising.
 
Alan Bjerga, President of the National Press Club and one of the few working journalists on the panels echoed this concern about FOIA: He argued that the “mythology” of the lone journalist toiling for the truth obscures the reality: “The bad guys will have lawyers that will bleed your organization dry.” 
 
The ongoing tension between optimists and pessimists continued, with a debate (at some times talking at cross-purposes) about whether there is “market failure” for news, and which kind of news. Wall blasted the “pirates” who claim to aggregate but actually steal articles whole-cloth, while Richard Gingras of Salon.com argued that he sees a Salon headline in GoogleNews as “a gift.” (See also Dan Gillmor's post following the event.)
 
Some spoke up for the particular threats to local news – the lack of town hall and school board coverage in places outside of New York and Washington, D.C. Some pointed out the lack of ethnic and age diversity among participants, an unfortunate fact not at all unique to this particular event. Joaquin Alvarado of American Public Media noted that there was not a single venture capital firm present. His observation is a reminder that news coverage isn't the only thing changing in today's media landscape; participants in the news-gathering and policy-making processes are also evolving.
 
We will continue to follow the FTC proceeding on this blog so stay tuned for more. (C.W. Anderson, a Media Policy Fellow with New America, shared his take on the ongoing FTC work in an op-ed published on Ars Technica here.)

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