< Government Intervention to Save Journalism


Friday, January 28, 2011

[JINGLE FADE] BOB GARFIELD: Up first - help from the government. Since December of last year, the Federal Trade Commission has hosted a series of workshops assembling members of the press, academics and bloggers to discuss ways to shore up newspapers in the digital age. On May 24th it released a discussion paper in response to the workshops, seeking to highlight proposals that would, quote, “appear most useful, feasible, platform-neutral, resistant to bias and unlikely to cause unintended consequences.” These proposals include government subsidies and tax exemptions for newspapers, taxes on new news platforms, such as tablet computers and internet service providers, and revisions of intellectual property law. According to BuzzMachine.com blogger Jeff Jarvis though, the FTC’s discussion draft heavily favors proposals that would not only unfairly prop up the ailing newspaper model but would stymie innovation. JEFF JARVIS: In 35 pages of text, blogs are mentioned once in a parenthesis and otherwise are a footnote. There’s something wrong with that vision of the future. We're very early in the days of this new digital age now, and there’s a lot of work going on in new business models for news. And so, to act as if the business model of news is already broken, I think, is the first mistake the FTC made. The next mistake was to assume that news is only newspapers. The next mistake was to leave out the disruptors and entrepreneurs, who I think are going to reinvent journalism. The next mistake was then to do some very dangerous things. To consider extending copyright and limiting fair use is all about free speech. There is a case going on right now called “The Fly on the Wall” case that involves hot news. BOB GARFIELD: The Fly on the Wall, that’s the Web aggregator that was sued by an investment bank for publishing a news item the bankers claim, based on like a hundred-year-old Supreme Court decision, was their property. JEFF JARVIS: And now big news organizations hope to bring this to fight against aggregators, and the FTC salutes this. And they even mentioned, Bob, the phrase “proprietary facts.” That’s frightening in a constitutional First Amendment copyright view of things. Facts cannot be owned. In the Fly on the Wall case, there are competing friend-of-the-court briefs, one from Google and Twitter, the other side from 14 big news organizations. The big news organizations are trying to act as if the mere act of spending money on news gives them a right to own it for some period of time. But, as Google points out in its brief, in this new world of us all creating news and us all having instant access to the news, the notion that anyone can own news, own a fact, own knowledge for a period of time is not only unconstitutional, it’s futile. BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, but [LAUGHS] just to play the devil’s advocate for a moment, it’s not just facts. It’s news, which involves uncovering facts, analyzing them, you know, often at great expense by news organizations in competition with one another who go to a great deal of trouble to report, only to find out that aggregators and others are immediately putting this stuff up on their own websites, you know, at zero cost to themselves. JEFF JARVIS: Aggregators aren't stealing content. They are sending audience to the news organizations. It’s up to the news organization to then understand how to find a valued relationship with those readers. I'm not sure the FTC should be doing anything. I would argue that we're in a phase of news being more competitive than it has been in 50 years. The FTC is charged with nurturing competition, so let it go. Now, at the same time, we have the Federal Communications Commission, the FCC, holding really pretty much similar hearings on similar questions. The FCC could do something good for news by getting broadband everywhere. But I'm also scared about it thinking that it should meddle in content. BOB GARFIELD: Okay, but I keep reading about various startups and digital experiments that are not panning out. One just shuttered itself in the last couple of weeks. I think it was called NewsLabs. The new world order seems – they're dropping like flies. What are the emergent services and technologies specifically that are an alternative to, you know, the late Mr. Dumpty? JEFF JARVIS: Startups are hard. Startups do fail, but that doesn't mean that we're doomed to fail in the future. We're going to have to try and experiment with a lot of things. So I see legacy media companies, like Journal-Register, experimenting right now with putting out their newspapers entirely using free tools online. I see Politico starting Politico Local, which I think can operate in a network with bloggers around Washington at a very low cost and compete at a low cost with The Washington Post. In Germany this week, Welt Kompakt is handing over an entire issue to bloggers. I see a lot of innovation going on. The future is about innovation, not about trying to protect the past. So startups will die, newspapers will die, and in that, entrepreneurs will find new opportunities and, I believe, will have a market demand for journalism the market will meet. BOB GARFIELD: Now, I should say, as a matter of full disclosure, that I was one of the people who made a presentation at one of these hearings. It was not an optimistic one, but it was a presentation nonetheless. And I did it because I thought that these were people of goodwill and good faith. And I think the exercise was useful for evaluating where we are historically. Do you think that there was nothing in the draft version of the FTC’s report that is useful in any way whatsoever? JEFF JARVIS: I see little of journalistic or intellectual rigor in this report. I see nothing about the business of journalism, which is what we're really talking about here. I see very little fact gathering. I see a lot of opinions. It, you know, sounds a lot like blogs, doesn't it? At the FTC hearing, I said to them, please stay off our lawn. At the similar FCC hearing, I was proud to begin my testimony with the word “Baba booey,” because I think we've seen what the FCC has done before when it got involved in content. Witness Howard Stern. HOWARD STERN: And the FCC - shame on you, shame, shame on you and your families. Where is the First Amendment? Anyway, I hope the bullies feel good about themselves, and they’ve won. They've won. I've lost. And we've all lost. Believe me when I tell you we've all lost. BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, the catch phrase you invoked [LAUGHS] wasn't an issue with the FCC, but a lot of other Stern content was ruled indecent and his networks were uh, fined millions. JEFF JARVIS: Well, I am not a libertarian. I'm a Democrat. But I sure sound like one right now, because I want the government to stay the hell away from speech. BOB GARFIELD: You kids get off’n my lawn! [LAUGHTER] Jeff - [LAUGHTER] - thank you very much. JEFF JARVIS: Thank you, Bob. BOB GARFIELD: Jeff Jarvis teaches at City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism and blogs, pretty famously, at BuzzMachine.com.