Saturday, May 29, 2010

Reinventing journalism

The Federal Trade Commission has weighed in on the important discussion of what needs to be done to bring better journalism to American citizens.

Unfortunately, its report offers a too-strong endorsement of "old" media (especially the newspaper industry) and a too-little appreciation of "new" media (which in this context I'm broadly referring to information disseminated on the Web either by repackaging of "old" media information or original information prepared for Internet distribution). It also offers no endorsement for entrepreneurs seeking to radically (a carefully chosen word) alter the economics of the news media.

For me, one statement could have served as the formative jumping off point in recognizing the fundamental changes taking place in the media industry:

[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 policies that might encourage innovations to help support journalism into the future.

This point -- and it is a valid one -- should have opened discussion about whether the newspaper industry can continue to be the driving force of news in the future. (I remain skeptical. And, please, spare me the "aw, come on...there goes the broadcast guy picking on newspapers again." You and I know that is not true.)

Instead what I see is too much analysis and too many recommendations geared to the newspaper industry and its owners. As I read the report, I strained to find references to the "Internet," "blogs," "digital delivery" and similar terms that are integral parts of the future of journalism. They are not present in sufficient quantity to suggest that the FTC gets it -- with "it" referring to the changing preferences for news consumption, changing mechanisms for delivering information, and the ability for individual citizens to participate more fully than ever in news gathering and dissemination.

Perhaps the most controversial element of the report is the discussion about government-funded support for the newspaper industry. That's a bad idea. There is no polite way to say this -- politicians would not authorize these expenditures every year without some kind of rhetorical blast about media bias or the lack of professionalism. Let's keep the government out of this discussion, no matter the medium we are talking about. (And I also accept that government finding could lead to openly biased "news" as exists on at least two cable news networks; such nonsense doesn't advance journalism.)

I accept that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting -- a government program -- has worked and therefore serves as a potential model for any subsidy of the press. The quality of quantity of information available on PBS and NPR is consistent with advancing the health of democracy. Moreover, as the FTC report notes:

According to a recent national poll, CPB has succeeded in its mission – more than 75 percent of the public believe PBS addresses key news, public affairs, and social issues “very/moderately” well. This poll also named PBS the most trusted and unbiased institution among nationally known news organizations.

There are some recommendations that I find intriguing and that would be worth discussing in more depth. They include:

1. A 5 percent tax on consumer electronics [that] would generate approximately $4 billion annually. I'm not enthusiastic about this idea, but I would be willing to hear more about it.

2. Increase funding to the CPB.

3. Encourage changes to the federal legal structure that would entice more news operations to move to non-profit status.

The National Press Club will host a roundtable discussion about the report highlighted above on June 15.

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