How will journalism survive, if government doesn’t help?
Benjamin Franklin liked reporters, whom he called “printers.” He was one himself, and set down the premises for good journalism in a famous column, “Apology for Printers,” which he wrote, in his The Pennsylvania Gazette, on May 27, 1731. Addressing the inevitability that, no matter what the printer wrote, somebody would be pissed off, he said, “…if all Printers were determin’d not to print any thing till they were sure it would offend no body, there would be very little printed.” He concluded on a note of defiance to his critics: “I shall not therefore leave off Printing. I shall continue my Business. I shall not burn my Press and melt my Letters.”
The importance of a free press is taken for granted in Western democracies. Somebody has to be watchdog over the powers that be, whether they’re political, economic or religious. Granted, a free press often takes things too far. But ask yourself if you’d rather have the cacophony of America’s journalistic howl, or a one-party press such as exists in North Korea and Iran.
Journalism unfortunately is in a hard spot now. We all know it; we’ve been watching the pressures on traditional journalism mount up for years. First, the Internet, which promised everything for free. Then, the Recession, which pulled the [adverising] rug out from under journalism’s feet. And now, the rise of a Millennial generation which, we are told, reads nothing in print.
The problem of journalism’s future is like the weather: everybody talks about it but no one does anything about it. Well, not quite. Last month, the Federal Trade Commission — established in 1914 under an activist Wilson administration to protect American consumers and eliminate anti-competitive business practices — released the “discussion draft” of a 47 page “Potential Policy Recommendations to Support the Reinvention of Journalism.”
Yes, you read it right. Recognizing the “significant transition” that journalism is undergoing, the document’s crafters are troubled by the “significant losses of news coverage” occurring as newspapers and magazines shut down. The draft proposal suggests measures the government can take to make sure there will be enough competent reporters in the future.
Among the most interesting of these is “additional intellectual property rights to support claims against news aggregators.” As every wine blogger knows, our blogs are reprinted in all sorts of online places whose owners receive direct financial benefit from them. I, personally, never have been particularly upset by this, but I know bloggers who are. The draft document suggests that some sort of tax on “parasitic aggregators…would better enable news organizations to obtain revenue from aggregators and search engines.” It would prohibit “free ride” sites that “without permission, post enough material to render the original news stories redundant.” Since blog posts that are aggregated are frequently found by search engines, the draft considers “legislation clarifying that the routine copying of original content done by a search engine in order to conduct a search (caching) is copyright infringement not protected by fair use.” (“Fair use” is a key concept in “third party” use of original material. Third parties are allowed to reproduce material for “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching…scholarship, or research,” but in general are not allowed to economically benefit.)
The draft also explores the possibility of providing “government-fostered pilot programs to investigate new business models” for journalism, basing their thinking on certain European models. There are various versions of this, including tacking on a service fee to Internet service providers, which in turn would be passed on to audited publishers (of course, that fee would invariably be passed on to Internet end-users.) There is even a suggestion of taxing electronic devices, like iPads.
The FTC’s draft document predictably was greeted by howls of derision by entrenched interests. The rightwing is calling the tax on aggregators a “Drudge tax.” Steven Brill, whose now defunct “Brill’s Content” was a pontifical attempt to finger-wag journalism by a school-marm moralizer, told the New York Times, “You’re going to create a fund so a bunch of kids from Ivy League colleges can get jobs going to zoning board meetings with pens and pads? It’s like you’re living on another planet if you think this is going to happen.” An opinion piece in the New York Post (owned by Rupert Murdoch) complained that publishers “don’t need government help. They need to be left alone with the assurance they won’t be interfered with by the FTC.” So intense was the blowback that, last Friday, reports surfaced that “The FTC is running for cover in the wake of reports it plans to tax websites and electronic devices in order to rescue dead tree dinosaur corporate media.”
I think bloggers ought to be thinking about these things incessantly. They may not, on the surface, care about all this; it doesn’t affect them directly, not yet. But they’re the ones who are going to have to figure out whether unfettered, unafraid journalism survives in America. They may agree that “dead tree dinosaur corporate media” needs to wither away; but I hope they understand the importance of a free press — and I don’t just mean a thousand blogs speaking with a Tower of Babel incoherence. I mean a press powerful enough to speak truth to power. I hope and expect that bloggers, like Ben Franklin, will declare, “I shall continue my Business. I shall not burn my Press and melt my Letters.”