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How will journalism survive, if government doesn’t help?

19 comments

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.”

  1. To arms! To arms!!!

    :-)

  2. Let’s see, systematically cripple the auto industry, disenfranchise the petroleum industry, regulate private insurance and investments, demolish the housing industry, marginalize agriculture, demoralize the military, strip the citizenry of their right to bear arms then regulate and tax away what entreprenurial incentive may be left. What else? Oh yeah, federalize then filter “free press” through subsidy obligations . Sounds like a plan…for a socialist dictatorship. How is that working for North Korea, anyway? On the whole, I would rather not.

  3. Ray, do you have your official Teabagger Membership Card yet?

  4. On the surface, it’s hard to see the difference between Google and Drudge. Both make money linking to content created by others and freely accessible by anyone. I know this subject is as complicated as brain science, but what if writers stopped giving away the content they create and required subscription? If the answer is, “No one would subscribe.” I guess we have placed a value on the content.

    I sure hope they don’t put Drudge out of business, where would I go to find out about the Spanish clinic that cures gays or the Jesus statue hit by lightning or the latest evidence that Obama isn’t a citizen.

  5. Naw, I’m still just a conflicted Cabernet, Coffee and Cognac sort of fellow who tries to keep the distinction between being a citizen and a subject in mind. Very good piece though, Steve.

  6. What Ray said! And keep your grubby government hands off my Medicare!

  7. Your response, Steve, is too kind. Mr. Krause may have once had a significant role in the wine biz, but this kind of poliitical diatribe has appeared in the wrong place. It is not only unresponsive to the issue at hand, but it gets in the way of the discussion that ought to be occuring here.

    Does he not understand that writers have intellectual property rights? Does he somehow think that people can steal your words without limit? Does he somehow think that a free press is not to be valued? If he had addressed those issues, then no one could could complain. You are kind to let his remarks stand.

  8. I think Ray does a raise a valid point, which is that it is not necessarily the role of government to get involved in the quality of journalism.

  9. Dude, I don’t think I said that it should (govt. get involved in journalism). I treated the whole thing pretty even handedly. The only recco I gave was the hope that the bloggers take seriously this business of a free press. What I was poking fun of, in Ray’s comment, was his Sarah Palinesque wingnut paranoia.

  10. Pete, of course! We don’t want the damned gummint involved in healthcare, so let’s take up arms and make them stay the hell out of Medicare!!! (And veteran’s benefits too!) P.S. I do hope you’re joking. You are, aren’t you…..?

  11. Morton, what’s the address of that Spanish clinic? Anyhow, Google is at the center of this aggregator hassle. I doubt if Drudge (or winebusiness.com for that matter) will go out of business as long as Google has billions of dollars to lobby D.C.

  12. Interesting… thoughts that I consider every day, honestly. And, then the comments… You can always get it going, Mr. Steve.

  13. Kidding, indeed. (Ray, you were, too, right?)

  14. Would you really call much of the content available on the web Journalism I for one do not. So much of the information on the web is unsubstantiated banter and parroting of information found on other sites and publications. Many have the journalism skills of a Xerox machine with a touch of Bill O Reilly for commentary flair.

    Steve I enjoy your blog and would consider paying for it should the need arise. The fear of the pay per view or subscription based readership on the web from so many sites is that traffic would crash and should they survive off any ad revenue it would be long gone.

    The question is if your readers are unwilling to pay for your content then is the content really worth ink or shall we say keyboard that generated it?

    In order for the press to be free readers have to be willing to pay for it. Otherwise the press will always be pushed and prodded by the desires of advertisers and funding of other means with agendas beyond the distribution of thoughtful and well written journalism.

  15. Phil, I don’t know how to answer your questions. Wish I did. We are in unexplored territory.

  16. Well Ms. Jo, thank you.

  17. The problem with this taxing concept is that an incredibl innovative, fluid, and entrepreneurial industry is going to become restricted by an outdated and red-tape driven bureaucracy. This concept is completely contradictory to the concept and core values that drove the digital revolution. We have to push our government to become as innovative in their solutions as the industries they try and regulate. Proping up a business model that is failing because of lack of innovation is not healthy in any industry. To do it at the Spenser of innovation is even worse. Bloggers need to be creative and think outside the box to generate revenues. Bloggers are small and agile. They have the advantag in this market. It is a classic case of survival of the fittest. Whether or not you like drudge. He has figured out a solid business model that not only makes him money, but he provides millions of click throughs for his news sites that he links to. This should translate into ad revenues for those sites. Taxing viewers that click throughto those sites will drop ad revenues and hurt the ones younare trying to help. This concept is outdated and will cause more harm than good.

  18. Phil–

    Journalism does not have to be paid for by subscribers to be journalism. Television journalism, at least that on broadcast channels, is not a paid-for medium by those who listen to it.

    Radio, which some of us still use, especially when travelling is also not a subscriber-based medium.

    Furthermore, the quality of journalism does not enter into the question. Originality does, of course. Someone who simply repeats the words of others or parrots ideas they learned elsewhere is not a journalist. We can agree on that.

    But, when Steve or anyone else, writes original work, as his Cab Sauv piece in his latest blog, that certainly in journalism regardless of whether one pays for it or not. Frankly, I doubt that Steve could turn this site in something that many people would pay for. The Internet does not work that way. The Internet is like a library in many ways. Most of the content is the type that one gets for free in this world.

    There are some fungible sites on the Internet, of course. Their secret, which is no secret at all, is they offer something that has high levels of perceived value and are thus worth paying for. Thousands of wine reviews, Consumer Reports, the Wall Street Journal, financial advice publications. No one would pay for the editorials in the WSJ or CR but we do pay, and willingly, for the content that directly affects our pocketbooks.

    Steve’s blog, which I have considered to be among the very best wine blogs since the day I first discovered it, has very little fungible content. He is not doing the blog to make money directly. But, consider this. Steve’s blog has made him a much more visible, and thus much more important wine analyst. It has value to Steve in its free form–and that is not to be sneezed at.

    One someone steals Steve’s journalism, that is nothing more than theivery regardless of the fact that the journalism is offered for free on the Internet.

  19. Well done, Steve. Took a while to read but interesting.
    So, why do we not know what is going on with HR5034 other than from Tom Wark (as good as he is, he is not a journalist)? Because it costs a lot of money to have even one reporter covering Capital Hill, let alone covering only the alcohol industry.
    Why did Slate do the latest on Koch, Hardy Rodenstock and the NY connection? Because (and I am guessing), Mike is paid to go through court docs and Koch-supplied docs, interviewing and fact checking. (Or as a freelancer, I hope he gets a hell of a lot more than most media pay for freelance…but that’s another issue).
    Why does TTB get away with lame answers on Pinot Noir (and other) issues? Because Resnick ignores queries, the website is almost useless. The FTC report addresses FOIA and transparency = easy availability of information while withholding the specifically private parts such as name and address of the company. TTB is way far behind other Treasury departments. Right now, it is potentially a huge cost, even with a waiver, to get, for example, the last 10 years of pretty much anything from TTB because of the time needed to separate the public material from the private material. (Convenient it ended up like that).
    If traditional or any media (including solo media like bloggers) can’t afford to protect and make money on its copyright, then laws should be changed and perhaps subsidies/grants of the sort offered to agriculture (wine export, research), the auto industry, pharmaceuticals and so on should be offered. Yes, all this raises zillions of other issues…
    Journalists don’t always do things right, but we, as a society, can’t expect a company or a government – whether with wine, oil, Bloody Sunday, genocide or honey bees – to tell all. And that, if nothing else, is a fact.

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