Monday, October 12, 2009

Will the FTC now help the newspaper industry get its government bailout

Last week, the FTC laid down the law when it came to bloggers and others who are not just outright paid to endorse products, but who also receive products to review. There was a lot of hoo-ha about that(with some discussion on how these new regs might impact free speech.) But no one seems to be talking just yet about the upcoming two-day public workshop on the state of journalism in the Internet Age: "From Town Crier to Bloggers:
How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?"

The workshop will take place on December 1-2, 2009 in Washington D.C. Questions must be submitted by November 6....

Now, this all seems well and good, on the one hand: as the announcement notes, there have been many changes to the advertising-supported business model, most of which have driven the price of ads down, thus causing a ripple effect that has made it very difficult for newspapers to make money from advertising....

And I'm glad to see that they want to have a government-level discussion on this...

But still, what's troubling is Issue #5 that will be considered at the workshop:
"changes in
governmental policies that have been proposed as ways to support

Ok. The government is already in the car industry because the car guys put their fingers in their ears and didn't listen to the consumers. And the government is trying to re-tool consumer-friendly regulations to stop the banks and other financial institutions from wholesale ripping people off with fancy fiscal engineering that would baffle Einstein. So, now it appears that the government is willing to possibly find a way to stick itself in the newspaper industry because the C-suite made some serious boo-boos and didn't see the innovative writing on the wall all those years ago (1981!) when 1/4 of the subscribers to the San Francisco Examiner subscribed to a crappy dial up version of the paper:

oh, no! that Internet thing--it's only a fad!! We'll use the Internet to drive people to subscribe to the print version!!

I find the idea of the government in all of the news media far more troubling than the government fining some bloggers because they didn't disclose that they were given products to review. The latter should have been a no-brainer from the very beginning, and is a "free trade" & ethics issue. The really scary, and most certainly has implications for "free speech."

Now, I know lots of people who've already talked about the benign government intervention that we see with NPR. Don't get me wrong: I like NPR. I think some of their reporting is the best. And they saw their way to hire my friend Andy Carvin to help them work out the social media stuff (a really smart move.) Yet if all of the newspaper industry in some way becomes beholden to the government...

Wow. We thought it was bad when "W" moved Helen Thomas to the back of the room and allowed Jeff Gannon to lob softballs...well, let's just say that "we ain't seen nothing yet!" maybe. If there's wholesale government intervention in the newspaper industry...

It was bad enough when the proposed shield law mentioned that to be a journalist one must appear in print.....

While I trust the government in a lot of ways--this is one way where I really don't. I don't think the NPR model should be the model for all of journalism in the U.S. NPR was always an *alternative* to commercial. If all is NPR, will commercial then be the "alternative"?

Doesn't that seem kind of topsy-turvy for a country that's supposed to be all about the "free market"?

John Cook's post at Gawker raises some questions about where the government might draw the line on what kind of "newspaper industry" might receive government aid:
Would Gawker be eligible for a "new tax treatment"? Hell, we're a news organization—we even called an FTC spokeswoman for comment on this very blog post. What about TMZ? They break news every day. Do they need a tax break? Or does Andrew Breitbart's budding empire at, which recently broke a couple compelling stories about ACORN and the National Endowment for the Arts that certainly qualify as "public affairs news," need any public funding? How about Politico?

We presume that the answers to the above questions in any proposed FTC scheme for rescuing the newspaper industry would be no. But the distinctions and conceptual gerrymandering required to find a way to subsidize the lumbering giants at the expense of their upstart competitors—to find a reason that Rupert Murdoch, whose Fox News Channel is firing on all cylinders as the Wall Street Journal faces secular decline, merits consideration while Talking Points Memo's Josh Marshall doesn't—will, we suspect, render the whole project foul and reactionary. The simple fact that some news organizations are facing competitive pressure and shifting business models isn't an argument for government intervention into the content business.

It makes me think, too, about the hyperlocal scene, both independent and mainstream: will local newspapers be eligible for government funding? will independent hyperlocal news sites be given government funding, or will they be excluded because of another provision in the shield law that will define who is/isn't a journalist? Will local advertisers flock to hyperlocal sites, or will they continue to advertise in local papers if local papers are receiving government funds? What about local broadcast news? Will anything the FTC does impact local brodcast, or will broadcast be considered less a form of journalism and more a form of info-tainment than it already is considered?

But think about it: is it really the fault of bloggers and the Internet for screwing up the business models of the newspapers? or is that just a failure of one time honored business to innovate fast enough? And do We the People have to step in and bail out every ossified industry that has dragged its feet on innovation?

I'm not so sure of that....

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