The FTC probably isn’t going to save journalism, you won’t be shocked to hear.
The agency recently dropped a set of potential policy recommendations resulting from its yearlong investigation into the news business’ commercial woes. It’s a 47-page (with footnotes) round-up of the problems facing news organizations with some surface-level thinking on how to remedy them.
To anyone who’s been paying attention to the news business over the past several years, it’s a work of extreme intellectual myopia. To put it in sports terms (You’re welcome!), it’s a playbook that has only defensive schemes: government subsidies, contracting the scope of fair-use provisions of copyright law, taxes, legalized price-fixing and collusion, “hot news” protections. It’s entirely free of any solutions that foster innovation or entrepreneurialism. It is, to be completely clear, a complete mess.
Nevertheless, journalism does need to be reinvented. To help re-frame the issues, I’ve provided a few recommendations of my own.
1. Stop pretending that newspapers equal journalism.
Throughout the findings newspapers and journalism are used pretty much interchangeably. Newspapers, you would think from reading the report, are the be-all and end-all of newsgathering and their business model needs to be preserved at all costs. Online news sources, on the other hand, are dismissed thusly: “virtually no sites have yet found a sustainable business model that would allow them to survive without some form of funding from non-profit sources.” Um, I guess that’s true unless you think of companies like Gawker Media, Salon, Drudge, Huffington Post and so on. While none of these have models that you’d describe as unimpeachable and while they do, often quite pleasantly, trouble traditional definition of “journalism,” they can’t be ignored. Each has broken news — in some case’s news of the highest order — and thus participates in journalism.
2. Cool down about the “hot news” protections.
“Hot news” would essentially extend copyright protection to the reporting of facts for a certain time. It’s a nice idea that would seem to be completely unenforceable, if not a straight-up violation of the First Amendment. I can see the attraction to protecting meaningful news breaks. But let’s be really honest. A not-so-small portion of newsgathering, even at our most august institutions, is about negotiating a press release from a PR flack a few minutes before your competitor gets it. Is that behavior we really need to protect? And how does social media fit it into this? Will random Twitterers who retweet news breaks suddenly be the subject of litigation because they don’t comply with some “hot news” time frame?
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