The News Frontier

Timothy B. Lee, founder of The Washington Post’s blog The Switch discusses his approach to reporting at the intersection of technology and policy. He covers how to make tech concepts more accessible; the difference between blogs and the news; the importance of investigative journalism in the tech space; whether paywalls are here to stay; Jeff Bezos’ recent purchase of The Washington Post; and the future of print news.


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In his syndicated column yesterday, Leonard Pitts, Jr. bemoaned the decision by the New Orleans Times-Picayune to cut back its print edition to three days a week, and attacked the sentiment, most recently expressed by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who might herself been quoting Matt Drudge, that the Internet allows “every citizen to be a reporter and take on the powers that be.”

Pitts immediately attacks the comment on the basis of its source, Palin. Then he wanders further from the point by conjuring the truly unpleasant conditions under which reporters, Picayune staffers no doubt among them, labored to ensure news got out in the weeks following Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of the Gulf Coast.

One night I had the distinct honor of sleeping in an RV in the parking lot of the Sun Herald in Gulfport, Miss., part of an army of journalists who had descended on the beleaguered city to help its reporters get this story told. The locals wore donated clothes and subsisted on snack food. They worked from a broken building in a broken city where the rotten egg smell of natural gas lingered in the air and homes had been reduced to debris fields, to produce their paper. Shattered, cut off from the rest of the world, people in the Biloxi-Gulfport region received those jerry-rigged newspapers, those bulletins from the outside world, the way a starving man receives food.

Yet nothing in this rather self-important prose tells us what’s so irreplaceable about printed newspapers as a platform for news delivery. Instead, we get a straw man.

Palin’s sin–and she is hardly alone in this–is to consider professional reporters easily replaceable by so-called citizen journalists like Drudge. Granted, bloggers occasionally originate news. Still, I can’t envision Matt Drudge standing his ground in a flooded city to report and inform.

One can say the same thing about Bill Maher, Keith Olbermann or Wolf Blitzer. Yet, come the next disaster, there’s no reason not to expect the same dedication from a handful of individuals who are driven to place themselves in the middle of an adverse, if not outright dangerous, event just to document first-hand what is happening. Only this time they have the cheap video cameras, battery operated laptops and cellphones with wireless Internet connections. The news will get out.

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I’ve been so busy trying to cover breaking developments related to Washington’s new efforts to “save journalism” (FTC) and steer the “future of media” (FCC) — see all my recent essays & papers here — that I forgot to do a formal book review of the book that is partially responsible for whipping policymakers into a lather about this issue: The Death and Life of American Journalism, the media-takeover manifesto by the neo-Marxist media scholar Robert W. McChesney and Nation editor John Nichols. Their book is horrifying in its imperial ambitions since it invites the government become the High Lord and Protector of the Fourth Estate. [For an in-depth look at all of McChesney’s disturbing views on these issues, see: “Free Press, Robert McChesney & the “Struggle” for Media.”] Anyway, I put together a formal review of the book for City Journal.  It’s online here and I’ve also pasted it down below.


A Media Welfare State?

by Adam Thierer

Imagine a world of “post-corporate” newsrooms, where the state serves as the primary benefactor of the Fourth Estate. Billions flow from bureaucracies to media entities and individual journalists in the name of sustaining a “free press.” And this new media welfare state is funded by steep taxes on our mobile phones, broadband connections, and digital gadgets.

Sound Orwellian? Well, it’s the blueprint for a press takeover drawn up by Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols in their new book, The Death and Life of American Journalism. McChesney, the prolific neo-Marxist media scholar who teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Nichols, a journalist with The Nation, aren’t shy about their intentions. Along with Free Press, the absurdly misnamed regulatory activist group they co-founded, McChesney and Nichols outline a self-described “radical” agenda for what they hope will become a media “revolution.” And, shockingly, some folks in the Obama administration are listening. Continue reading →

So, I’m sitting here at today’s Federal Trade Commission (FTC) workshop, “Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?” and several panelists have argued that private “professional” media is toast, not just because of the rise of the Net and digital media, but also because the inherent cross-subsidy that advertising has traditionally provided is drying up.  It very well could be the case that both statements are true and that private media operators are in some trouble because of it. But what nobody seems to be acknowledging is that our government is currently on the regulatory warpath against advertising and that this could have profound impact on the outcome of this debate.

As Berin Szoka and I noted in a recent paper, “The Hidden Benefactor: How Advertising Informs, Educates & Benefits Consumers,” the FTC, the FCC, the FDA, and Congress are all considering, or already imposing, a host of new rules that will seriously affect advertising markets.  This article in AdAge today confirms this:

The advertising industry is heading for a “tsunami” of regulation and is at a “tipping point” of greatly increased scrutiny, warned a panel on social media and privacy at the American Advertising Federation conference here [in Orlando].

The reason this is so important for the ongoing debate about the future of media and journalism is because, as Berin and I argued in our paper: Continue reading →

I’ll be doing some live-Tweeting from today’s Federal Trade Commission (FTC) workshop, “Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?” This workshop will feature various experts discussing the FTC’s 47-page “staff discussion draft,” which outlines “Potential Policy Recommendations to Support the Reinvention of Journalism.”

Looks like most people will just be using the #FTC hashtag and perhaps #journalism as well.  My Twitter handle is @AdamThierer and I think @BerinSzoka will be here later, too.

Here’s some additional background on why this debate is so controversial:

Just a reminder that tomorrow the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will be hosting the 3rd workshop in its ongoing event series, “Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?” This workshop will feature various experts discussing the FTC’s 47-page “staff discussion draft,” which outlines “Potential Policy Recommendations to Support the Reinvention of Journalism.” In these two recent essays, I discussed the controversy surrounding some of the recommendations in that discussion draft:

According to this press release announcing the event,”The workshop is free and open to the public, but space is limited and attendees will be admitted on a first-come basis. The workshop will be held at: The National Press Club, 549 14th Street NW, 13th Floor, Washington, DC. Members of the public and press who wish to participate but who cannot attend can view a live webcast.  A link will be available on the day of the workshop at:”

Unless I am missing something, the FTC has still not posted an agenda or list of speakers, which is a bit strange. But apparently Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute will be participating. He’s got a nice piece up over at Poynter Online (“FTC Future-of-Journalism Inquiry Wraps Up With Little Momentum for Major Intervention“) summarizing some of what he’ll say tomorrow. I particularly liked his conclusion, which echoes the call Berin Szoka and I have made for allowing continuing marketplace evolution and experimentation: Continue reading →

As I pointed out here last week, the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) recently released 47-page document outlining “Potential Policy Recommendations to Support the Reinvention of Journalism” has been raising eyebrows in many different quarters. Even though it is just a “discussion draft” and the agency hasn’t formally endorsed any of the recommendations in it yet, the sweeping scope and radical nature of many of the proposals in the document has already raised the blood pressure for many folks. It doesn’t help that the document reads like the CliffsNotes for the recent media-takeover manifesto, The Death and Life of American Journalism, by the neo-Marxist media scholar Robert W. McChesney and Nation editor John Nichols. Their book is horrifying in its imperial ambitions since it invites the government become the High Lord and Protector of the Fourth Estate. [For an in-depth look at all of McChesney’s disturbing views on these issues, see: “Free Press, Robert McChesney & the “Struggle” for Media.”]

The FTC’s seeming infatuation with McChesney’s proposals has many rightly concerned about where exactly the Obama Administration’s FTC (and FCC) may be taking us in the name of “saving journalism.”  In an editorial this week, Investors Business Daily worries that the feds are “Seizing The News Business and wonders “why, as the administration contemplates a federal takeover of their business, [there is] such thundering silence” from journalists and media executive themselves.  The good news, however, is that a recent survey found plenty of skepticism among news executives regading government subsidies and regulatory meddling in their business. According to this April survey by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism in association with the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) and the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA), revealed that, “Fully 75% of all news executives surveyed—and 88% of newspaper executives—said they had ’serious reservations,’ or the highest level of concern, about direct subsidies from the government.” A smaller percentage (only 46%) had serious reservations about tax credits for news organizations, then again, only 13% said they “would welcome such funding” and just 6% said they were “enthusiastic” about it.

And now there’s this new survey by Rasmussen Reports which finds that average Americans find some of the FTC’s proposed recommendations pretty silly: Continue reading →

As I’ve noted here before, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has an ongoing proceeding asking “How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?” The agency has hosted two workshops on the issue and a third is scheduled for June 15th at the National Press Club. Recently, the FTC released a 47-page staff discussion draft entitled “Potential Policy Recommendations to Support the Reinvention of Journalism,” which outlines dozens of proposals that have been set forth in recent years to “save journalism,” “reinvent media,” or support various forms of so-called “public interest programming.”  [I’ve embedded the document down below.] Although the FTC makes it very clear on the first page of the discussion draft that it “does not represent final conclusions or recommendations by the Commission or FTC staff [and] it is solely for purposes of discussion,” the document is drawing scrutiny and raising concern since it might foreshadow where the FTC (and Obama Administration) could be heading on this front.

Some of those raising a stink about the FTC draft include: Jeff Jarvis (“FTC Protects Journalism’s Past“); Rob Port (“Federal Government Considering “iPad Tax” To Subsidize Journalism“); Mark Tapscott: “(Will Journalists Wake up in Time to Save Journalism from Obama’s FTC?”); and Andrew Malcolm of the Los Angeles Times (“Obama’s FTC Plan to Reinvent America’s News Media“), who says, “this FTC study is rated R for anyone who thinks the federal government, the object of copious news coverage itself, has no business deciding which sectors of the private media business survive and thrive through its support, subsidies and encouragement with things like tax incentives. Yet that’s what this Obama administration paper is suggesting as another of the ex-community organizer’s galactic reform plans.”   Ouch!

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I’m keeping tabs on who filed “major” comments (more than a 10-15 pages) in the Federal Communications Commission’s “Future of Media” proceeding (GN Docket No. 10-25).  As I noted last week, The Progress & Freedom Foundation submitted almost 80 pages of comments (single-spaced!) in the matter, so it’s something I care deeply about and will be tracking closely going forward.

Incidentally, the general consensus of those who filed (especially if you count “minor” comments) is fairly overwhelming: Bring on Big Government! Seriously, I only found a handful of comments that object strenuously to government meddling in media markets or that raised concerns about the potential for the State’s increasing involvement in the journalism profession. Even many of the affected industries appear to be suffering from a bit of Stockholm syndrome here.  Most of them just play up the good things they are doing but barely utter a peep about the dangers of federal encroachment into the affairs of the Press.

Anyway, for those of you who care to track the gradual federalization of media and journalism, I think what you see below is a fairly comprehensive listing of the major filings submitted thus far in the FCC’s “Future of Media” proceeding. I’ll try to add more as I find them. You might also want to track what was filed in the Federal Trade Commission’s workshops on “How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age.”  Finally, if you care to learn more of this issue, I’m hosting an event on the morning of May 20th to discuss these issues in more detail.

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The Progress & Freedom Foundation today filed comments in the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) “Future of Media” proceeding. Berin Szoka, Ken Ferree, and I urged the FCC to “reject Chicken Little-esque calls for extreme media ‘reform’ solutions,” and counseled policymakers to move cautiously so that media reform can be “organic and bottom-up, not driven by heavy-handed, top-down industrial policies for the press.”

Our 79-page filing covers a wide range of ideas being examined by Washington policymakers to help struggling media outlets and unemployed journalists, or to expand public media / “public interest” content and regulation. Among the major issues explored in our filing:

  • First Amendment concerns implicated by government subsidies;
  • The pitfalls of imposing new “public interest” obligations on media operators;
  • How advertising restrictions could harm the provision of media and news;
  • Taxes, fees and other regulations to be avoided;
  • The limited role in reform that public media subsidies can play; and
  • Positive steps government could take.

We note that as “With many operators struggling to cope with intensifying competition, digitization, declining advertising budgets, and fragmenting audiences, some pundits and policymakers are wondering what the ‘future of media’ entails. The answer: Nobody knows.”  While this uncertainty has put concerned policymakers at the ready to “help” the press, we warn that: “There is great danger in rash government intervention.” Instead, policymakers should be “careful to not inhibit potentially advantageous marketplace developments, even if some are highly disruptive.” Marketplace meddling, or government attempts to tinker with private media business models in the hopes that something new and better can be created, are misguided. Moreover, “Our constitutional traditions warn against it, history suggests it would be unwise, and practical impediments render such meddling largely unworkable, anyway.”

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