FTC Workshop An Odd Mix of Caution and Dangerous Thinking

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I have an inside-out viewpoint on the Federal Trade Commission’s two-day workshop on “How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?” This was an occasion for government to listen to some of the usual and a few novel takes on the current turmoil. I was most interested, though, in the brief presentations of the two government officials who spoke.

And here there was news. Both FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz and Congressman Henry Waxman get the problems and the high stakes should traditional news outlets crash before an adequate replacement system emerges. They are on the cutting edge of trying to find a way for government to help (the journalism if not the institutions). But neither thinks there is much chance of consensus on how to help anytime soon.
“Whatever the new business models for journalism may be — and we have seen some glimmers of light in endeavors such as voiceofsanddiego.org, ‘Talking Points Memo’ and ProPublica — they are not yet fully apparent or fully sustainable.

“At the same time, we are witnessing a quantifiable — and, some would say, qualitative — demise of the Old World Order of news delivery.

“That is why it still remains an open question whether the changes to news gathering amount to ‘creative destruction’ or simply ‘destruction.’ “

A pretty compelling call to action, I’d say, but the workshop was framed merely as a good start. FTC commissioners other than Leibowitz were not in evidence. A second workshop on potential government action is scheduled for spring.

Leibowitz spoke too of coordinating with similar spade work getting started at the Federal Communications Commission. And part of what the FTC hopes to do is advise Congress, which is also early days into exploring constructive interventions.

So, yes, it’s slow. That is how it works in government. Incremental steps along the way like the workshop are essential. The more consequential the change, the longer it takes.
But that pace is out of sync with the rate of destruction in the news business, as Leibowitz recognizes. As I highlighted in my presentation during the conference’s opening session, the business fortunes of newspapers and other traditional media will likely rally, but the next six months to a year are almost certain to be a continuation of cutbacks, buyouts and business failures.
In another year, much more of the Old Order may be so far gone it cannot be saved.
Waxman, a smart advocate of proactive government interventions, was even more explicit when he spoke Wednesday about the groundwork needed before anything governmental can be accomplished.
First, he said, “there needs to be consensus within the media industry and the larger community it serves that (any) proposal is in the public interest.” In fact, there is still more than a little sentiment within the battered industry of thanks-but-no-thanks, especially if the proposition is direct government investment in content.
Second, Waxman said, any proposal must have bi-partisan support. A liberal-led bailout of news outlets perceived as leaning liberal won’t fly.
So while I wish that the pace of fact-finding, debate and action could be accelerated, realistically I don’t think it can be or will be.
Which brings me to another takeaway. There are more than a few people with credible credentials who have not only written off traditional journalism outlets, they all but say good riddance.
Author, investor and business professor Jonathan Knee said he was not especially bothered by the withering of print newspapers and other traditional reporting, because he can find everything he really needs to know on the Web. (I’m sure Knee has a more shaded view than his brief workshop remarks allowed since he has been an investment banker on several corporate media deals).
Former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, an influential member on the Knight Commission on information needs of communities, summarized its findings without even the nod to journalism that the full report gives.
It’s Hundt’s thesis (and the report’s) that with the right data access, strengthened libraries, leadership from universities and suitable “community gatherings,” citizens will plug into a do-it-yourself system for assembling and interpreting information, probably superior to the Old Order.
A big building with an expensive press, Hundt observed, is “not necessarily a logical hub for community conversation.”
To which I respectfully say: That’s misguided and dangerous.
I don’t begrudge Knight or anyone else generous start-up investment in the shiny new, alternative and all-digital. Even those not yet sustainable experiments are already adding a great deal and have a role in informing communities that will only grow.
But I don’t get the logic of throwing under the bus traditional media and the work of the professional journalists they still employ, effectively enabling and cheering on their potential demise. I think even those frustrated futurists may find themselves missing some of that old-school journalism as more and more of it disappears.

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