In the last three years, the news business has been convulsed by cataclysms. After decades of fattening themselves as advertising monopolies, news organizations are starved for resources as the once-profitable financial model has broken and new media platforms emerge to shatter the habitual ways people get news and information. Journalists left to mind the shop are disoriented and dispirited.
Those who care deeply about the vital function the press plays in a free society are trying to figure out how to salvage essential newsgathering in this clamorous, undulating landscape of mobile devices, social networks, and the coming Mac tablet. And we’ve had no shortage of commentators on this great unraveling. Now comes the Free Press, a Washington lobbying group that defines its broad goal as “reforming the media.” It argues this can be achieved by promoting diverse media ownership, public media, and universal access to communications, all the while advocating quality journalism.
Lobbyists and policy analysts for the group have collectively produced a 285-page online book, “Changing Media: Public Interest Policies for the Digital Age,” that is available as a free download on the group’s Web site. Its august title offers promise to anxious journalists. Certainly “Changing Media” is more forward thinking than most recent works on the crisis, which amount to morbid laments for what is being lost. Free Press is searching for solutions and eager to explore what the future can or should look like. That said, “Changing Media” is a missed opportunity. While some sections contain important and interesting ideas, it is an unfocused mess of a book and a slapdash monster of wonkish, straining position papers that bury ideas under an avalanche of jargon.
At first glance, the authors, and there are many, seem to be presenting “Changing Media” as a unified book about the contemporary media landscape for a broad audience. Yet the book’s actual audience—given its content and presentation—appears to be much narrower: Obama administration policymakers.
The book contains three distinct white papers, each written by a separate group of Free Press staffers and consultants. The first and largest section (at 186 pages) spotlights issues involved with federal regulation of broadband services. Here, the authors argue that since broadband has become the “central nervous system of our economy, society and government” it should be regulated as a utility to guarantee universal access. This concept has taken hold in some European countries, and in the United States the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) expresses support for universal access as a way of helping the poor and those living in rural areas have access to the Internet.
In the interest of full disclosure, I work for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which is owned by Cox Enterprises. Cox has a large cable operation among its other companies. However, I hadn’t closely followed the broadband debate and my difficulty with the way this argument is presented has nothing to do with any personal interest. The problem with this section is that, like the rest of the book, it is poorly written. It’s repetitive and, in many parts, mewling in tone.
Two sentences—selected because of their resemblance to so many more—make this point clearly:
OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries with line-sharing policies have DSL penetration levels nearly twice those of countries that do not require line sharing. We see a similar result for the “bitstream access” policy, (a policy that is essentially wholesale/resale like that required under Section 251(c)(4) of the Act).
To be fair, the authors’ animus stems in large part from fighting a devil-in-the-details war for years against a larger, better-financed army of corporate lobbyists. But they spend a great many words reviewing the FCC’s arcane rules and regulations, which they argue were contrived to benefit big business. The authors, especially the Free Press’s FCC lobbyist S. Derek Turner, have it in for Michael Powell, FCC chairman under the Bush administration, who, in their words, led the commission on a “radical pro-business, anti-consumer regulatory path.” And in dozens of pages companies are attacked in clunky, ineffective ways for trying to control the flow of information and restrict copyright violations. All of this dense and badly sifted material has little or nothing to do with preserving journalism—either in producing or in distributing news as a sustainable for-profit or nonprofit enterprise.
The second part of the book is far more interesting, reasonable and better organized. The authors of these papers present some interesting models for possible journalistic enterprises, including looks at “low-profit alternatives” such as nonprofits, foundation-supported efforts, endowed companies, and even municipal ownership. However, given their background as academics and writers for small nonprofit publications, the authors’ experiences are far removed from the harsh realities of the marketplace. Each of these ideas—in fact, all of them—can be tried and are being tried as vital experiments, some of which will doubtless help us find future paths.
Digital Media’s Public Square
But all of these partial responses to the crisis fail to address the core question: Where is the new public square? Media fragmentation into infinite shards allows for unprecedented exploration and freedom. People can look at everything, whenever and wherever they choose to, using an array of digital devices. It’s also easy to avoid with a keystroke what we find unpleasant or distasteful. These technological gifts, however, effectively implode any notion of weaving together the threads of our broader community.
Even a decade ago, news of importance to a community would “go viral” by being on a newspaper’s front page. Now every Web site is a front page, and even then many of these pages are not the route that a lot of people travel to get information. So the value of that front page has been profoundly diminished. The Internet is an ocean of information and images; it is not a mass medium. In fact, it has destroyed our understanding of mass communication.
Philanthropy is at work right now setting up nonprofit digital news operations in mid-sized cities. Often the funding goes to support a small investigative team and a handful of other journalists, often former newspaper reporters, to watchdog local government. But if few people regularly check the site or follow the Twitter feed, is anyone hearing the tree falling in this forest? Similarly, an endowment can fund a tax-free news operation, but if people don’t purchase the product or go to the site, does anyone notice?
People chatter about news that “goes viral,” yet I am amazed at what doesn’t go viral—all of the reporting that sits fallow in the infinite field of everywhere that is the Internet. Can it be surprising that the value of Internet advertising is dropping when it’s hard to increase value in an infinite space? It seems clear that we’ve embarked on a middle passage between what was and what will be and this diffuse experience of news distribution will not survive in its current shape.
The promise these new models hold is tentative and speculative, and the authors of “Changing Media” are cautious in hedging their bets about the future. The result, however, is that what they say seems more summation than revelation, and the expert voices they cite (including blogger Jeff Jarvis, among others) don’t have much of lasting significance to add to this discussion. Again, words slip too often into clichés, such as when talk turns to the issue of public subsidies for media organizations; such an option, they write, “is as American as apple pie, and it deserves a healthy booster shot now.”
In the final section of the book, a persuasive argument (though still lacking in intellectual rigor) is made for the federal government increasing its funding of public media. They model their ideas on public media in Britain and Canada (the BBC and CBC). Yet they don’t dig very deep into the issue of how the acceptance of public funding can also leave a news organization vulnerable to political forces and budget cutbacks.
Arguments in this book are made from exclusively liberal positions. For example, offered as evidence of high-quality public radio news is “Democracy Now!” Amy Goodman’s show that won an award from a left-leaning organization. Of course, the importance of diverse voices is stressed, but not so much diversity of opinion. Conservative perspectives are presented with disdain, yet to ignore the impact and influence of such voices in a serious discussion of media reform is myopic.
Journalists are unlikely to learn much in “Changing Media” that is going to help them navigate the shifting terrain and have their work be paid. They also have an abiding interest in how it will be distributed with regularity to as large an audience as possible. On these points, the authors don’t present any clear idea. What they believe—and advocate for—is that everybody should be able to have broadband access, and they think nonprofits and similar “new” models might work out. And they like public radio and public television.
This self-proclaimed manifesto of a journalistic digital revolution falls flat. My hope is that someone with writing skills and a penchant for coherence will pick up on this impulse and move us closer to a sustainable future. Certainly, there is no shortage of such ideas percolating on the Internet. Yet, like everything else there, they are presented only in fragments. The longing is for someone to summon us together in the public square with deft argument, assembled evidence, and the sincere convincement to offer us a workable vision.
Cameron McWhirter, a 2007 Nieman Fellow, is an investigative reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He is writing a book about the “Red Summer” race riots of 1919.