DC Regulators Host Unique Debate On News Industry’s Future

Washington, DC ─ More than 70 communications experts this week debated how consumers can protect their interests despite the decline of traditional newspapers and broadcasters.

Increased government support for news-gathering was the key topic in the path-breaking two-day conference entitled, “How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?” hosted by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on Dec. 1 and 2.  Industry speakers ranged in clout from News Corp. Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch to web-based start-ups much like Connecticut Watchdog.

“It’s good that we can have an honest discussion” of the relationship between law and business opportunities said Reed Hundt, a 1990s chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).  The Democrat said that long-standing fears of government meddling with the news media would have made such a conference “unthinkable” previously during his decades in Washington since he left Yale Law School in 1974.

Some tension is inevitable.  “The news media is here in part to make life miserable for public officials,” said Steven Waldman, an FCC official just three days on the job as a senior advisor to its chairman Julius Genachowski after a career as an Internet entrepreneur and reporter for such publications as Newsweek and the online edition of the Wall Street Journal.

The FTC conference speakers and their videos are on the workshop section of the FTC website: www.ftc.gov.

Many speakers noted that traditional media are reacting to declines in their advertising by cutting coverage of vital public affairs. 

“We cannot risk the loss of an informed public and all that means because of this market failure,” said U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-California), who added that any proposed solutions through his committee would require bipartisan support.

Murdoch complained that Internet-based rivals infringe the copyrights of traditional media, hurting the public.  Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post (for which I write also) responded that every news operation uses content from others under longstanding, court-enforced “fair use” standards, and that innovation is helping the public.  

Aneesh Chopra, assistant to President Obama for technology, said the new administration is relying on technology and inputs from the public in unprecedented ways.  He cited as examples communication on such consumer needs as health care options and such public affairs concerns as lobbying for federal contracts.

National Public Radio President and CEO Vivian Schiller said her network’ success provides a model for public/private funding.  Even so, the network’s local coverage should be enhanced by more federal money, she said in arguing that funding doesn’t mean government control. 

Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press, countered that improper political interference in public broadcasting has been documented in recent years.  Even so, he advocated more federal funding for news organizations and infrastructure, along with more “firewall” protections for journalistic independence. 

Historians noted that federal policies on infrastructure development, copyright, taxation and antitrust have long assisted the news media.

The conference’s final panel included the founders of two web-based start-ups from Connecticut.  Branford Eagle editor Marcia Chambers, who is also journalist-in-residence at Yale, began her news site as a column four years ago.  She plans to work with others to “reinvigorate state coverage.” 

Paul Bass, editor of the New Haven Independent, said he started with $80,000 in funding after leaving his longstanding job at the Advocate, and now has an annual budget of close to a half million dollars.  Bass, also executive director of the Online Journalism Project, said that interactive journalism enables community “conversations” never previously possible.

The 30-year-veteran of the news business concluded, “This is the best time to be a journalist.”

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