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Don't Mistake the Messenger for the News Media

One observer suggests that efforts to rescue American journalism are generally more efforts to rescue American journalism companies.
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The Federal Trade Commission has been working for the past year on a set of theoretical policy interventions that would — to use the FTC's own ambitious language — foster the "reinvention of journalism."

This month, the commission released 35 pages of ideas in a discussion paper that ranges from the plausible (boost funding for PBS) to the dubious (rejigger copyright law to help newspapers fight off "parasitic aggregators"). The FTC is merely throwing ideas at the wall, the report stresses, not setting government policy.

But all of the ideas flow from the same fundamental premise, which the FTC seems to accept with little debate: "In sum," the report warns, "newspapers have not yet found a new, sustainable business model, and there is reason for concern that such a business model may not emerge."

At least, not out of industry's own innovation. An obvious alternative: some kind of government nudge.

"I think it's the wrong place to be starting," said Robert Picard, editor of the Journal of Media Business Studies. "Essentially, you're dealing with an industry that last year made more than $50 billion just in the newspaper industry alone, by the time you add advertising and other incomes in there. That's a significant amount of resources to be used for news. The question is: Is it being used for news or not? No, it's not. It's being used to pay debt, it's being used to pay corporate salaries, it's being used to provide content that has nothing to do with news."

Picard's vision for the future of the industry — one in which it more or less saves itself, flouting the FTC's premature obituary — looks more like a return to the past than a radical reinvention for the new millennium. Subscribers once paid for their newspapers a price that more accurately reflected the cost of producing the things. But over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, newspaper revenue migrated away from subscriptions toward advertising, to the point where the latter source made up as much as 85 percent of newspaper revenue (that figure is less than 60 percent in some Western European countries).

THE IDEA LOBBYMiller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

To draw advertisers, papers had to draw more readers. And to draw more readers, they built out multiplying sections of content — sports, A&E, the kids' page, the gardening section — that had little to do with A1 news. "You have to go back to the basic business model that we have today," Picard said. "Basically, it's to create a product for people who are not interested in news."

(The Idea Lobby, written by a recovering sportswriter, balks a bit at the idea that sports coverage isn't news, but Picard makes this valid point: When we wring our hands over the threat to democracy from a dying newspaper industry, we are not really worrying about who will print tomorrow's box scores.)

He figures news organizations should refocus on the content no one else can do better — and ESPN, Gawker and Perez Hilton can do plenty of the other stuff much better — and readers should get used to paying a more realistic price for it. This strategy admittedly relies on cutting readership, not expanding it (Picard pegs the percentage of people who actually care about daily news at 20-25 percent of the population). Questions of format — will the news come in print, on the Web, over a tablet? — are secondary.

None of this really has anything to do with the kind of government interventions embedded in the FTC report. That's not to say newspapers have never benefited from federal help; in fact, they've long received a host of tax breaks and, historically, major rate cuts from the U.S. Postal Service. But the more radical ideas so far proposed, such as giving newspapers an antitrust exemption to erect common Internet pay walls, are really more about saving existing news corporations than the news itself, Picard said.

"Where the FTC is making a mistake, and it's a mistake that's made throughout the journalism profession as a whole, and the news industry as a whole, is they make the mistake of blending journalism and the organizations that are currently providing journalism as one entity, and they're not," he said. "Journalism is not an organization, it's a process. That has to be separated out."

Journalism the process — Picard is not too worried about that. The Chicago Tribune Company, on the other hand, that's another question.

One great benefit of his logic — that journalists can fix their business model without government stepping in against the bully Google — is that it allows us to sidestep the whole messy conversation about government's appropriate role in protecting the institution that is supposed to hold government accountable.

"It's a radical departure from the philosophy we've had for 235 years now: that in fact this industry is special, therefore we keep [the government's] hands out of it," Picard said of the FTC paper. "All of a sudden, they're now saying, 'We're going to throw that out; it's special, therefore [the government] should get involved in it.' That's a big shift without a lot of evidence to base it on."