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The future of journalism 
is a policy issue

By Charles Benton

With the newspaper industry reeling from reduced advertising revenues, consumers migrating to new news outlets, and burdensome debt, many are asking if policymakers should step in to save journalism.

Media ownership consolidation 
hurts good journalism
“In many towns and cities, the newspaper is an endangered species.” With these words on November 13, 2007, Kevin Martin, then-Federal Communications Commission chairman, proposed sweeping changes to the nation’s media ownership rules.

Seventy-five years ago, Congress created the FCC to regulate the nation’s electronic communications systems—telephones and radio followed by television, cable, satellite, and later, the Internet. Newspapers did not fall under the FCC’s jurisdiction, but in 1975, the Commission adopted rules banning the ownership of a television or radio station by the owner of a newspaper in the same local community. The aim of this cross-ownership ban was to prevent one voice, one corporate owner, from having too much control over the flow of information in a community.
Martin changed the rules, arguing that newspapers’ ownership of local TV or radio stations could restore these companies to financial health. “If we believe that newspaper journalism plays a unique role in the functioning of our democracy, then we cannot turn a blind eye to the financial condition in which these companies find themselves,” he wrote. Although the presidential election of 2008 pushed Martin off the national stage, the debate over his controversial rules change continues.
Research shows that mergers between newspapers and TV outlets are not a solution for the crisis of newspapers or the problems of journalism. Fordham University’s Mark Cooper finds that large multimedia chains and cross-owned properties are having just as much trouble as stand-alone entities, and mergers have tended to reduce the quality of journalism, especially investigative journalism. (
Cooper’s findings will prove important over the next year as President Barack Obama picks a new FCC chairman and commissioners. In mid-April, a federal court agreed to delay ruling on challenges to Martin’s loosening of the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership ban until a newly-constituted FCC can take another look at it. The public will again get an opportunity to weigh in on the issue and let policymakers know how much concentration of media ownership is acceptable in their communities.
Antitrust “flexibility” sought 
to create new business models
Recognizing the financial problems facing the newspaper industry, Congress, too, is taking a look at journalism. In April, a House committee held on a hearing on “A New Age for Newspapers: Diversity of Voices, Competition and the Internet.”
There, Brian Tierney, CEO of Philadelphia Newspapers, said newspaper publishers need “flexibility” to explore new business models. He asked that antitrust regulators not preclude publishers from “experimenting with innovative content distribution and cost savings arrangements.” He called for Congress to pass legislation quickly to provide expedited Department of Justice review of newspaper transactions that reduce costs and achieve other efficiencies, as well as limited antitrust relief for newspapers to discuss and experiment with new, more sustainable business models and strategies.
Department of Justice antitrust official Carl Shapiro testified that newspapers, however rare and financially weak, can adapt and ultimately conquer the threat posed by the Internet, and he indicated the Obama administration will oppose immunity from antitrust laws.
A national journalism strategy
At the April House hearing, Free Press, a public interest advocate organization, called for a national journalism strategy, a comprehensive effort across government, industry, and public stakeholders to work together to promote a vibrant news marketplace. Free Press insists that the strategy be based on five principles: 1) Protecting the First Amendment, 2) Producing quality coverage, 3) Providing adversarial perspectives, 4) Promoting public accountability, and 5) Prioritizing innovation.
Free Press Policy Director Ben Scott testified, “We have to recognize that the Internet can’t solve all of journalism’s problems because more than a third of the country is not connected to high-speed Internet today. Solutions that rely on technology will also have to deal with the digital divide.”
Journalism has always been a policy issue
Free Press is drawing from a long history of governmental support for journalism. Early in U.S. history postal subsidies helped distribute newspapers. Printing contracts and paid publication of government notices also subsidized newspapers.
Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black wrote that the First Amendment “rests on the assumption that the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the public, that a free press is a condition of a free society.” He argued for the right and necessity of the government to counteract private monopolistic control over the media.
More recently, Justice Anthony Kennedy argued that “assuring the public has access to a multiplicity of information sources is a governmental purpose of the highest order.”
The question before use now, then, is, where do we want to end up? For it is through the far-seeing policy goals of the public sector that we can help guide the dynamic innovations and flexibility of the private sector. The government will play—as it always has—some role in the shape of media and journalism to come. It is up to us to enter that debate—with Congress the FCC, and any venue—to ensure we create the conditions necessary for a democratic and free press to flourish for years to come. Our democracy demands it.
Since 1981 Charles Benton has served as Chairman of the Benton Foundation. He now also serves as Chief Executive Officer. Charles has also had a long career in the media education and entertainment businesses, including Public Media Inc. He has led the Foundation through its evolution from a grantmaking to an operating foundation devoted generally to the field of communications. Charles has served on a number of federal boards including the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science, the Presidential Advisory Committee on Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters, and, currently, the Federal Communications Commission’s Consumer Advisory Committee.

Category: Essay


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