FTC’s Shallow Dive into Journalism’s Future


As everyone knows, the nation’s scam artists, monopolists and market-riggers have all gone into hibernation during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. This has given the Federal Trade Commission the breathing room it needs to intercede in an arena where its role is, at best, unclear.

This week, the commission is holding a two-day workshop entitled How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age? — the purpose of which is “to explore how the Internet has affected journalism.”

The agenda — bizarrely available only in PDF format; would someone at the agency who has a clue kindly tell the public-affairs people that it’s okay to post such things in HTML? — suggests great breadth. Speakers include old-guard media barons like Rupert Murdoch and budding barons like Arianna Huffington, but also many of the traditional and new-media folks whose names show up again and again in places like Jim Romenesko‘s Poynter blog. It’s an impressive list (and, disclosure, includes a bunch of friends as well as two university colleagues).

You’ll also note, however, that the schedule assures little depth. The time slots are arranged in a rapid-fire manner, with keynote-ish speakers having no real time to offer much more than their standard-issue talking points. Panels are even more lickety-split, with nine members in 90 minutes; let’s see, that’s about 8 minutes each plus introductions and no audience Q&A, or 6 minutes each if you want to (very briefly) include the audience.

The event comes under the FTC’s Office of Policy Planning. Here’s its mission:

The Office of Policy Planning assists the Commission to develop and implement long-range competition and consumer protection policy initiatives and advises staff on cases raising new or complex policy and legal issues.

One of the Office of Policy Planning’s primary roles involves competition advocacy, submitting filings supporting competition principles to state legislatures, regulatory boards, and officials; state and federal courts; other federal agencies; and professional organizations. The Office also organizes public workshops and issues reports on cutting-edge competition and consumer protection topics, addressing questions of substantive antitrust law, industry-specific practices, and significant national and international policy debates.

In addition to the Office of Policy Planning, several offices throughout the Commission, including the Bureau of Competition’s Office of Policy and Coordination and the Policy Studies unit within the Office of the General Counsel, also provide policy advice.

This has what to do with journalism, exactly?

Ah, we learn more in a Federal Register Notice (also PDF-only, naturally). The notice observes, in a promising start, that the Internet has created unparalleled possibilities.

The commission could have stopped there, and not bothered to hold the workshop. It could have recognized that we’re in the early days of a transition from one set of business models (most of which have not been very competitive) to an emerging, hyper-competitive sphere. There’s never been more reason for optimism than there is today, given the massive amount of journalistic and business experimentation going on all around us.

But the commission staff has much to fret about, spurred in large part by the incessant whining of the newspaper industry in recent times. (Could it also have been influenced by the fact that the FTC chairman is married to a Washington Post reporter columnist? No, this obviously had absolutely no bearing on anything.) The commission has discovered that the advertising model which once supported many kinds of journalism has eroded. Quoting several economists, the workshop notice says “public affairs reporting may indeed be particularly subject to market failure.”

Market failure? What about the market failure — which as far as I can tell never got any attention from a succession of FTC people during the past half-century — of the monopolies and oligopolies created by media organizations during that period? The public affairs journalism was, for the most part, a modest spinoff of the extortionate advertising prices they charged when they had near-absolute market power to charge anything they wished. Only when there’s real competition does the FTC get interested.

The commission, inevitably, is asking for opinions on whether federal taxpayers should subsidize journalism more directly than the indirect subsidies of low postal rates for print; giveaways of publicly owned airwaves (spectrum) to broadcasters; the odious “Newspaper Preservation Act” granting partial antitrust immunity to community newspapers, etc. Several of the speakers are surely going to rise to that bait with a loud Yes. (Believe it or not, meanwhile, the commission is asking if Congress should give journalism-related businesses even more antitrust immunity. Good grief.)

There’s only one subsidy that makes sense, only one that wouldn’t put government meddling squarely into the practice of journalism, an inevitable result of the direct subsidies being pushed by well-meaning but misguided media thinkers. It’s not on the agenda, however.

Taxpayer-assisted infrastructure — especially the postal system and low rates for sending publications — helped create the newspaper business, and enabled a lot of other commerce. Bring forward that logic to high-speed Internet access for all Americans, and enable the 21st Century communications infrastructure for all competitors.

As it is, we’re moving toward a market failure of frightening proportions, as the telecom industry clamps down, or threatens to, on people’s ability to use Internet connections as they see fit. We’re moving toward a media business consolidation that would terrify make any real champion of open markets: a cable-phone duopoly.

The Federal Communications Commission has jurisdiction over telecom, and is looking at the issue. But when it comes to how journalism will thrive in (not just survive) the Internet age, this should be high on any list of competitive issues of interest to agencies that push for competitive markets.

The word “broadband” is nowhere to be found in the FTC’s planning document. Coming from an agency that says it wants to promote competition, that speaks volumes.

UPDATE: Geoff Cowan and David Westphal write that governments support journalism to the tune of more than $1 billion a year, and note one particularly targeted form: legal advertising that goes to dominant print organizations. (They also claim that it’s a common myth that there’s no government support for media, but they don’t cite anyone of prominence who’s saying that.) They are all in favor of continuing government assistance, more so that I am, but at least they strongly urge that it remain content-neutral, something that I strongly doubt could happen if direct subsidies ever happen.

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