No, I Do Not Support the Blogger Lawsuit Against Huffington Post

Updated

I have a request for anyone who’s tempted to quote me about the no-pay-for-bloggers situation at the Huffington Post. Please don’t use my words as support for the notion that Arianna Huffington — or her investors or AOL, the new owner of this online media organization — has any legal obligation to pay the site’s op-ed bloggers even a thin dime.

Again and again, unfortunately, journalists and others discussing the matter have used what I wrote back in February, when AOL said it was buying HuffPost for more than $300 million, in ways that do not reflect what I actually believe. The latest example comes from the Miami Herald, where Edward Wasserman has a piece about an anti-Huffington lawsuit that demands payment for the bloggers who, by all accounts, helped bring the site to prominence but were never promised any payment for their work. Wasserman writes of the lawsuit’s lead plaintiff Jonathan Tasini:

He says HuffPost owes its success to the creative work of the unpaid and the unsung, an estimated 9,000 writers in all, and now that Arianna is putting an estimated $100 million of AOL’s money into her own pocketbook, they’re entitled to a little something in the tip jar.

Tasini has drawn some support. The Newspaper Guild, the journalists’ union, called on its 26,000 members not to perform any more free work for HuffPost. Los Angeles Times columnist Tim Rutten likened HuffPost to “a galley rowed by slaves and commanded by pirates.” Dan Gillmor, journalist and Internet theorist, said Huffington should “cut a bunch of checks to a bunch of the most productive contributors on whose work she’s built a significant part of her new fortune.”

The quote, taken from my instant-analysis reaction to the deal, is accurate. I strongly believed then, and still do, that Huffington should be wise and ethical enough to send a small percentage of her (and her investors’) big score to the people who helped her so much in the site’s early days.

But must she be required to do so? Absolutely not.

I do not support Tasini’s lawsuit. In fact, if this case doesn’t get laughed out of court by the first judge who hears it, I’ll be amazed. I’ll also be willing to testify on Huffington’s behalf. Her lawyers are surely smart enough not to call me, of course, because I’d hold my nose as I defended their client, and would explain why to anyone who asked. (I’m not sure whether the hapless Newspaper Guild backs the lawsuit, but as of Sunday, April 24, Wasserman’s column is prominently displayed on the Guild’s website.)

Note: I’m working on piece discussing networked-media creation and compensation. Look for that soon.

Update: Another analysis of the Tasini lawsuit, written by a law student, says I “demanded that Ms. Huffington share the wealth with the unpaid bloggers who helped create it.” That characterization is incorrect (in addition to misspelling my name), as even a casual reading of my original piece makes clear. For a site that says it “reports on the state of legal journalism and encourages conversation about the accuracy and felicity of reporting on law,” perhaps a conversation about accuracy would be useful.

 

Gannett Whacks the Rank and File to Pay the Execs

No one who has followed media giant Gannett will be surprised by David Carr’s New York Times column this week, in which he makes clear that Gannett is just another big American company that overpays its top people while treating the workers as throwaway material. The piece explains how workers are pushed into furloughs while the bosses rake in millions for managing the shrinkage of a company that — despite some worthwhile digital initiatives — has poorly navigated the changing realities.

The piece should make your blood boil, given its portrayal of the greedy executives. Carr says he’s not talking about “incompetents feeding at the trough,” which is correct. The top people at Gannett are quite competent at what they do, namely guiding the decline with little creative response.

I can’t tell, at the end of the piece, whether he’s being ironic. He writes:

Jim Hopkins has been editing the Gannett Blog since he took a buyout from USA Today where he was a business reporter in 2008.

“It has become a case study in how a mature company facing sudden and tremendous pressure tries to save itself,” he said. “It’s been fascinating to watch in real time, but I think there have been terrible consequences. Gannett has a big footprint in 100 communities, and those places have less and less information.”

“I wouldn’t want their jobs,” he concedes. “But there is so little empathy for the employees and so little understanding of how these packages are perceived. I think they don’t realize how this looks.”

Obviously.

What’s much more likely — hence my uncertainty about whether he’s being ironic — is the opposite. What’s obvious to me is that these executives are cookie-cutter versions of so many of corporate America’s top dogs, whose pay has soared to new heights while almost 10 percent of the workforce remains idle.

Surely they know how it looks. They just don’t care.

Will Publishers Show some Spine with Apple? The Jury is Out

Is it finally dawning on the news business that Apple is not a friend, nor an ally, nor even a partner in any true sense of the world?There are some signs of sanity emerging in the week since Apple announced its terms of engagement for offering subscriptions via mobile apps, rules that were arrogant even by that company’s standard.

To recap: The company’s new in-app subscription rules, issued a week ago in a press release purporting to quote Supreme Leader Steve Jobs, reinforced Apple’s determination to be publications’ gatekeeper in every sense of that word. What took publishers aback was the financial part of the rules: To publish via Apple’s iOS ecosystem — currently the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad) — news organizations must agree to give Apple a 30 percent cut of every transaction with audiences. Apple had already made it clear that it would take a cut of in-app advertising sales. Moreover, publishers were not allowed to charge a higher price for the app subscription than they do in any other format — and they couldn’t even put a link into the app showing potential customers how to buy subscriptions elsewhere.

This was too much even for some of Apple’s many media-business acolytes. Even so, the most serious protests have come not for news organizations but rather from companies like Rhapsody, which sells music subscriptions and realized that Apple’s plan was either to kill or own their businesses. News organizations, whether out of fear or caution or both, have been largely silent. A few have already acceded to Apple’s demands.

Meanwhile, after having adapted Readability software as part of its Safari browser, Apple refused to allow this tiny startup to offer the same functionality as an app — because that would interfere with Apple’s insistence that it alone will control how anyone makes money.

All of this goes to the bigger picture in the new publishing environment: the need for content creators to recognize that they need to actively seek options. One of the most interesting is Google’s One Pass system, which is more in the category of announcement-ware than reality at this point. The much lower cost to publishers — 10 percent instead of 30 percent — is the most obvious lure. Another, for publishers, is sharing key subscriber information, but if Google is smart it will offer users an opt-out in at least some circumstances.

An interesting experiment is Time’s Sports Illustrated mega-approach, called “All Access,” or a subscription to print plus online versions (other than iPad). The mistake here, I believe, is charging more for a digital-only subscription than a print one. The economics of that approach are good only for Time, not its customers who are not as stupid as the company thinks they are.

The All Access system also gives Time editorial control over what it produces. What remains the most publisher-antagonistic element of the Apple ecosystem is the one thing that most media companies still hate to discuss: To even exist in that ecosystem, they must give Apple — not their own editors — final say over whether the content they produce is acceptable under Apple’s “we’ll disallow or remove it if we don’t like it” rules.

You find not a hint of this, for example, in this week’s “Media Equation” column by the New York Times’ normally sensible David Carr. This isn’t the first time he’s neglected that particular elephant in the room (and the New York Times Co.’s dealings with Apple remain a mystery that gets no comment from the company), but I wish he’d address the issue one of these days, as it’s not trivial and goes to the heart of free speech in an online world.

Traditional Publishers that Agree to Apple’s iOS Subscription Demands are Insane, or Desperate

UPDATED

Apple has finally clarified what it will demand of publishers that want to sell subscriptions through its iPhone and iPad app ecosystem. The demands are extortionate, and traditional publishers agreeing to them are crazy if not suicidal.

Here’s Apple’s official pronouncement. Key items:

Apple will permit publications to sell subscriptions from inside their apps. But look at what Apple then demands:

Publishers who use Apple’s subscription service in their app can also leverage other methods for acquiring digital subscribers outside of the app. For example, publishers can sell digital subscriptions on their web sites, or can choose to provide free access to existing subscribers. Since Apple is not involved in these transactions, there is no revenue sharing or exchange of customer information with Apple. Publishers must provide their own authentication process inside the app for subscribers that have signed up outside of the app. However, Apple does require that if a publisher chooses to sell a digital subscription separately outside of the app, that same subscription offer must be made available, at the same price or less, to customers who wish to subscribe from within the app. In addition, publishers may no longer provide links in their apps (to a web site, for example) which allow the customer to purchase content or subscriptions outside of the app.

The arrogance of this is stunning. Consider, first, that publishers are not allowed to sell their content at a higher price inside the App Store even though Apple takes 30 percent of the money. And then consider that publishers are not allowed even to show their audiences, from inside the apps, how they can bypass Apple and get the subscription directly from the publishers themselves.

The second demand is in line with Apple’s current insistence that it can decide what content is allowed within news organizations’ apps. The cowardice they’ve shown in this arena has surely emboldened Apple to extend it in this anti-customer way.

None of this should surprise anyone who’s been watching Apple take firmer and firmer control of the iOS ecosystem, or who’s watched media companies compete for the right to be Apple’s pets. But it’s discouraging nonetheless.

The Apple deal will make more sense to startup publishers that want to avoid billing issues by leaving the back-end finances to Apple. Even they, however, should realize that they’re turning over their futures to a company that is not working in their interest in the long run.

What this should do is lead publishers, especially traditional ones, to speed up their development of HTML5 applications and apps for other operating systems like Android. But as the lemmings head for the cliff, I’m not holding my breath waiting for them to change course.

UPDATE: Ryan Carson pleads with people to “fight Apple’s subscription extortion.”

Free as in lemonade

This article was originally published on Salon on July 7, 2010.

In which a newspaper columnist attacks little girls for the anti-American act of giving away lemonade. Really

Sometimes you can’t tell if someone is pulling your leg or being serious. So for a few minutes after I read this column from the Chicago Sun-Times I was sure it was a gag, but then I realized it was published on July 5 and not April 1.

To sum it up: The writer, Terry Savage, got all exercised because three girls in an upscale suburb had set up a lemonade stand but were giving it away instead of demanding payment. Here is my favorite part of the rant, in which the kids are instructed:

You must charge something for the lemonade. That’s the whole point of a lemonade stand. You figure out your costs — how much the lemonade costs, and the cups — and then you charge a little more than what it costs you, so you can make money. Then you can buy more stuff, and make more lemonade, and sell it and make more money.

But wasn’t this really about the spirit of giving, as another person suggested? Savage insisted:

That’s not the spirit of giving. You can only really give when you give something you own. They’re giving away their parents’ things — the lemonade, cups, candy. It’s not theirs to give.

Uh … Let’s follow the “logic” of the second quote just a bit, then return to the first. The girls did own what they were giving away: It had already been given to them by their parents. Surely that’s as easy for the kids (and maybe Savage) to understand as any mercantile notions, no?

The idea, more important, that the parents needed to teach them to approach this endeavor in mercantile ways — or, I guess, be scarred forever as incomplete capitalists — is laugh-out-loud loony. Voluntarism, and doing good deeds, are as American (or used to be) as getting rich.

Savage did have a reasonable point spinning off the initial premise:

America is getting it all wrong when it comes to government, and taxes, and policy. We all act as if the “lemonade” or benefits we’re “giving away” is free.

And so the voters demand more — more subsidies for mortgages, more bailouts, more loan modification and longer periods of unemployment benefits.

They’re all very nice. But these things aren’t free.

No, they aren’t. And it’s clear enough that our national sense of entitlement has led us into the worst kind of trouble. Someday, maybe soon, the reckoning will arrive, and when it does America’s grotesque debts will come due. My generation has stolen so much of the future from our kids and generations to come that we should be ashamed.

But we learned to steal from experts — especially from people like the Wall Street gang whose financial “innovations” were new kinds of paper that were only one step removed from the counterfeiters of yore, and apparently legal only because several generations of politicians were paid to make it so. Successive Congresses and presidents, except for a few years during the Clinton administration, spent our kids’ money with epic irresponsibility.

We learned to steal from the people who raided the treasury for billionsin cash that went missing in Iraq after the United States invaded. We learned from the epic corporate welfare of recent years, such as the telecom industry, which got exclusive use of our airwaves and street rights-of-way and then sold it back to us. As Cory Doctorow notes, in a different but fun take on the lemonade scandal:

Get that, kids? The correct thing to do with the stuff you appropriate from others is sell it, not give it away! Sounds about right — companies take over our public aquifers and sell us the water they pump out of them; telcos get our rights of way for their infrastructure, then insist that they be able to tier their pricing without regard to the public interest. Corporatism in a nutshell, really.

But, yes, let’s face it: We also learned to steal from each other as so many Americans demanded services we were totally unwilling to pay for. Some in the Tea Party crowd are hilariously hypocritical when they demand that government keep its hands off Medicare, but even before the economy went south we were collectively demanding that government (at all levels) spend or promise to spend money that could not possibly be repaid without higher taxes, which we then insist are off the table as even a possibility.

What America does need to do is recover our senses about responsibility. It will take a generation of investment and sacrifice, starting, one hopes, with the people whose corruption created the mess we’re in today, especially Wall Street and our political class, but also everyone else who’s been spending the next generation’s money so freely.

The investments won’t come only from the taxpayers, though we have enormous challenges we can only handle with national decisions. Shared sacrifice will mean a restored sense of voluntarism and civic duty.

People volunteer their services all the time, not looking for payment (ever heard of the barn-raising or a volunteer fire department in a small town, for example?). The “business model” for community theater is to enrich a community’s cultural life, and to give amateur actors a way to go onstage and fulfill something in their own lives. Maybe “free lemonade” that quenches some thirst and makes three girls happy has community-enrichment value, too.

We’ll need to learn more from the open-source and free-software folks, who produce often  valuable work without direct payment to themselves. Some are making a living off it by providing ancillary services. Others do it because they believe in the principle. They may or may not love capitalism as it’s practiced today, but they do believe in contributing a piece of their lives to a larger cause. (The title of this post is a riff on an often-cited line about the difference between free and open-source software, as seen by Richard Stallman: Free as in freedom speech, not as in beer.) (Thanks, whitenoise…)

I sense a latent but real understanding of what’s needed among the American public, which is waiting for a leader to ask the best of ourselves. Sadly we don’t have leaders like that.

(Corrected: Terry Savage is a woman. Stupid mistake by me…)

Journalism monopoly was also a market failure

This article was originally published on Salon on June 15, 2010.

Eroding newspaper business models represent markets that are working, not just failing

More than one speaker at today’s Federal Trade Commission workshop on the future of journalism has used the expression “market failure” to describe the eroding business model of local newspapers. Perhaps they’ve picked up on the FTC’s Federal Register Notice describing the purpose for this months-long initiative, in which economists say that “public affairs reporting may indeed be particularly subject to market failure.”

There’s some truth in this, even though it’s far too early to assume that current trends will lead over the long term to less trustworthy information in the public affairs realm. (I believe the opposite, but the jury’s definitely out on this.) Framing the issue this way also buys into the mythology that we had a Golden Age of Journalism with ample public affairs reporting; even the biggest daily newspapers rarely covered governments outside several core jurisdictions in their markets.

For the privileged few journalists who lived in that era’s once-warm embrace, and especially for their employers, professional life was almost perfect — because that was an era of fabulously profitable monopolies and oligopolies. The public affairs journalism was real, and sometimes brilliant work that made a huge difference in local and national affairs. But relatively speaking to the available financial resources, it was a typically a modest spinoff of near-absolute market power the journalism companies boasted in the communities they claimed to (and sometimes did) serve.

But there’s another way to look at the media marketplace of those days. And from several other perspectives it’s safe to say that current trends amount to the overdue correction: that the pined-after Golden Age was in key ways itself the era of market failure.

If you were a local business that wanted broad reach into the community, you essentially had to pay the extortionate and always-rising display advertisement prices newspapers charged or the equally extortionate broadcast rates local TV affiliates could command. If you were an individual trying to sell a car or household item or rent out a spare room, you paid absurdly high prices for classified ads.

If your neighborhood or community or issue didn’t interest the newspaper, it might as well have been banned from the community agenda. And if you had something to say, and wanted the community to hear or read it, your options were to pray you could get a letter to the editor published, or an even-rarer Op-Ed piece, or put out fliers around town. If you tried starting a competing newspaper, you’d often find yourself at the untender mercies of Big Media companies that would squash you like a bug. Forget about starting a competing TV or radio station; the local frequencies were owned by people who never lost their licenses no matter what they did.

That was market failure, too. For everyone but the monopolists and oligopolists, the market was grossly inefficient and nearly impossible to change.

Impossible, that is, until the barriers to entry dropped. In print, desktop publishing was the first crack in the dam, but it didn’t fully open the market. That only happened when the Internet came along — when eBay and Craigslist and Monster and Google and a host of other nimble companies created Internet advertising alternatives that monopolists couldn’t begin to match; and when a zillion content-based start-ups started finding better ways to tell people the things they needed or wanted to know.

The FTC is the principal federal government agency charged with promoting competition in American commerce. I don’t recall that it paid much attention to the inefficient, uncompetitive markets we had during the dominant days of newspaper monopolies and cozy, government-protected broadcasting.

So why, when the market finally opens up to competition at a variety of levels, is it suddenly time to fret so urgently about a market failure in journalism?

As I said yesterday, I’d like to see the nation invest in powerful, open broadband infrastructure for every home and business in America — to give our 21st century communications and commerce a leg up in world competition. Even if that doesn’t happen,  but assuming the telecom duopoly doesn’t get to decide in a granular way what we can do online, the explosion of creation and innovation should tell us that we’re far too early to pronounce the death of journalism.

It could all go wrong. But at the moment, it seems to me, these markets are starting to look more like successes than failures.

Let’s subsidize open broadband, not journalists

This article was originally published on Salon on June 14, 2010.

With an open, robust data infrastructure, entrepreneurs will take care of the rest

In 1791, James Madison penned a short essay that foretold a long, and ongoing, financial involvement by government in journalism. Madison said, in part:

Whatever facilitates a general intercourse of sentiments, as good roads, domestic commerce, a free press, and particularly a circulation of newspapers through the entire body of the people, and Representatives going from, and returning among every part of them, is equivalent to a contraction of territorial limits, and is favorable to liberty, where these may be too extensive.

The following year, partly in response to Madison’s advice, Congress passed the Post Office Act of 1792. One of its key provisions — in what, looking back, was a pivotal development of a robust and free press in America — let newspaper publishers mail papers for extremely low prices. It was an outright subsidy, for a social purpose.

The goal wasn’t to give newspaper owners a special deal because they were nice people (many were not) or would support government positions (many did not). It was to help ensure that knowledge and commerce would spread as quickly, and as widely, as possible. The First Amendment generally forbade interference in what people could publish; the Post Office law provision helped make it financially feasible to ensure that other people could receive and read what was published.

By all historical accounts, the 1792 law worked. It was central to the rise of the nation as a society based on knowledge.

More than two centuries later, portions of the American journalism business — newspapers, in particular — have fallen on hard times that may, in many cases, be terminal. And we’re hearing a chorus of calls for a taxpayer bailout of the industry, on the grounds that their journalism plays such a vital role in society that taxpayers should subsidize it directly.

Some of most ardent pleas to that effect have come in front of the Federal Trade Commission, which embarked late last year on a series of workshops/hearings on journalism’s future. In the way it’s framed the issue — “How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?” — and the selection of people who’ve appeared, the FTC has given too much attention to the fearful interventionists, and an insufficient hearing to optimists who’d like to give markets more of a chance. A staff “discussion draft” of earlier workshops has drawn fierce criticism from Jeff Jarvis and others, reasonably in my view, for offering the briefest of nods in the direction of genuine innovation amid much heavy breathing about proposals to comfort dinosaurs.

Count me among the optimists who a) prefer to let markets go further along their disruptive path; but b) do so in the context of government intervention that would promote broader economic and social progress. So when I appear as a panelist tomorrow, I’ll offer two related messages:

First, direct subsidies for journalism are the wrong way to go, even dangerous. But we absolutely could use the kind of indirect help — taxpayer-funded deployment of high-capacity, wide-open broadband networks — that would be an analogue to the early American postal subsidies, and then some. This would be essential infrastructure, aimed at beefing up all 21st Century commerce and communications, including but not limited to journalism.

Second, if we got serious about broadband in this way, entrepreneurs would almost certainly come up with the journalism, including a variety of business models to augment or replace today’s, that would provide the public good we all agree comes with journalism and other trustworthy information.

To be fair, some of the subsidy advocates say they don’t want to prop up newspapers per se, though some of their remedies would do just that; others are less shy, and their explicit goal is to save newspapers.

I love newspapers. I worked in them for almost 25 years. But I’m not itching to bail out a business that is failing in large part because it was so transcendentally greedy in its monopoly era that it passed on every opportunity to survive against real financial competition. With a few exceptions, the newspaper industry essentially deserves to die at this point.

***

The broadband build-out that I and some others advocate would actually reduce government involvement in the journalism business if we did it right. Indeed, government influence, beyond the postal subsidies, has been a common thread in our history.

That’s inevitable in some ways. Governments play major roles in the success or failure of all kinds of enterprises. How corporations and not-for-profits do business, and which ones pay which taxes, are decided by lawmakers.

Journalism organizations have enjoyed their share of special treatment. Intervening via the mail, as noted above, was the linchpin. A few decades after the Post Office Act of 1792, Alexis De Tocqueville traveled around the states to research his pathbreaking volumes onDemocracy in America. He observed how widely knowledge had spread in a largely rural nation. The essential instrument of this, he explained: “The post, that great instrument of intellectual intercourse, now reaches into the backwoods.”

By the mid-1800s, says Bruce Bimber in his book, Information and American Democracy , our postal system became the most dependable and comprehensive in the world. It was an unprecedented exercise in governmental assistance, Bimber argues — “a kind of Manhattan project of communication” that helped fuel the rise of the first truly mass medium.

The key word in that Bimber quote is “communication.” Communications have always helped fuel commerce, learning and a variety of social interactions, well beyond the things we call journalism.

But support for media (and not just what now seems like traditional journalism) has been a long-running reality, not least because news proprietors had plenty to say about who got elected and re-elected. Even in the 20th Century, favorable mail rates helped countless magazines and newsletters stay solvent. Some did a lot better than that; the rise of the Time Inc. magazine empire was aided immeasurably by the fact that it could mail its publications at a cost to the publisher that barely began to cover the actual cost to the system. (In the 21st Century, Time’smaneuvering to ensure its own favorable rates, at the expense of publishers of smaller journals, made some economic sense but also had a odiously anticompetitive aspect.)

Newspapers have enjoyed other special federal and local advantages, meanwhile. One of the most flagrant special-interest favors in U.S. history has to be the Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970, in which newspaper publishers persuaded Congress and the Nixon administration to give the industry an exemption from antitrust laws. I spent more than a decade at a company that was helped by this law, so call me, too, a recipient of government largesse.

The gifts aren’t just federal. In many states, newspapers get special tax treatment, notably exemption from sales taxes. Last year, for example, the state of Washington cut newspapers’ main business taxes by 40 percent (to the same rate enjoyed by Boeing and timber companies, the state’s most powerful industries). As the University of Southern California’s Geoffrey Cowan and David Westphal observed late last year: ” Federal and state governments forego about $890 million a year on income and sales tax breaks to the newspaper industry, most of it at the state level. The actual figure is probably much higher because many states don’t report tax expenditure details.” Moreover, they wrote, public notices have been a huge revenue boost over the decades for newspapers, not to mention smaller favors like the placement of newspaper vending machines and boxes on public streets.

Print publications haven’t been the only beneficiaries of government favors. The gifts to the newspaper and magazine businesses are dwarfed in recent times by what broadcasters carved away from the taxpayers: namely free use of the public’s airwaves. Local TV broadcasters, in particular, took advantage of this windfall, worth hundreds of billions of dollars over the decades, to make money at a rate that made even newspaper shareholders envious. The unenforced “public service” requirement for all broadcasters has led to local TV “news” becoming a cesspool of violence, celebrity gossip and trivia that would have to improve to be mediocre; local newspapers are only now becoming as lousy as local TV news has been through its entire history.

So even though I personally find the direct-subsidy idea abhorrent for all kinds of reasons, I have to recognize that we’ve done a lot of it in the past. But poor policies don’t have to be the rule, do they?

***

The Federal Trade Commission’s most significant mandate is to promote competition. Strictly speaking, we might speculate that the 1792 Post Office Act and monopolization of first-class mail deterred competition from other entities in the postal-delivery market. There was a vital public value in what we did, however, and its outcome reminds us of a more recent federal endeavor with high relevance to our broadband data future: the Interstate highway system.

In the 1950s, America’s state and local highways were relatively well developed. What the nation decided it needed, and what corporate America couldn’t begin to provide, was a robust system of long-distance roads.

With data, the reverse is true: the long-distance data highways, the “backbone” networks, exist in abundance. What we really need now is better local conveyances, the ones running to and into our homes. Big telecom carriers say they’ll provide these connections — that is, theymay provide these connections if they feel like it — only if we allow them to control the content that flows on those lines.

Imagine if we’d given the interstates to corporations that could decide what kinds of vehicular traffic could use them. If you want to worry about a threat to the journalism of tomorrow, consider the power being collected by the so-called “broadband” providers right now.

If we’re going to spend taxpayers’ money in ways that could help journalism, let’s make that benefit a byproduct of something much more valuable. Let’s build out our data networks the right way, by installing fiber everywhere we can possibly put it. Then, let private and public enterprises light it up.

And at that point, we can step back and allow real competition to reign, not the phony facsimile that passes for broadband in American today, a broadband future that the carriers have loudly proclaimed their intention to control at every level. I’m not minimizing the difficulty of making this work; what I’m describing would come with many complications. But this is worth doing, because we simply can’t trust our future to the cable-phone duopoly or the relatively weak competition we’ve seen from wireless providers.

The FTC can’t do much on its own about making sure broadband works the right way. That’s partly the Federal Communication Commission’s job. But it’s really the job of Congress, which keeps failing so spectacularly at almost everything else it touches these days.

But the FTC can offer policy recommendations, and sometimes Congress actually listens. So I hope the commission will push for the kind of progress the nation’s founders had the wisdom to see. Let’s create the conditions that help ensure a market of ideas and business models, based on one of the principle America stood on in its early days: widespread contributions and access to knowledge, as a foundation of the future.

Microchanneling: One Big Implication of Google TV

UPDATED

As expected, Google TV was announced at this morning’s I/O keynote (here’s the video site). There’s so much to think about in this initiative. One strikes me as especially intriguing: This is a big boost for micro-niche video.

Clearly, a ton of development has gone into the overall notion. Some of the platform pieces are quite clever, including basing it on Android, the open-source operating system that is now running dozens of phones and other small devices. And what Google brings to the ecosystem in other ways will be a powerful incentive for many other participants.

Google seems to be focusing mostly on the value it sees in combining Hollywood with Google. Semi-ugh. To the extent that Google gets in bed with the copyright cartel, it becomes a partner to an industry that wants to impede progress, not make it.

So when Eric Schmidt was joined on stage by Sony CEO Howard Stringer at I/O, and when “content providers” like the NBA showed off what they want to do with this new system, I mostly shuddered at the prospect of DRM-laden crapola invading my life in new, annoying and ultimately dangerous ways. (DRM stands for “digital rights management,” but really means “digital restrictions management.”)

What I prefer to focus on, however, is another of the ecosystem’s more intriguing (for me) possibilities: microchannels of content that will be simple to create and watch — and much easier than in the past to monetize.

Micro-niche video has been around for a long time now. I can remember back in the late 1990s when sites like the now-defunct Pseudo offered a variety of narrowly tailored programming, and how much I relished the idea of combining the then-new DVR with the Internet and my personal tastes.

What Google is doing now is putting together a jigsaw puzzle that, if I understand what’s happening, could be one of the breakthroughs we’ve been waiting for. Here are the key pieces:

First, this is a serious and useful linking of the Web and TV. Google is working to create a reasonably seamless experience where we can use both to their best effect, with integrated search and more. It’s not the first thing of its kind, but it does seem to stretch the genre.

Second, Google brings with it an advertising marketplace. I can’t overstate how important this is. Niche content will have an instant way to find not just an audience but the advertising to help support it. (Now I see how Google really plans to make YouTube pay for itself, and then some.) The more niche the topic, the more the ads can be considered useful content as opposed to irrelevant annoyances.

Third, niches are sociable experiences if we want them to be. We love to talk about what we really know, or care about, with others who feel the same way.

The possibilities are almost infinite. I’d tune in to the Alpine Skiing Channel or the Acoustic Folk Music from the 1960s Channel or Civil War Channel or My Hometown Neighborhood Channel if they existed. And I’d participate in a social media conversation inside of them.

What could go wrong? Lots of things. Not least of those is a victory by the telecommunications carriers in their fight against what folks call network neutrality, the idea that we users of the Internet should decide what we want to see and do, rather than having the carriers decide what bits of information we get, if we get them.

Even worse with the wireless piece: Building great stuff into an operating system doesn’t guarantee you can use it if the carriers decide to limit your bandwidth, or any number of other control-freakish stuff they may try (in fairness, sometimes, to keep the networks running for people who want to, um, make phone calls or send low-bandwidth text messages).

But let’s focus on the potential: TV may be about to get a lot more interesting…

Why I’m Going to Publish the Mediactive Book with Lulu

Some members of the traditional publishing industry don’t care for what I write, and some who do aren’t thrilled with one of the ways I try to spread my ideas. So when Mediactive appears between dead-tree covers a bit later this year, the traditional publishing industry won’t be in the mix.

I’m going with Lulu, a company that understands the changes in media. This is a self-publishing service — an operation that takes my work and turns it into books that can be sold, by me and by anyone else who wants to sell them.

Some background: Last fall, when I started serious work on the book part of this project, I was under contract to the publisher that brought out We the Media a few years ago; we parted company in January. At which point, my literary agent — the beyond-terrific David Miller of the Garamond Agency — started looking for a new publisher.

My former publisher was fine with Creative Commons, as proved by the fact that we did the first book that way. But as David told me at the outset of the new search, I was likely to limit the potential field because I had one non-negotiable requirement: The book will be published under a Creative Commons license. In this case, as with We the Media, the kind of Creative Commons license would say, essentially, that anyone could make copies of the work for non-commercial use, and if they created derivative works, also only for non-commercial purposes, those works would have to be made available a) with credit to me and b) under the same license.

The principle was simple: While I want my writing to get the widest possible distribution, if anyone is going to make money on it I’d like that to be me, my publisher and my agent.

Almost a decade after Creative Commons was founded, and despite ample evidence that licensing copyrighted works this way doesn’t harm sales, book publishers remain mostly clueless and/or hostile. As David explained to editors, the main reason I’m still getting royalty checks for We the Media is that the book has been available as a free download since the day it went into bookstores. Had we not published it that way, given the indifference (at best) shown by American newspapers and magazines, the book would have sunk without a trace.

That logic persuaded no one in New York (not that we got that far in most cases — more about that below). And to my genuine if not major regret, the Creative Commons roadblock forced me to turn down a deal from a publisher that would have been perfect for this project had I only been writing a book and nothing more.

Two points: First, and most obviously, if a principle means anything, you stick by it when doing so is inconvenient, not just when it’s easy. Second, this isn’t just a book, at least not way traditional publishers understand books even as they dabble online.

To publishers, books are items they manufacture and send out in trucks. Or else they’re computer files to be rented to publishers’ customers, or customers of Amazon, Apple and other companies that use proprietary e-reading software to lock the work down in every possible way. In both cases, publishers crave being the gatekeepers.

Mediactive aims to be a multi-faceted project. Over the next few years, I hope to experiment in lots of media formats and styles with the ideas here. And — this is key — I also plan to experiment with it in the broader context of the emerging ecosystem of ideas.

That ecosystem is evolving at an accelerating rate, and the people who have had specific roles in the one that prevailed in the past — authors, literary agents, speaking agents, editors, publishers and others — are going to have to change with it. Some get this and some don’t, but I’m happy to say that the people I work with directly at this point are definitely in the getting-it category. (I’ll talk much more about this broader context in an upcoming post.)

Meanwhile, I’m having terrific conversations with the folks at Lulu. They aren’t the only outfit of this kind around, by any means, but I like the way they see their own part of the emerging ecosystem.

Incidentally, had I signed with a traditional publisher, the book would not have reached the marketplace for a year, most likely, if not even later. With Lulu, it’ll be available this summer.

Rejections

Editors from big publishing houses have a habit of rejecting books in what they must believe is a kind way. They say something to this effect: “It’s really interesting and we like Dan a bunch, and while it isn’t for us we’re sure it’ll find a great home with someone else.”

Please, folks. Any competent author would prefer this: “We didn’t like it, and here’s why….” Honest criticism is more helpful.

One reason several editors did offer was a bit surprising. An editor wrote, echoing several others, “The main problem that people had was that they felt that they knew much of the information that Dan was trying to get across…”

Wow. You mean that people who read and publish books for a living already know the value of deep and thoughtful media use? Uh, one of the major motivations for this project is the ample evidence that way too many other people don’t know this.

In my days as a newspaper reporter, I learned that the only audience that really counts is your editor. It  was a reality in the world of highly concentrated media, but no more. Any serious writer needs a good editor, but people who become your audience — and if you do it right, your collaborators — are the ones who really count.

Another reason for saying No had the ring of actual truth: The publisher’s publicity and marketing people “felt that the major media would avoid the book because of the criticism of their techniques.” One reason I’m writing it…

Lulu

It was after I turned down the New York publisher’s offer that I contacted Bob Young, Lulu’s founder and CEO. Bob also started Red Hat, one of the first companies to prove that it was possible to make money with open-source software by providing services, and he’s been an ardent supporter of ensuring that what we call “intellectual property” involves as many choices as possible.

Bob had told me about Lulu several years earlier, and in that conversation he’d suggested it would be a good fit for me someday. Now, we both thought, this might really be the time.

He put me in touch with Daniel Wideman, who runs what Lulu calls its new “VIP Services” for established authors making the move to this kind of publishing. Daniel said he very much liked what I was trying to accomplish in this new project, and we had several further discussions. In the end it was clear to me that this would indeed be a good fit.

So here we go. I’ll be letting you know how all this works, by which I mean many of the details of the process.

Back to work…my to-do list has just gotten a whole lot longer. But it’s my list this time.

Washington Post and NPR: Yes, Apple Can Block Their iPad Journalism

UPDATED

A few days ago, following up on questions I’ve asked a number of other news organizations about their relationships with Apple, the Washington Post’s Rob Pegoraro put a query to his bosses — and, unlike me with any traditional news company (including his), got an answer.

Here’s the operative quote from his story today, entitled “App rejected? There’s a rule for that” —

So, can Apple remove news organizations’ apps for their content? Washington Post spokeswoman Kris Coratti wrote that “this is our understanding”; National Public Radio’s Danielle Deabler agreed but said NPR saw no evidence that Apple wanted to do such a thing. Publicists for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, CNN and USA Today declined to comment or did not reply to e-mails.

We now have confirmation from two of America’s most respected news organizations — the Post and NPR — that they willingly participate in a distribution/access ecosystem where the company that owns it can remove their journalism from that system for any reason it chooses.

I suspect that the spokeswomen for the Post and NPR have technically violated the terms of their companies’ developers agreements with Apple even by saying that much. Which is, of course, part of the problem.

Anyway, kudos to Pegoraro, who has shown more spine than his colleagues at other news organizations. From all appearances, they’re just hoping this will all go away. It won’t.

UPDATE: At the International Symposium on Online Journalism today in Austin, I asked three panelists — from NPR, the New York Times and the Guardian — about this issue. Only NPR’s Kinsey Wilson responded, and he was more forthright than I’ve heard anyone be from any media company so far.

The situation is “not ideal,” he acknowledged. No news organization, he assumes, has the individual leverage with Apple to insist on contract terms that should be standard for people who believe in their journalism.

NPR, based on Wilson’s other panel comments, is creating what sounds like a multi-platform strategy: creating a back-end system that can feed to any platform. All smart news organizations are trying to move this way.