My testimony to Sen. Kerry

Not that I’ve been invited or will be, but if I were, here’s what I would say in testimony to Sen. John Kerry’s hearings on failing newspapers. (What the hell, after writing a fake speech for the Newspaper Association of America, I might as well make this an oeuvre.)

* * *

Senator, thank you for inviting me to speak at these hearings. But, with respect, I believe you are investigating the wrong issue from the wrong angle and in any case, I am not sure what role you and government should have in this matter.

Newspapers are going to die. That is wrenching, of course, for employees – not just journalists but the rarely mentioned pressmen, drivers, and classified ad takers – who will lose their jobs, and the stock- and bond-holders who are losing their investments in these failing and over-leveraged companies.

But this upheaval is no different from that overtaking automakers, auto dealers, retail chains, banks, airlines, music companies, and soon other media sectors that are suffering and dying in a reshaping of the economy that is more profound than a mere financial crisis and more fundamental even than a recession or depression. We are undergoing a millennial transformation from the industrial, mass economy to what comes next. Disruption and destruction are inevitable.

Should government’s response to this change be to try to forestall it? I don’t think so. I fear that we are bailing out the past when we should be investing in the future. We are throwing huge amounts of money to shore up business models we know are failed and are delaying the innovation, reinvention, and investment we need to climb out of this hole and build a new economy. But that is a subject for another day.

On the matter of newspapers specifically, let us first acknowledge that they are not victims of fate; their owners controlled their fate. Newspapers and their proprietors – and, in many cases, their professionals – have had a generation to reinvent themselves and bring journalism forward into the next age: 20 years since the start of the web, 15 since the introduction of the commercial browser and craigslist, 10 since the invention of blogs and founding of Google. They didn’t reinvent themselves because, understandably, I suppose, they did not want to disrupt their comfortable, powerful, and profitable monopolies. But that responsibility was theirs. Is it not ours, as taxpayers, to make up for their lost time.

The issue I believe you are trying to address is not the fate of newspapers at all. It is the fate of journalism. But on that score, I am an optimist – to a fault, perhaps. Though a majority of journalists polled by The Atlantic magazine recently said that the internet was harming journalism, I believe the opposite to be true. The internet has provided no end of opportunities to journalism, for communities to gather, share, and organize news in new ways; to reach and serve new communities and audiences; to use all available media to inform the public; to find new efficiencies – both in the means of production and distribution and also in the practice of journalism itself. This is what I teach my journalism students.

But what about supporting journalism as a business? Here, too, I am an optimist and this is why we are exploring new business models at my school. We can and will debate the specifics of these plans – what the costs will be; where the revenue will come from. But the real question before us is whether there will be a market demand for journalism – I believe there will be – and whether the market will meet it – I believe it will. But the proof will come only in execution.

I urge you, Senator, not to equate journalism with newspapers and its future with its past. Journalism, like the other industries I listed, is going through a transition into a new economy and one could argue that the sooner it gets there, the better. This transition must take its course.

What can you do to help? As little as possible, I’d say. For I fear government intervention in the press and speech. And even if you were to bring government’s resources to bear, it’s necessary to ask who would benefit – the incumbents who delayed too long or newcomers, The New York Times or The Huffington Post?

And what form would such help take? Tax breaks raise the problem, again, of who the beneficiaries would be. Direct subsidy should be seen as a direct conflict of interest. Legislation to allow newspapers to collude? Beware that precedent. How about the suggestion that newspapers be enabled, even encouraged to shift to not-for-profit status? That would also forbid them from making editorial endorsements, taking voices out of the democracy when we need more voices. And I, for one, am not ready to declare surrender int he effort to find sustainable business models for news. No, I do not think you should try to directly subsidize and influence the business of newspapers.

But there are other things you could do to help secure the future of journalism.

For one, I would like to see our government follow the leads of the U.K. and Australian governments in making ubiquitous and open broadband connectivity a priority and a promise. This alone would yield more innovation and entrepreneurship. It would assure that all citizens could be informed by the journalism that emerges.

For another, I would urge you in Congress to make transparency the default of government. All of government’s actions and information should be open, shared publicly and permanently, and searchable. When that happens, we will not have fewer watchdogs on our government as newspapers die. Every citizen can become a watchdog, contributing to a new ecosystem of news.

For another, I would like to see media literacy taught in our schools – and today that must be defined not just as consuming but also as creating media. The more people who can share and speak, the healthier, if louder, our democracy will be.

I would ask you to create further tax advantages to support innovation, creation, and entrepreneurship in any industry, including news. Every sector of the economy and society needs this support.

So rather than holding hearings on the death of newspapers, I would like to see you hold hearings on the future of news in our new knowledge economy made possible by the internet.

: UPDATE: In The Times, Saul Hansell offers these notions for congressional consideration:

# Require all government jobs to be listed only through classified ads in newspapers.
# Publish the Federal Register as a supplement to Sunday papers.
# Divert some of the stimulus money to buy newspaper subscriptions for every high school and college student in the country.

No, I say, subsidies to sinking ships is not the answer. They’re still sinking. It’s another example of bailout-think: bailing out the past instead of investing in the future.

If Congress cares about a robust press, then encouraging the infrastructure to enable the invention of that press is what’s needed.

  • http://www.philosophicalmoney.com Patrick Yen

    You and me both need to be invited to these hearings. I am young, 24 years old to be precise, and I have spent the last 3 years trying to revolutionize journalism in addition to having a degree in Multimedia Journalism from WKU circa December 2007.

    Interesting story, I sent the unfinished ‘beta’ draft of the “Global Journalism Manifesto” to every Democratic member of the US Senate back in 2006, so I’d be willing to bet many of them already know who I am. That was about a year before I got into Mensa and finished my interactive multimedia journalism degree from the best photojournalism school in the nation.

    Suffice to say, I’ve developed many more original concepts since then, a great deal of which remains unpublished..

    If you’re reading this Senator Kerry, you should consider inviting Patrick Yen to speak if you want to make real progress and hear some real solutions from a younger expert of new media.

    It would be a great honor to assist you however I may Senator Kerry and the pleasure would be all mine!

  • http://due-diligence.typepad.com Tim Oren

    Well said, Jeff.

  • http://blog.hackbash.com/ Charlie Peverett

    Love this. More power to your oeuvre.

  • J

    “have had a generation to reinvent themselves and bring journalism forward into the next age”

    I don’t know about this. I have never read any way that news can make any real money on the net. So why would editors/publishers take the risk? The massive, massive risk of embracing methods that possibly make no money? I seriously doubt it’s because they are hanging onto the past, but more that these owners etc saw no real money there on the net so didn’t make the jump. You could say that they should have come up with Craigslist first, but hell you can accuse anyone of that – not just owners.

    Maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’m missing something.

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  • http://stevebuttry.wordpress.com Steve Buttry

    Here’s hoping Sen. Kerry invites you to testify, Jeff. Government intervention would solve nothing but infringing on freedom of the press. I wrote about this last November as well: http://www.gazetteonline.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20081116/NEWS/711169984&SearchID=73339650387419

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  • Rob Levine

    >>>I would ask you to create further tax advantages to support innovation, creation, and entrepreneurship in any industry, including news.

    This sounds like a venture capital bailout.

    Many of the “entrepreneurial” ventures you’re talking about don’t create many jobs – which is exactly what we need now. Craigslist, which has destroyed the newspaper business has about 25 employees. Google has fewer employees per dollar of revenue than any big company in the world. (And it’s lobbying for more visas to bring in cheap foreign engineers.)

    Google is a much better run company than any media firm. But I don’t think the government should be encouraging large compani

    I don’t disagree that newspapers have done a poor job of running their businesses. But I don’t see how tax advantages for “innovation” would solve any of the underlying problems in the economy.

  • http://www.attentionmax.com Max Kalehoff

    Well said. Ironically, just before I popped over here, I was perusing a story in The New Scientist, completely unrelated, yet had a strikingly similar tone: “Killing beached whales is kinder.”

    The story explained: “Large whales that strand themselves should be killed, as any attempts to save them are probably futile and likely to cause more suffering, according to animal welfare specialists.”

    And the wrap-up: “Rescuers have often struggled to save stranded whales. In 2002, a pod of pilot whales stranded themselves on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, – many were refloated, but proceeded to re-beach themselves, with fatal results.” http://bit.ly/L4lBV

    This is a time of cleansing. Cultivate the innovators, but don’t artificially float the sick. Doing the latter weakens the overall herd.

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  • Bob P.

    Mostly I think you’re right, here.

    But regarding this: “I would urge you in Congress to make transparency the default of government. All of government’s actions and information should be open, shared publicly and permanently, and searchable. When that happens, we will not have fewer watchdogs on our government as newspapers die. Every citizen can become a watchdog, contributing to a new ecosystem of news.”

    Anybody who’s ever tried to pry a supposed public document from a self important small-town school superintendent or police chief, knows that government efforts — mandates, even — for transparency are no substitute for dogged reporting.

    Sure, open records laws and such are important. But it would be foolish to rely on a law that agencies had to post everything online. If somebody wants to hide something, they’ll hide it. That’s never going to change. And a “default” of transparency ain’t gonna replace investigative journalism.

    Otherwise, sure, your right about this. The last place we want the government is in journalism.

  • Lee

    Bob P. – You hit the nail on the head. Digging up the story and getting to the bottom of corrupt government is the essence of great reporting.

    Who will fill this void when investigative reporters are gone. Who will pay people to do this work? Who will do this work if they’re not being paid for it?

    Jeff Jarvis’s suggestion that “All of government’s actions and information should be open, shared publicly and permanently, and searchable” is naive. Would you put the fox in charge of the henhouse? How can a government be charged with exposing its own secrets?

    The end of independent investigative journalism is the beginning of the end of our democracy. We must know where the new investigative journalists will come from before we let the old system die. There’s too much at stake.

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  • beachmom

    I was thinking, Jeff, that you would add a compelling voice to such a hearing. I did want to address broadband, as it so happens on that score Senator Kerry is already working on it:

    http://www.savetheinternet.com/blog/2009/04/09/at-the-fcc-and-in-congress-a-new-paradigm-for-changing-media/

    “We’ve seen the country that invented the Internet and pioneered the personal computer drop to 15th in the world in broadband. We’ve talked about it here before, and we’ve worked together to help everyone understand the urgency of building the telecommunications infrastructure our country needs.

    That urgency is one of the reasons some of us in Congress made sure there was a provision in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act telling the FCC that we needed a National Broadband Plan. That urgency is one of the reasons we also made sure the stimulus package created grant funding for broadband.

    Those grants are a critical down payment on a national strategy to deliver broadband to rural Americans who can’t access it and to urban Americans who can’t afford it. “

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  • http://www.byjoeybaker.com Joey Baker

    Your point to build Broadband infrastructure across the US is inspired. That’s truly the domain of the government. Just as massive roads projects in the 1950s have encouraged commercial growth in the last 60 years, broadband will assure growth in the future. It’s a public good that a democratic government ought to be building.

    In addition, teaching “media literacy” in schools is another area of government control that should be developed. Students ought to be taught the fundamentals of the web right along with the fundamentals of reading, writing, history, and arithmetic. Schools already teach typing, but expand that out to schools teaching good internet browsing skills. Students should know what RSS is, be taught how to conduct a google search, get their own email address, know how to keep an online profile, etc…

    Cheers Jeff, another great post.

  • http://www.screenhub.com.au david tiley

    Interesting that Australia is brought into the story. I happen to edit an internet publication here, that runs on subscriptions and works because it is precisely tuned to its constituency, which is the film and television industry.

    Print publications here are dominated by two companies, one of which is Murdoch. BUT, we also have a lively public television sector, paid for by the government to the tune of $AU1.1 billion per year. It spends around $300m per year just on news. That model works, although you can argue about its limitations.

    In the UK, the BBC has recently been prevented from using its newsgathering facility to set up a vigorous web presence providing local news. The papers said it would compete with them – which it would. Since then, the local newspapers have imploded anyway, hacked up by the collapsing economy.

    There are important rules in play about the moat between government broadcasters and the print business, but it is fair to say that you can’t talk about the future of news in most parts of the English speaking world without recognising the role of a government news gathering organisation based in radio and television. Which also dominate the on line environment because they build the biggest, most sophisticated websites.

    Maybe it is not practical for the US government to intervene in the US journalism crisis, but you should recognise that the reasons are historical and cultural, and not a function of government per se. And I say that having come out of twelve years of reactionary government in Australia, which failed to turn the national broadcasters into toadies of politicians, at the same time as Murdoch was doing precisely that with his own rags.