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.