Posts about journalism

Publishers’ political blackmail

Senator Amy Klobuchar’s oxymoronically titled Journalism Competition and Preservation Act — it might better be named the Journalism Lobby Blackmail Bill — was just dealt a kick to the kidneys by a confused Ted Cruz amendment. It is delayed but not dead. It is still wrong-headed and dangerous and here I’ll examine how.

As ever, Mike Masnick does stellar work picking apart the bill’s idiocy and impact in detail. In summary, the JCPA would require big internet companies — Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon, though perhaps not the incredibly shrinking Facebook — to negotiate with midsize newspaper publishers. Freed from antitrust, the publishers may band together and demand payment for linking to their news. Yes, linking to their news. The value platforms bring in terms of promotion, distribution, and audience is not a factor in these negotiations. If agreement cannot be reached, talks go to a co-called arbitration process and the platforms can be forced to carry and pay for publishers’ content.

Stop right there. That government would force anyone to carry anyone else’s speech is a clear violation of the First Amendment. Compelled speech is not free speech. Keep in mind that the extremist right in Congress is dying to concoct ways to force platforms to carry their noxious speech; Klobuchar et al are paving a way for them. That government would force anyone to pay to link to others is a fundamental violation of the principles of the internet. Links are free. Links are speech. That government would insert itself in any way into journalism and speech is simply unconstitutional.

Let us now consider the wider context of this legislation and where it goes wrong.

Newspaper publishers do not deserve payment

God did not grant newspaper publishers the revenue they had. They chose not adapt to the internet; I spent decades watching them at close range. Competitors offered better, more efficient and effective vehicles for advertisers, who fled overpriced, inefficient, monopolistic newspapers at first opportunity. Readers, whose trust in news has been falling since the ’70s, also fled. Welcome to capitalism, boys.

Today, most newspaper chains in America are controlled by hedge funds. I briefly served on digital advisory boards for one American and one Canadian company controlled by the hedgies and witnessed what they did: selling every possible asset, cutting costs to the marrow, and stopping all investment in innovation. The JCPA offers no real means of accountability to assure that platform money would go to journalism serving communities’ needs, not straight into the pockets of the hedgies. (The JCPA shares that problem with Rupert Murdoch’s similar blackmail bill in Australia.)

Journalists should not be lobbyists

I am appalled that legacy journalistic trade organizations — led by the News Media Alliance (née Newspaper Association of America, recently merged with the former Magazine Publishers Association)— have turned into lobbyists, cashing in news’ political capital and engaging in conflict of interest in the name of protectionism. Newspapers exist to stand independent of power in government, not beggars at its trough. Journalists themselves should rise up to protest what their publishers have ganged together to do: to sell their souls.

Newspapers have a long history of antitrust

This shameful behavior of publishers is not new. When radio emerged as print’s first competitor, papers did everything possible to prevent it from competing in news. Here are a few paragraphs recounting that episode from my upcoming book with Bloomsbury, The Gutenberg Parenthesis.*

In Media at War, Gwynth Jackaway chronicled American newspapers’ opposition to broadcast in a tale of defensiveness and protectionism that would be reprised with the arrivals of television and the internet. “Having been presented with a new technology, contemporary actors voice their concerns about how the new medium will change their lives, and in so doing they reveal their vulnerabilities,” she wrote…. Newspaper publishers tried to disadvantage their new competitors, strong-arming radio executives to agree to abandon news gathering, to buy and use only reports supplied by three wire services, to limit news bulletins to five minutes, and to sell no sponsorship of news. Their agreement also prohibited commentators from even discussing news less than twelve hours old (a so-called “hot news” doctrine the Associated Press would try to establish against internet sites as late as 2009). The pact fell away as wire services and station-owning newspapers bristled under its restrictions.

Print publishers tried other tactics. They threatened to stop printing radio schedules in their newspapers, but readers protested and radio won again. They lobbied to have radio regulated by the federal government and then unironically maintained that radio companies under government control would be unreliable covering government. The newspaper press tried to have radio reporters barred from the Congressional press galleries. They called radio a “monopolistic monster” and lobbied for a European model of government control of the airwaves. They blamed radio for siphoning off advertising revenue, though the Great Depression was more likely to blame for newspapers folding or consolidating in the era. They also lobbied for the government to limit or ban advertising on radio.

All their protectionism was cloaked in self-important, sacred rhetoric, with publishers accusing radio of manifold sins. Radio, they said, spread loose statements and false rumors: fake news. Radio “filched” and “lifted” news from newspapers. Radio seduced the public with the human voice to exploit emotions, to “catch and hold attention,” and to excite listeners. Will Irwin, a muckraking print journalist, wrote in his book Propaganda and the News: “The radio, through the magic inherent in the human voice, has means of appealing to the lower nerve centers and of creating emotions which the hearer mistakes for thoughts.” Radio was “a species of show business, with overtones of peddling and soap-boxing.” Editor and Publisher maintained that “the sense of hearing does not satisfy the same intellectual craving as does the sense of reading” and the editor of American Press claimed that “most folks are eye-minded. They get only impressions through their ears; they get facts through their eyes.”

“Using the doomsday approach that so often accompanies the invocation of ‘sacred’ values,” wrote Jackaway, “they warned that the values of democracy and the survival of our political system would be endangered” if radio took on the roles of informing the electorate and serving a marketplace of ideas….

“Never,” said Jackaway, “is there the admission that public opinion might be manipulated by the printed word as well as the spoken word, or any recognition that by attempting to control radio news the press was actually infringing upon the broadcasters’ freedom of expression.”

Sound familiar? This is the same industry that today wants to be excused from antitrust law and Klobuchar et al are doing its bidding.

Government must not license and limit journalism

The JCPA sets a definition for news organizations eligible for its benefits and thus defines and de facto licenses journalists. Beware: What government giveth government may take away.

To avoid accusation that the bill would transfer money from big tech to big media, the JCPA sets a limit of 1,500 employees. It also sets a floor of $100,000 revenue. Thus, many are excluded. In our entrepreneurial program at CUNY’s Newmark Journalism School, we train independent journalists to serve communities and markets; they are too small. Our Center for Community Media and its Black, Latino, and Asian Media Initiatives work with a wide array of news organizations serving communities; many of them are too small. LION, the wonderful association serving local news organizations, says 44 percent of its members are too small.

These newcomers and publishers of color are the real innovators in journalism, not the old, tired, failing, incumbent newspapers. They are left out of the JCPA. The JCPA is aimed at companies whose papers are, in the immortal words of Goldilocks, just right — that is, the ones controlled by the hedge funds who pay the lobbyists.

The help platforms should give

I am all for technology companies helping the cause of news. In full disclosure, my school receives funds from various of the technology companies to fight disinformation, to independently study the internet, to train journalists in the new skills of product, to train community news organizations in business innovation. For years, I’ve attended Newsgeist, an event started by the Knight Foundation and Google, and there I began what is now the tradition of running a session asking, “What should Google do for news?”

Forcing payments from technology companies as this bill and others elsewhere would do is no business model. It’s blackmail. What we need instead is help to develop new models. Google does that with subscriptions and YouTube players offering monetization. Facebook used to do that in various programs but has thrown up its hands and given up on news (I frankly do not blame them). Apple and Microsoft send audience to news. Jeff Bezos saved The Post. We need more of this kind of help. JCPA does nothing to make news sustainable.

Should news even be copyrighted?

The legislation in the U.S., Australia, and Canada, as well as Germany’s Leistungsschutzrecht, Spain’s link tax, and the EU’s resulting Article 15 are all attempts to extend copyright.

In The Gutenberg Parenthesis, I also write about the origins of copyright. Note well that at the start, in the Statute of Anne of 1710 and in the first American copyright laws, news was explicitly not included. Not until 1909 in the United States did copyright law include newspapers, but even still, according to Will Slauter in Who Owns the News?, some still debated whether news articles, as opposed to literary features, were protected, for they were the product of business more than authorship.

The first, best government subsidy newspapers received was a franking privilege from the Post Office, starting in 1792, which allowed publishers to exchange editions with each other for the express purpose of copying each others’ news. This, too, from my book: “Newspapers employed ‘scissors editors’ to compile columns of reports from other papers. Editors would not complain about being copied because they copied in turn — but they would protest and loudly about not being credited…. It is ironic that newspapers — which since their founding in Strasbourg in 1605 have been compiled from news created by others — today complain that Google, Facebook, et al steal their property and value by quoting headlines and snippets from articles in the process of sending them readers via links. The publishers receive free marketing.”

I came to learn that copyright was created not to protect creators. Instead, copyright turned creation into a tradable asset, benefitting the publishers and producers who acquired rights from writers.

Just as a thought experiment, instead of extending copyright as so many legacy publishers in league with legislators wish to do, let us imagine what journalism might be today without copyright.

Without copyright, news organizations might not concentrate, as they do now, on the notion of journalism as a product to be restricted and sold to the privileged who can afford it. They are returning news to what it was before the printing press, when it was contained in expensive, exclusive newsletters called avvisi. Meanwhile, disinformation, lies, and propaganda will always fly free.

Without copyright, journalists might see news as a service that individuals and communities could choose to support — as they do public radio, The Guardian, and countless newsletters — because it is useful to them.

Without copyright, journalists might then concentrate on creating service of original value rather than employing digital scissors editors to rewrite each others’ stories into trending clickbait to make their own content to fill their own pages to attract their own SEO and social links to feed ever-decreasing programmatic CPMs.

Without copyright, they might turn all that wasted journalistic labor and talent loose on watching, reporting on, and holding accountable the politicians they are instead now lobbying.

Without copyright and the Gutenberg-era notions of content, property, and product, journalists might also feel freer to collaborate with the public, rather than speaking and selling to the public. Journalists might come to center journalism in the community rather in themselves, as we teach in our Engagement Journalism program at Newmark.

Without copyright, journalism might no longer be seen as a widget to be used as a wedge but instead a contributor to the quality of public discourse.

Do I want to get rid of copyright for news? Actually, yes, I do. I know that is not going to happen. But I can at least beg my legislators — I am looking at you, Cory Booker — not to extend and mangle copyright in the service of hedge funds and failed newspaper monopolists. Instead, let us find ways and means to support collaboration and innovation to improve news.


* The Gutenberg Parenthesis is scheduled to be published by Bloomsbury in June. You can be assured I would be sending you to a preorder link now if it existed, but it won’t until November. Watch this space.

The story media miss: themselves

Media are not merely observers in the story of democracy’s demise; they are players. Media require coverage. Who will cover media? Not media. Then no one.

The New York Times and The Washington Post eliminated their ombudsmen long since. With the death of David Carr and the departure of his short-lived and inconsequential successors, with the retirement of Margaret Sullivan, and now with the cancellation of Brian Stelter’s Reliable Sources on CNN, there is no one covering media as a story for the public. Yes, there are pontificators aplenty — present company included — and there is inside-baseball coverage for media people from the likes of the Columbia Journalism Review. But who is holding media to account for its impact on the political process for the public? No one.

This is a shameful abrogation of responsibility by our field, journalism.

I have been shouting — even on MSNBC’s air — that we must cover the impact of Murdoch’s Fox News on public discourse. I begged MSNBC to create a feature: We watch Fox News so you don’t have to. I wrote an executive there a proposal, never answered. So I arranged funding of an alum of the Newmark J-School, Juliet Jeske, to start Decoding Fox News on Twitter and Substack. (Someone in media should hire her to continue this important work.)

Fox News is only part of the story. The impact The Times and The Post have on political discourse — hell, on political outcomes — deserves coverage, criticism, and accountability. The impact of polling, bisecting America into simplistic and combative binaries, requires research. The slow death of local news must be studied. The entrance of pink-slime and evangelical news needs to be watched.

Now more than ever, media are a story media should cover. But media — so eager to criticize everyone else — are frightened of criticism themselves.

Were I to summon the spirit of David Carr, I wonder whether he would nominate Stelter as his legitimate successor as media columnist of The Times. I wonder whether anyone would have the freedom Carr and Sullivan had there to question the ways of journalism. I wonder whether any editor or producer or network executive will ever again display the cajones to critique their own.

Media are not objective, impartial, neutral, distant observers on society. Media — as in any other circumstance, media otherwise would love to convince you — have impact. If only media gave themselves a fraction of the attention that they give to so-called social media these days. If only media listened to media scholars and their research. If only media were open to criticism.

But no, media use their power and privilege to to turn spotlight on others, no longer themselves. That is wrong.

Toward a journalistic ethic of citation


After The New York Times published its extensive report on the history of Haiti’s impoverishment at the hands of its overthrown colonial overlords, a robust debate broke out between academic and journalistic Twitter about inadequate citation and sourcing. Journalism must do better.

The gist of it: The Times did include a narrative bibliography in the project, which is unusual. But some academics — including Harvard’s Mary Lewis — said they had helped reporters but were neither quoted nor credited. This thread by Pittsburgh Prof. Keisha Blain brings together other threads; read them all. Many said The Times was derelict in not quoting and citing current research but also in ignoring the seminal work of Eric Williams in his 1944 book, Capitalism and Slavery — columbusing in, of all subjects, Haiti. Joseph Rezek, a BU professor, said the real problem was that The Times acted as if it had discovered something new when much research on the topic came before:

After three days, The Times reported on the citation controversy but some said it still didn’t give credit where it is due. Some journalists — notably Adam Davidson — pleaded for citational slack in telling stories for general audiences, sparking more controversy. I entered in more than once to argue that journalists must practice better discipline of citation, sourcing, and transparency: showing our work.

There are so many lessons here for journalists and journalism students that I think it is important to try to catalog them, to examine the journalistic presumptions and problems at work, and to propose standards.

Don’t blame your tools. First, let me call bullshit on the usual excuses that journalists do not have the space, time, or appropriate CMS frippery to cite sources. We now have the internet, with unlimited space and time. And we have the best possible tool for citation — the link. If any news organization cared, it would take next to no effort to also update tools to accommodate footnotes, endnotes, or notes that are revealed at a user’s option; to compile bibliographies of sources; and to create open repositories for source material. What is standing in the way of responsible citation is not tools but ethical will.

Journalists must always cite their sources. I don’t just mean attributing quotes. Let’s be honest that too often, quotes in stories are a form of extraction: I (the reporter) got you (the expert) to fill in our (the news organization’s) preconceived narrative. Anyone who has ever been interviewed knows the experience of seeing a long conversation reduced to one out-of-context line included to exploit the expert’s reputation and to make the reporter’s point, not the speaker’s.

What’s more troubling in the case of the Haiti story is what Yasmin Nair calls soft plagiarism: not a direct quote lifted but instead the coopting of ideas, background, context, perspective, and most of all an academic’s research and expertise.

I have sometimes spent an hour or two on the phone with a reporter explaining concepts, context, or history: educating them, with nothing to show for it. Far worse is Siva Vaidhyanathan’s tale of being used and discarded by a PBS series. There are a million such tales.

So, journalists, in your story or in a supplemental bibliography — try it — find a way to cite your sources, all those who, through interviews or literature, gave you the gift of education. To do anything less is intellectual and reportorial theft.

Screw the scoop. The Haiti episode exposes a grave journalistic weakness: the addiction to the scoop, to the idea that everything we report must be new, thus news. That is presumed to be one reason The Times’ Haiti story did not acknowledge much prior research. Nikole Hannah-Jones tweeted an explanation: “Simply pitching the story as ‘this happened but many people don’t know about it[’] would likely have meant the piece didn’t get done & certainly that it wouldn’t have gotten all the resources.” She is, as ever, correct. But that indicates something seriously wrong with news organizations’ priorities. Shouldn’t serving what “many people don’t know” be more important than bragging about being the first to know it?

Look, too, at how journalists treat each other, not just academics. Here, NBC reporter Mike Hixenbaugh laments that neither The Times nor The Washington Post credited local Texas reporters with the reporting that led to the devastating report on Southern Baptist evangelical sex abuse.

There is no shame in acknowledging that others came before and in giving them — academics or journalists — recognition for their contributions. The shame is in not doing so.

The story corrupts. The story is not everything. The story is merely one form, one tool to inform the public. Failing to credit sources and experts because doing so would get in the way of the flow of one’s persuasive narrative is no excuse. I have long warned of the seduction of the story, as it grants too much power to the storyteller over the story’s subject. Keeping a narrative going while imparting information and crediting sources is simply our job.

It’s the business model, stupid. So much of this current kerfuffle revolves around the media economy requiring that news organizations to be destinations, to sell subscriptions, or (less and less) to sell attention to advertisers. As Jordan Taylor put it:

In the end, this is not about ethics or credibility but about the fight we’ve been having since the internet entered newsrooms: Journalists and publishers don’t want to link out; they don’t want to give credit; they want to convince themselves and the people they still consider an audience that they are selling a unique, exclusive, valuable commodity called content.

Wrong. Journalism is a service. When we credit our sources and show our work, we enhance our credibility and value. When we exploit and extract the work of academics — particularly academics of color — we extend inequity and injustice. When we value our own journalistic egos over the reputations of our sources and the education of the public, we do harm.

So stop. Find every way you can to cite and credit the sources who make your stories — your articles, your reporting, your informational service — possible. If you do not, you are thieves.

Another thing. I hate it when journalists say academics cannot write well. Yes, it is easy to find academic papers intended for small audiences inside a discipline that use baffling jargon. This writing is not intended for a broad audience. But behind me I have bookshelves filled with wonderfully written books by academics filled with not only engaging narrative but also responsible citation of rich sets of sources. So let’s cut out our intramural sniping about who’s a better writer.

To the contrary, it is vital — urgent — that we bring academics and journalists closer together so that news organizations are exposed to, use, and cite academic research relevant to their reporting. This is one of the reasons why I started an Initiative in Internet Studies at CUNY’s Newmark Journalism School — in full disclosure, funded by Google — to highlight research on internet impact for journalists and policymakers. (The Initiative is also bringing researchers together to discuss their agendas and I’m working to develop an educational program; my colleague Douglas Rushkoff and I just completed teaching a course in (re)Designing the Internet).

Diara J. Townes, who has worked with First Draft and the Aspen Institute and is a graduate of our school, is leading the effort to find, highlight, summarize, and share relevant research on internet impact. Here is the Twitter account where she is sharing research — and please send her more. Here is her Medium site and here you can sign up for her newsletter.

We in journalism mustn’t build walls to exclude academics by ignoring their prior research, by extracting their work without credit, and by mocking their writing (there is plenty to mock in news writing, folks). Instead, in a time when debate is devoid of fact and data, we must come closer together.


Just as I hit “publish” on this post, a colleague sent me a very good piece by Jonathan Katz, a “Haiti-head” — alongside his wife, Claire Payton, who holds a Ph.D. in Haitian history. Katz examines what is new in The Times project. He concludes:

My journalism-school superego says that a more honest thing for them to do would have been to package the story as what it was — a significant but incremental advance in the understanding of a historical event that scholars and Haitians know about and that much of the rest of the world does not.

But would a single front-page story with a headline like France Stole Over $500 Million from Haiti In 19th Century, Times Analysis Shows — or maybe In an Impoverished County, a Legacy of Theft — have gotten the magnitude of attention that this reporting has so far? Probably not.

Attention from The Times’ editors? I agree; probably not. But attention from the audience? That’s up to The Times’ editors. Nothing would have stopped The Times from doing just what Katz does here, saying: Here’s a story you probably don’t know; let us tell it to you and then let us tell you some new facts we uncovered in our research. Journalism is never the first-draft of history; that is our worst and most inexcusable hubris. Journalism is always another chapter in history.

Concede defeat to bad speech

What if we concede that the battle against “bad speech” is lost? Disinformation and lies will exist no matter what we do. Those who want such speech will always be able to say it and find it. Murdoch and Musk win. That is just realism. 

Then what? Then we turn our attention to finding, amplifying, and supporting quality speech.

A big problem with concentrating so much attention and resource on “bad speech,” especially these last five years, is that it allows — no, encourages — the bad speakers to set the public agenda, which is precisely what they want. They feed on attention. They win. Even when they lose — when they get moderated, or in their terms “censored” and “canceled,” allowing them to play victim — they win. Haven’t we yet learned that?

Another problem is that all speech becomes tarred with the bad speakers’ brush. The internet and its freedoms for all are being tainted, regulated, and rejected in a grandly futile game of Whac-A-Mole against the few, the loud, the stupid. Media’s moral panic against its new competitor, the net, is blaming all our ills on technology (so media accept none of the responsibility for where we are). I hear journalists, regulators, and even academics begin to ask whether there is “too much speech.” What an abhorrent question in an enlightened society. 

But the real problem with concentrating on “bad speech” is that no resource is going to good speech: supporting speech that is informed, authoritative, expert, constructive, relevant, useful, creative, artful. Good speech is being ignored, even starved. Then the bad speakers win once more.

What does it mean to concentrate on good speech? At the dawn of print and its new abundance of speech, new institutions were needed to nurture it. In my upcoming book, The Gutenberg Parenthesis (out early next year from Bloomsbury Academic), I tell the story of the first recorded attempt to impose censorship on print, coming only 15 years after Gutenberg’s Bible.

In 1470, Latin grammarian Niccolò Perotti begged Pope Paul II to impose Vatican control on the printing of books. It was a new translation of Pliny that set him off. In his litany of complaint to the pope, he pointed to 22 grammatical errors, which much offended him. Mind you, Perotti had been an optimist about printing. He “hoped that there would soon be such an abundance of books that everyone, however poor and wretched, would have whatever was desired,” wrote John Monfasani. But the first tech backlash was not long in coming, for Perotti’s “hopes have been thoroughly dashed. The printers are turning out so much dross.” 

Perotti had a solution. He called upon Pope Paul to appoint a censor. “The easiest arrangement is to have someone or other charged by papal authority to oversee the work, who would both prescribe to the printers regulations governing the printing of books and would appoint some moderately learned man to examine and emend individual formes before printing,” Perotti wrote. “The task calls for intelligence, singular erudition, incredible zeal, and the highest vigilance.”

Note well that what Perotti was asking for was not a censor at all. Instead, he was envisioning the roles of the editor and the publishing house as means to assure and support quality in print. Indeed, the institutions of editor, publisher, critic, and journal were born to do just that. It worked pretty well for a half a millennium. 

Come the mechanization and industrialization of print with steam-powered pressed and typesetting machines — the subject of future books I’m working on — the problem arose again. There was plenty of proper complaint about the penny press and yellow press and just crappy press. But at that same time, early in this transformation in 1850, a new institution was born: Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. See its mission in the first page of its first issue:

Rather than trying to eradicate all the new and bad speech suddenly appearing, Harper’s saw the need to support the good, “to place within the reach of the great mass of the American people the unbounded treasures of the Periodical Literature of the present day.”

Magazines — which Ben Franklin and Noah Webster had tried and failed to publish — flourished with new technology, new audiences, and new economics as good speech begat more good speech. 

I am not suggesting for a second that we stop moderating content on platforms. Platforms have the right and responsibility to create positive, safe, pleasing, productive — and, yes, profitable — environments for their users. 

But it is futile to stay up at night because — in the example of the legendary XKCD cartoon — someone is wrong, stupid, or mean on the internet. People who want to say stupid shit will find their place to do it. Acknowledge that. Stop paying heed to them. Attention is their feed, their fuel, their currency. Starve them of it.

I also am not suggesting that supporting good speech means supporting the incumbent institutions that have failed us. Most are simply not built to purpose for the new abundance of speech; there aren’t enough editors, publishers, and printing presses to cope. 

Some of these legacy institutions are outright abrogating their responsibility: See The New York Times believing that the defense of democracy is partisan advocacy. Says the new editor of The Times: “I honestly think that if we become a partisan organization exclusively focused on threats to democracy, and we give up our coverage of the issues, the social, political, and cultural divides that are animating participation in politics in America, we will lose the battle to be independent.” No one is suggesting this as either/or. I give up. 

Instead, supporting good speech means finding the speech that has always been there but unheard and unrepresented in the incumbent institutions of mass media. Until and unless Musk actually buys and ruins Twitter, it is a wealth of communities and creativity, of lived perspectives, of expertise, of deliberative dialogue — you just have to be willing to see it. Read André Brock, Jr.’s Distributed Blackness to see what is possible and worth fighting for. 

Supporting good speech means helping speakers with education, not to aspire to what came before but to use the tools of language, technology, collaboration, and art to express themselves and create in new ways, to invent new forms and genres. 

Supporting good speech means bringing attention to their work. This is why I keep pointing to Jack Dorsey’s Blue Sky as a framework to acknowledge that the speech layer of the net is already commodified and that the opportunity lies in building services to discover and share good speech: a new Harper’s for a new age built to scale and purpose. I hope for editors and entrepreneurs who will build services to find for me the people worth hearing. 

Supporting good speech means investing in it. Millions have been poured into tamping down disinformation and good. I helped redirect some of those funds. We needed to learn. I don’t regret or criticize those efforts. But now we need to shift resources to nurturing quality and invention. As one small example, see how Reddit is going to fund experiments by its users. 

We need to understand “bad speech” as the new spam and treat it with similar disdain, tools, and dismissal. There’ll always be spam and I’m grateful that Google, et al, invest in trying to stay no more than one foot behind them. We need to do likewise with those who would manipulate the public conversation for more than greedy ends: to spread their hate and bile and authoritarian racism and bigotry. Yes, stay vigilant. Yes, moderate their shit. Yes, thwart them at every turn. But also take them off the stage. Turn off the spotlight on them. 

Turn the spotlight onto the countless smart, informed, creative people dying to be seen and heard. Support good speech. 

Who’s breaking the news?

This will not make some people happy. Here is a statement I submitted to my senator, Cory Booker, as a member of a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Competition Policy, Antitrust, and Consumer Rights, which is holding a hearing called “Breaking the News—Journalism, Competition, and the Effects of Market Power on a Free Press.” The title reveals much.

The gist of my statement is that I worry about news organizations lobbying the institutions they are meant to watch; it is a gross violation of journalistic independence and integrity.

It so happens that the day before, The Intercept dropped a report about media companies lobbying against regulation of advertising targeting. Now I happen to think that both advertising and targeting — in some form, likely with regulation — will be necessary for news media’s survival. I think positioning targeting as “surveillance advertising” is moral panic. But my argument against lobbying is the same.

In both instances, news organizations are portraying themselves as victims of big, bad tech — the companies media cover without ever acknowledging the conflict of interest in their coverage. They paint themselves as virtuous and necessary agents of democracy. It’s bad enough that news organizations seek access from the powerful; now they seek favors. Here is my statement:


I write to the Subcommittee as a journalist, editor, journalism entrepreneur, and journalism educator concerned about continuing efforts by legacy mass-media news companies to lobby for protectionist legislation and regulation. I worry that in doing so they compromise the independence and integrity of my field. Their efforts might affect freedom of expression online. And they could disadvantage the new, more diverse, and innovative competitors so needed in both the media and technology industries.

My credentials: I am the Tow Professor of Journalism Innovation and Director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York’s Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. Prior to this, I was president and creative director of Advance Publications’ online arm, where I started Newhouse Newspapers’ local news sites. I was also creator and founding editor of Entertainment Weekly magazine at Time Inc.; media columnist for The Guardian; Sunday editor and associate publisher of the New York Daily News; TV critic and editor in magazine development at TV Guide and People; and an editor and columnist on the San Francisco Examiner and Chicago Tribune. I have consulted for many news media companies and sat on the board of media startups. At CUNY, I started initiatives and raised funds — in disclosure, including from internet companies — to support efforts to combat disinformation online. I also helped build and now advise Montclair State University’s New Jersey News Commons.

All that is to say that I have considerable experience in media, having spent almost thirty years since the advent of online news trying to get media companies to change. Sadly, this means I have also been witness to many of their failures to adapt to the new reality of a connected world.

These companies have insisted on pursuing the only business strategies they have known: advertising and subscription. In the heydays of print, many of them ran local monopolies, which enabled them to overcharge advertisers for generations, and so it should come as no surprise that their customers fled to more effective and efficient marketing outlets when the internet arrived.

As they fail at advertising, publishers are retrenching behind ever-higher paywalls. The net result is the redlining of journalism. Quality, reliable news is ever more the province of the privileged few who can afford it, while disinformation will always be plentiful and free. That is a dangerous situation, especially at this perilous moment for American democracy. I fear that some of the legislation being proposed will only entrench news deeper inside walled gardens.

Now publishers and their trade-turned-lobbying associations resort to their last strategy: blaming new competitors for their own failures and trying to influence legislators and regulators for protectionist intervention designed to disadvantage not only those existing competitors but also others that might or not might not be able to start in the future. They seek nonmarket intervention to support primarily, though not entirely, legacy newsrooms and their paywall strategies. It should be noted that many legacy newsrooms have failed to adequately diversify their staffs to represent their communities (see: googletrends.github.io/asne2019/?filter=race). In various states, publishers also lobby legislatures to continue the practice of paying tax dollars to print legal ads; they claim this government subsidy as their right even though the internet now provides an efficient means to share public notices for free.

Call me old-fashioned, but I shudder at the sight of news organizations and their associations lobbying politicians. With all due respect, it is our role as journalists to remain reliably independent of you as the holders of power in the institution of government, so as to build trust at a time when trust is in short supply. Yet around the world, we see barons of news cashing in their political capital for the sake of protectionist advantage over new competitors: See the role of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. in Australia’s media code and the Tory campaign against the BBC in Great Britain; see Axel Springer’s lobbying for so-called ancillary copyright in Germany and the EU; and now see news trade associations’ lobbying efforts in Washington.

All the while, these news media have turned to attack not only their online competitors but the internet as a whole. That is what gives me concern for the future of freedom of expression online, as voices too long not heard in mass media finally have their say, but some would restrict these newfound freedoms in, for example, the debate over Section 230. I do not mean to paint all journalists in all legacy newsrooms with this brush. But the pattern of lobbying among their publishers is clear.

I urge the Committee to read the work of Dr. Nirit Weiss-Blatt in her 2021 book, The Techlash, in which she analyzes data to track the moment when media coverage of the net flipped from utopian to dystopian. I, too, have been tracking this shift in coverage. Never do I see news outlets acknowledge their conflict of interest in reporting on companies with whom they compete for audience attention and advertising dollars.

I ask the Committee not to assume that journalism as it was is journalism as it should be, or that its past practitioners and proprietors are necessarily its best protectors in the future. According to the Reuters Institute at Oxford, two-thirds of news subscriptions in the U.S. go to just three brands: New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal. The other third is shared by the entirety of the rest of the news industry. Media remains a winner-takes-most industry.

The majority of American newspaper chains are now controlled by hedge funds. I was a member of an advisory board to a news company owned by one of them and I saw first-hand how that owner would not invest in innovation but instead sold hard assets and siphoned off cash. Beware that some of the subsidies contemplated by Congress will benefit not journalists and not the public but these funds’ limited partners.

I love journalism. I love newspapers and magazines. I train the new journalists who are our best hope. They often go to work for new outlets that are rebuilding our field — for example, Chicago’s City Bureau, Detroit’s Outlier Media, and New York’s The City and the Marshall Project. In my journalism school’s Center for Community Media and its Latino and Black Media Initiatives, I see much innovation aimed at serving communities that were too long underserved by mass media — see, for example, this week’s launch of Capital B. These are the reasons why I hold deep optimism for the future of my field.

This spring I am teaching a course at CUNY called Designing the Internet, to demonstrate to our students that they have the agency and the responsibility to design the future of the net and society on it. It is early days for the internet. After Gutenberg’s development of movable type, it took a century and a half before there came a tidal wave of innovation with print: the invention of the newspaper, the creation of the modern novel by Cervantes and the essay by Montaigne. It took another century to arrive at a sustainable business model for media with the creation of copyright. And it took yet another century for the development of changes in the technology of printing that would lead to the birth of mass media.

The net is yet young. We cannot yet know what my students, your children, and their grandchildren will create with it. I urge the Committee to support their future, not their ancestors’ past. Please support innovation and experimentation, new competition, diversity of ownership, training in new skills, and research on the impact of the net to date to build a better internet and society rather than to protect outmoded, legacy media owners.


Here was my statement to an earlier House hearing.