Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Should Government Save Journalism?

It’s an interesting question, and one that led a few years ago to calls from several US newspaper publishers for subsidies, and then to the creation of a Federal Trade Commission panel that looked into the issue and came up with a report outlining several proposals for how government action might help save the big-city newspapers  that are failing.  By that time, the publishers started thinking that government subsidies maybe weren’t such a good idea after all.  A lot of media economists thought that many of the FTC proposals also weren’t likely to provide the kind of help big city dailies needed.  Still, discussions continue, including at a panel at the Association for Education in Journalism & Mass Communication (AEJMC), here in St. Louis.
After some introductory comments outlining some of the concerns, Robert Picard put the question in context by reminding us that the economic problems with newspapers and news organizations more generally really aren’t the result of some recent crisis, but are the result of a number of long-term trends, aided by some really bad business decisions along the way.  Further, the history of government interventions in media has been decidedly mixed – such efforts are typically misguided, come to late, and  have been, at best, ineffective.  Still, Picard felt that government support might be helpful, but only if focused and well thought out and grounded in market behaviors and economics.
Some of the early proposals to “fix”, or “save”, journalism mirrored the initial attempts for the music and movie industry to recover market losses through an emphasis on enforcing intellectual property rights.  A couple of speakers were associated with such efforts (although they didn’t talk much about them).  Several of the FTC proposals focused on the idea of trying to expand copyright and intellectual property rights for news content. 
One central problem with this approach is that copyright isn’t applicable to facts, which are the essence of news content.  Copyright does extend to the particular way those facts are described, but not the “breaking news facts” that form the core source of value to the story.  News content is also an area where the definition of what counts as “fair use” is well-established and fairly broad.  Unlike music or other commercialized entertainment content, there’s not much of a tradition of using IP-rights as a substantial revenue source.  Thus, to be an effective mechanism for “saving” journalism (or at least urban daily newspapers), an IP rights approaches needs to come up with new sets of rights to apply or new ways to limit non-licensed use.  One proposal was to create a new protected category of “hot news facts” that would grant intellectual property rights (IPR) similar to copyright to the facts of a  breaking news story – but for a much shorter period of time.  A second proposal is to enhance copyright enforcement of existing copyrights, possibly by creating a national licensing and enforcement organization (similar to what ASCAP does for songwriters and music publishers).

I think there are two big problems with this approach – first, in a context where the problem is increased competition, neither approach does anything to increase the value of news and is more likely to result in reduced demand for news products, just as IP enforcement efforts have negatively impacted the music industry.  The second problem is that when you really look at the product that is the newspaper or the output of other news organizations, it is not a single story, but a bundle of many stories – and a large share of those are not original to the news organizations or the kind of sole-source breaking news that would qualify for “hot news” rights.  For most, if not all, news organizations, implementing such ideas would cost news outlets more (payments to "owners" of the new rights) than it would likely earn from its own original content.  And it comes at a fairly high cost in terms of monitoring and enforcing the rights systems.  It seems doubtful that taking the IPR approach would generate the significant new revenue sources to “save journalism" - rather, it’s likely to further imperil it.
Well, as it turns out, they never got around to talking about IP-rights proposals, so I didn’t get a chance to make the above point at the panel session.  Good thing I can still make it here.

Source: Panel discussion at AEJMC conference, St. Louis

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