FTC Studies How to 'Save' Journalism Via Federal Government Intervention

The Federal Trade Commission is sticking its nose into the future of journalism. It's not needed. The FTC has enough to do; news is not a monopoly, nor is it a fraud. That hasn't kept staff from studying what already is being studied, drafting issues and

The Federal Trade Commission is sticking its nose into the future of journalism. It’s not needed.

The FTC has enough to do; news is not a monopoly, nor is it a fraud. That hasn’t kept staff from studying what already is being studied, drafting issues and suggestions that hardly suggest novelty or media neutrality and laying the groundwork for continued employment of FTC staff while working journalists are being fired by the thousands.

The document is called Potential Policy Recommendations to Support the Reinvention of Journalism. In my last column, I promised to tell you what it says.

That’s a public good if it saves you the trouble of reading it. However, as with so many documents that I’ve read on my readers’ behalf over the past half century, this is an unnecessary piece of work.

The document reviews what it finds to be the status quo in the financially troubled mainstream news business: vanishing ads, job losses, falling circulation, issues of copyright and fair use of news stories, potential private, public and nonprofit funding for news media, challenges from the Internet, etc. If this is new to you, the first few pages will help bring you up to date, albeit with a pervasive FTC bias.

The staff treats newspapers as if they’re the news media. Yes, dailies remain the dominant source of information used by others, but newspapers haven’t been the public’s preferred source for generations. Network TV is, with cable news and the Internet pressing hard on traditional news media.

Most Americans won’t buy or read a daily newspaper. Why assume those papers are the model for the future? Or why worry about broad recommendations with FTC staff perspective?

There also is an government/industry bias rather than an explicit preference for a perspective of the consumer, the public, the reader, listener, viewer, tweeter, downloader, etc. News media are flailing in every direction, trying to provide what readers want instead of the traditional, majestic “this is what you need to know.”

This might make for some pretty awful content, but at least it offers the hope that more people will be enticed to news sites and media and maybe learn something useful beyond celebrity sightings.

More than one critic has blamed traditional news industry blindness and arrogance for much of the mistrust found by every defensible survey of public attitudes toward the mainstream news media.

On the other hand, the FTC doesn’t explain how we’re going to know who’s providing and verifying the news under any new models if trained, experienced journalists are running around trying to be newly relevant.

So what to do with the FTC effort? Ignoring it and hoping it will vanish into dusty shelves is too optimistic. If you must, read it online here.

The recommendations aren’t novel. The idea of federal subsidies is not new; they began with the nation’s founders and their wise conclusion that popular sovereignty requires an informed electorate.

And newspapers aren’t going away in the near future. Too many are making money to go away. Whether they’ll retain their place among the public’s sources of information is uncertain, especially as staffs and contents have been trimmed and more innovation is being poured into the Internet.

This FTC paper adds little or nothing to the intense, broad discussion among the news media on how best to serve and survive.

Curmudgeon Notes

• If the FTC is make-work, a potentially useful alternative is being funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. It embraces “hyperlocal,” the current buzz word in the news business. People want to know what’s happening around them. However, traditional news media can’t do it: too few reporters and editors. There never were enough, and it’s even thinner today after bloodletting in so many newsrooms.

The Knight Foundation announced three interrelated projects to make it much easier for news organizations to present local data and news content on a neighborhood basis using sophisticated web-based technology. The major goal of the projects is to simplify and accelerate adoption of the open source code from a previous Knight-funded project, EveryBlock.com, a $1 million experiment in online journalism that offers geographically relevant news feeds on public records, news articles and other web content for every block in 16 cities. These field tests proved that hyperlocal civic data can be successfully aggregated by attracting hundreds of thousands of citizens wanting to better understand their neighborhoods by seeing everything from crime reports to restaurant inspections on easy to read maps.

Knight said “the new open source software, called OpenBlock, will be developed by the non-profit OpenPlans and installed at different-sized newspapers, The Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune and The Boston Globe. The Tribune … will use OpenBlock as a stand-alone web site. The Boston Globe will test widget integration with their broader digital product suite. OpenPlans is a New York-based non-profit which helps build civic infrastructure through open source software. Founded in 1999, OpenPlans partners with forward-thinking organizations and public agencies to develop software initiatives and technology strategies that make cities work better.”

• Don’t piss off Jason Haap, a founder of cincinnatibeacon.com. Amazon learned the hard way. Haap is an English teacher who values books and informed, objective reviews. He made note of 5-star book reviews by a public relations professional whose company promotes many of the same books, and when cincinnatibeacon.com pointed it out the story went national. Amazon took down more than 70 reviews. The reviewer’s conflict of interest also challenges the ethics code embraced by the Public Relations Society of America. Amazon didn’t respond to my queries.

• If you missed it, there was a sharp bit of debunking and caution on WVXU (91.7 FM) when Maryanne Zeleznik interviewed David Koester, Campbell County extension service horticulture agent. The caution: Trees depend on shallow roots that spread widely for water; it’s not the tap root that nourishes them. Equally important was his put down on groundskeepers and landscapers who pile mulch against tree trunks, which only invites trouble. Mulch helps if it’s spread widely but “inches” away from the trunk.

If any photographer in dire need of a “weather photo” is stuck for ideas, go to Stratford Heights across Clifton Avenue from UC or almost any place where fresh mulch is visible around trees. Then go to any park where trees are not mulched and see how major roots spread visibly from the trunk. Of course, selling mulch and labor to pile it up is an income enhancement, as is replacing trees whose troubles begin with — or are worsened by — piles of mulch. Put another way, when a tree looks like a utility pole erupting from the earth, there probably is or will be a problem.

• NPR’s Morning Edition yesterday carried a lightly ironic story on how P&G’s Dawn, the overwhelmingly favored detergent for cleaning oil-coated hands and animals, is made in part from … oil. The report noted that volunteers trying to save pelicans and other animals ignored donated non-Dawn detergent and quoted a self-described “hippie biologist” laughingly ducking a question of whether she uses Dawn at home.

• We’ve moved beyond 15 minutes of fame. Now it’s 15 seconds of agony shared with local TV viewers. Especially prized are grieving relatives and platitudinous neighbors. To quote a lawyer at the infamous McCarthy hearings, “Have you no sense of decency?” Almost as bad as these news judgments are faux sympathetic local anchors. Talk about gag-inducing.

No, we can’t imagine the suffering. No, we can’t tell what the distant lights mean, even if we’re assured it’s a body recovery effort along the Ohio River. What can we possibly learn from weeping parents? Don’t let your son get shot? Don’t let your kids play by the creek? Don’t let your daughter drive with friends?

It was so bad the other night on Local 12 that I turned off the TV. Instead, consider doing informed standups in front of county offices or city halls, telling us what’s happening to our public services and tax money. And it can be ripped and read right from The Enquirer.

• If this is the year of the angry voter, what is local TV news doing to inform our steamed neighbors about the issues that provoke them? Nada. Nothing. Zilch. Hell, all the news directors have to do is read Howard Wilkinson’s Sunday piece in The Enquirer on voter angst and tie it into developing stories. Almost no homework. Nearly free. It would be a lot more useful than another story about a crime that happened hours before the newscast and means nothing to most of us.

• I wish the news media were doing a better job of explaining how BP’s $20 billion escrow fund would be doled out. It might reduce the stunningly ignorant and angry comments on so many talk shows. An independent “special master” with administrative smarts has been named: Kenneth Feinberg, who so deftly handled the 9/11 payouts. He’ll decide which claims can be compensated and the amounts for each type of loss. Then he’ll order payments from the fund.

The beauty of this approach — common in large settlements — is that it avoids the courts and endless appeals over most claims. It does not, however, prevent an aggrieved person or business from ignoring Feinberg’s decision and going to court. He knows the drill and says he’ll build on what BP already has done to compensate people along the gulf.

• Channel 19’s weather forecasters went over the top last week when thunderstorms crossed the region. It went beyond news. It was low-class entertainment. All that was missing from Fox 19’s endless images and howling weather guy Frank Marzullo was Rush or Glenn or Sean blaming the weather on Obama. It wouldn’t have seemed out of place on Fox. And it was hypnotic.

How many times could we be told not to drive across rushing water? How many times could the varying storm intensity colors be explained as the images moved across the region? How many times did Pat Barry play Ed McMahon offstage to Steve Horstmeyer?

I think it was WLW’s Bill Cunningham who branded this kind of performance “weather terrorism.” If the goal or effect was to frighten people into staying with 19, Willie was right then, but he’s become their coconspirator. On Monday, he was putting 19’s Marzullo on the air during a passing thunderstorm, treating him as if he deserved respect.

Does that make Willie — with his usual hyperbole — a weather wannabe? And was Local 12’s weather promo, asserting its sobriety, a subtle putdown to 19?

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]

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