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.