By Kevin Smith | November 29th, 2009
I admit that my first reaction to news that the Federal Trade Commission was holding workshops in Washington, D.C. the first part of December to look into the Internet’s impact on legacy media — more specifically, newspapers — had me a little miffed.
Like most independent-minded journalists the idea of the government intervening in our professional crisis seemed inappropriate at the least and an attempt at grabbing power at its worse.
The announcement was followed by a flurry of internal SPJ e-mails from members and other leaders raising the same questions and expressing the same concerns.
So, I determined that this intervention wouldn’t happen under my watch as SPJ president without putting up a fight. So I solicited comments from our committee chairs and chapters and I booked my trip to DC to defend SPJ and journalism’s interests. (Click here for all the public comments submitted to the FTC.)
But two weeks ago, while attending the Future of Journalism conference at Yale Law School, I realized I committed the cardinal sin of journalism – I decided the outcome of this story before I got all the facts.
It was during this conference that I had the opportunity to hear FTC Director Susan DeSanti explain her organization’s motives. Afterwards, I spoke to her and she promised that she would give special review to SPJ’s comments and invited us to take a more active role in future FTC workshops. Of course, I agreed we would.
Here is what she promised an auditorium full of journalists and scholars during her Yale speech:
First, this is a non-invasive action. The FTC is a non-regulatory body, meaning it can’t create laws affecting our industry. Its job is more fact-finding. The FTC’s mission is, in part, to analyze market failures and try to prevent them and protect people within those failing markets.
Second, the FTC believes there is enormous value in journalism as a component in sustaining a vibrant democracy. Therefore, the FTC has interest in such a vital market when papers are closing and people are losing their jobs.
“We have jurisdictional responsibility to research the U.S. economy and report on issues that may affect a market or economic overall,” DeSantis said, noting that her agency has been reading about all of the problems taking place in journalism and the ‘creative destruction’ of the industry and there is concern over the market equilibrium.
“I promise you that the FTC is platform neutral,” she emphasized. “This is not [a] way to save newspapers as it’s been characterized. This is about journalism and its future and its role in a market that is needed to sustain our democracy.”
She further said the FTC is coming to this with no intentions of proposing regulations for other agencies to consider. If anything the FTC just wants to hear from people, analyze data and get access to research.
Okay, so that said, where exactly does that leave SPJ? In all my years on the board we have touted SPJ as the largest and most broad-based organization in the nation. We are, therefore, platform neutral. We have fought to keep the definition of journalist an open one so that we don’t restrict ourselves in terms of our institutional thinking and our membership. In short, we fight for all journalists and represent everyone equally.
In a time when newspapers are tanking and Twitter is soaring it’s a hard sell, sometimes. As a legacy journalist who spent more than 20 years in newspapers it hurts when I travel to Ft. Worth and Denver and points in between and shake the hands of displaced journalists who tell me how they are struggling after their paper closed or forced buyouts and layoffs.
It’s difficult to see jobless reporters and editors struggling and then read about hyper-local Web sites that depend on citizen reporters who work for no money.
I can’t sit here at this moment and tell you with certainty where our profession is headed and what direction we need to advocate. But, I’m getting closer to understanding it all. Two days at Yale and two days in DC will help me better understand the landscape. And, as I promised the night I took office, SPJ will not be without a voice and we will help shape our destiny.
I’m looking forward to the FTC hearings as another step in the education process. Soon, though, we will be developing our own views on this subject and submitting our own report. In the meantime, thanks to everyone who contributed to this coming event and keeps speaking out and defending journalism. Regardless of the future, one thing will never change – a democracy fails without a viable free press.