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Does it matter that most people telling us about the state of the media are, either through their professional conflicts of interest or career-long fixations, missing or severely underplaying the liberatory effects of the formerly captive audience becoming sophisticated and productive journalism consumers and creators? Unfortunately, yes. If Steven Brill wants to convince newspapers to throw their content behind paywalls, that’s his (and their) business. (And, as an editor of a magazine that puts all its content up for free, it’s my business, too—hurry up, Brill!) Ditto for newspaper columnists who want to further alienate their dwindling readerships by accusing them of undermining democracy when they read stuff for free. If nothing else, this blame-the-consumer routine is some of the best evidence yet for how an entitled, monopolist-style mentality crept into the worldview of a profession once noted for its cutthroat sense of competition. Instead of begging the audience to stay, the old guard is trying to charge them a steep exit fee.
But the problem here is that the legacy-centric view is bleeding into the sausage-making of public policy. The A&P Organization Men aren’t just spinning their own industrial decline and confusing it with the fate of democracy, they’re actively advising the Federal Trade Commission on how laws might be rewritten to punish news aggregators—from Google to individual bloggers—whose work is perceived to hurt them. Dollars from every single taxpaying American may be redistributed to an industry that until very recently was among the most profitable in U.S. history. And like the last round of newspaper protectionism—the Newspaper Protection Act of 1970—any rulemaking or legislation that comes out of this process will almost axiomatically reward deep-pocketed incumbents at the direct expense of new entrants, all in an effort to delay the inevitable.
In 2006, remarking on the suddenly troubled fates of the formerly indestructible duopolist film processor Eastman Kodak, The Wall Street Journal’s William M. Bulkeley put the problem succinctly: “Photography and publishing companies shouldn't be surprised when digital technology upends their industries. After all, their business success relied on forcing customers to buy things they didn't want.” The customers have moved away from yesterday’s news bundle, and from the mentality that fetishizes it, but instead of abandoning news they’ve dived into the production process with both feet. Instead of blaming them for ruining the past, we should be thanking them for inventing the future. And above all, we should do nothing to get in their way.
Matt Welch (email@example.com) is editor in chief of Reason magazine.