Please Don't Save Us

Journalism doesn't need a bailout


You know what journalism could really use more of? Government participation. Who better, after all, than a gaggle of technocrats and political appointees to guide the industry in matters of entrepreneurship, fairness, and coverage?

Thankfully, the good folks at the Federal Trade Commission are all over it, cobbling together a report aimed at saving newspapers, called "Potential Policy Recommendation To Support the Reinvention of Journalism." It's only the first step in a long-term plan to rescue the Fourth Estate from itself.

As you can imagine, the paper is crammed with groundbreaking ideas: industry bailouts, higher taxes on the stuff you buy to help subsidize the stuff you don't, etc. There is even talk of a government-sponsored journalist-education program, because God knows there simply aren't enough J-school students.

Now, I suppose some of you might find it a bit creepy that civil servants have tasked themselves with "reinventing" journalism. How healthy, you may wonder, could it be for government to pick journalistic winners and losers in a democratic society?

"Not very" would be the correct answer. Then again, if the FTC can't repress its authoritarian impulses—an affliction that's catching these days—it, at the very least, could have the decency to offer up some ideas that sound vaguely innovative.

But as Jeff Jarvis, a new-media expert and professor at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, points out, "The word 'blog' is used but once in 35 pages of text—and then only in a parenthetical mention of soccer blogs."

Before you know it, the FTC will pull together a report called the "Potential Policy Recommendation To Support the Reinvention of the No. 2 Pencil." Technological advances (such as the iPad) are vital in this budding plan only if we can tax them.

The larger problem, though, is that the entire discussion is predicated on a myth.

The majority of the FTC draft focuses on ways to bail out the newspaper business, which isn't exactly the same as "saving" journalism. I love newspapers. I make my living at a newspaper (for now). But journalism doesn't need salvaging. Newspapers—as in, news on paper—are struggling, for now. But consumers (scrupulously ignored in the FTC report) have an array of news outlets from which to choose, and most often, the coverage offered by them is far more thorough than what we've had in the past.

How we disseminate information is being reinvented—it always is being reinvented—and one day soon a breakthrough will allow newspapers to be compensated more fairly for the content they produce. But propping up antiquated models is no way to save any industry.

Let me put it another way. In 1985, the FTC did not set forth recommendations on how to "reinvent music" and propose a 5 percent tax on compact discs as a way to subsidize companies that produced vinyl records. That kind of intervention would have hindered technology rather than driven it.

Hey, bookstores are going out of business at an alarming rate. No one is suggesting we reinvent "writing."

So though it might seem tragic to the people at the FTC that the future of journalism may not include every magazine and television station they admire, it's not the government's job to alter the trajectory of journalism. Journalism should be off-limits. And the FTC "discussions" are a way to preserve, not save, and to control, not innovate.

David Harsanyi is a columnist at The Denver Post and the author of Nanny State. Visit his website at www.DavidHarsanyi.com.