We will give you the good news first: the politicians and regulators who have it in their power to do something about the decline of American journalism are finally paying attention.
Already this year, House and Senate hearings have investigated the crisis. And even as Congress focuses this fall on healthcare reform and rising unemployment, all signs suggest that media matters will be back on the front burner in 2010, one hopes with less focus on what’s gone awry and more on proposals to set things right. Encouragingly, federal agencies are taking tentative steps that could produce those proposals.
In early December the Federal Trade Commission will hold an unprecedented hearing to assess the radical downsizing and outright elimination of newspaper newsrooms and to consider public-policy measures that might arrest a precipitous collapse in reporting and editing of the news. The FTC staffers who have organized this hearing give the distinct impression of being seriously concerned about the crisis and seriously interested in responding to it. The Federal Communications Commission is also launching an extraordinary review of the state of journalism. The work was spearheaded initially by FCC commissioner Michael Copps, who has as firm a grasp of the problem as any player in Washington. The FCC review likely will emphasize the disintegration of local journalism. Its findings could also lead to sweeping changes in fundamental regulations.
Now for the bad news: the way the challenges facing journalism are being discussed, indeed the way the crisis itself is being framed, will make it tough for even the most sincere policy-makers to offer a viable answer to it.
The FTC’s conference is titled “How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?” FCC chair Julius Genachowski explains the crisis as the result of “game-changing new technologies as well as the economic downturn.” The assumption is clear: it’s the Internet that’s the problem. But just as MTV’s debut pronouncement that “Video Killed the Radio Star” proved to be dramatically overstated, so is the notion that journalism’s disintegration can be attributed to a brand-new digital revolution or even an old-fashioned economic meltdown.
The decline of commercial journalism predates the web. Newsrooms began to give up on maintaining staffs sufficient to cover their communities–effectively reducing the number of reporters relative to the overall population–in the 1980s. Real cuts came in the 1990s and have accelerated since then. All the pathologies blamed on the rise of the Internet–declines in science reporting, the disappearance of serious business and labor coverage, cutbacks in investigations and the shuttering of statehouse, Washington and international bureaus–began before anyone knew what it meant to Google.