Getting It Wrong: The FTC and Policies for the Future of Journalism

Following hearings on the state of newspapers this past year, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission staff has now prepared a discussion paper of potential policy recommendations to support the reinvention of journalism.

It is a classic example of policy-making folly that starts from the premise that the government can solve any problem—even one created by consumer choices and an inefficient, poorly managed industry. Most of the proposals are based in the idea of using government mechanisms to protect newspapers against competitors and to create markets for newspapers offline and online.

The FTC’s staff ignores the fact that most newspapers are profitable (the average operating profit in 2009 was 12%), but that their corporate parents are unprofitable because of high overhead costs and ill-advised debt loads taken on when advertising revenues were peaked at all time highs. It also fails to make adequate distinction between longer term trends affecting newspapers and the effects of the current recession. The staff thus blends the two together to give a skewed picture of the mid- to long-term health of the industry.

Policy alternatives suggested by the staff for consideration include:
  • Limiting fair use provisions of copyright and providing new protection for “hot news,” which would give first news organizations to distribute a story a proprietary right to the facts in their article
  • Providing a variety of types of subsidies for news providers
  • Changing tax exempt status laws to make it easier to obtain not-for-profit status and funds from charitable donors
  • Taxing advertising, spectrum, internet service provision, consumer electronics, and cell phones to provide funds for news organizations
  • Creating new antitrust exemptions allowing price collusion and market division
It is hard to ignore the irony and incongruities of a government agency whose purpose is to protect competition and effective markets suggesting anti-competitive practices and taxes that will have negative effects on consumers, competitors, and other companies. Setting those aside, however, none of the suggestions deal with the real underlying economic and financial problems of the news industry: that fact that many consumers are unwilling to pay for the kinds of news provided today and that news organizations need to radically change their management practices and begin reducing organizational inefficiencies.

If commercial news enterprises can’t effectively manage themselves, compete in markets for their products and services, or find effective business models for themselves, why does anyone think that bureaucrats in the government have any ability to solve those problems for the news industry?


Julien Emery said...

I completely agree.

Can't newspapers have freemium models or profit streams built around their free core product instead of relying on gov't support to survive? This industry is in a period rype with opportunity.

Unknown said...

Interesting points...but you might also look at what is happening at the ITC and the coated paper market. All these actions will add up to a quickly retracting publishing industry due to Gov't control.

And a bit of greed on wall street spinning policies.

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