Helping traditional journalism find its place in the digital age is, at least in part, what he’ll be trying to do as a special adviser to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. “You have this real threat, especially to fulltime professional local journalism,” he says. It’s far too early to talk about what recommendation he’ll make, he says, but he’s keeping an open mind on relaxing local broadcast ownership restrictions and will avoid anything that goes “near government control of content.”
Steven Waldman doesn’t start his new job at the FCC until Nov. 30. But the well-credentialed ex-newsman and Internet entrepreneur is already hearing from fellow journalists.
Their message, says Waldman, is clear: “Please work quickly; journalism needs help.”
Waldman promises to do what he can.
Helping traditional journalism as now practiced by newspapers and TV stations find its place in the digital age is, at least in part, what he has been charged to do by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.
As a special adviser to Genachowski, a former Columbia classmate and business associate, Waldman says he will study the “the very worrisome and deep contraction of journalism” and then come up with some ideas for revitalizing it.
“You have this real threat, especially to fulltime professional local journalism,” he says.
And it’s just not newspapers, which have suffered most from the relentless assault of the Internet. “The health of local TV news and the quality of local TV news is a very important part of the picture,” he says.
“The future of news and the future of journalism and information cuts across all these different platforms — local broadcast news, cable, mobile, the Internet, newspapers and radio. They are all interconnected now. So you can’t really assess policy in silos. The chairman is interested in making sure we’re thinking creatively and in a coordinated way.”
Waldman’s hire was spurred by widespread concern among Washington policymakers about the troubles of traditional journalism. Congress held a round of hearings on the topic earlier this year and the Federal Trade Commission is planning a series of workshops the first week of December.
Waldman appears well qualified for the task. He is basically a print guy. He was a correspondent for Newsweek and then a national editor for US News & World Report. He also authored the New York Times bestseller Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America.
In 1999, as the Internet boom raged, he raised millions of dollars and co-founded Beliefnet.com, a Web site devoted to religion and spirituality.Genachowski sat on the board of directors for a time.
In his letter posted on the site announcing his decision to step down as president and editor-in-chief to take the FCC job, he recalls the site has had it highs and lows. The low came in 2007 when the company was forced into Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
But it all turned out OK. News Corp. bought the site that same year. Waldman claims that the site attracted 2.3 million in visitors in October.
Waldman says he understands the limits of government. “I am not looking at this as news is broken and the government needs to fix it,” he says. “I don’t believe that. But the government first needs to do no harm and make sure that its rules aren’t inhibiting innovation that could help with this. Secondly, we look at whether there are more proactive ways the government can help create a set of rules of the road or climate that will help lead to innovation.”
Although he’s nowhere near ready to discuss any specific policy recommendations, he promises to keep an open mind about whether the FCC’s local media ownership restrictions should be relaxed or lifted — the focus of its own FCC proceeding.
Newspaper publishers and broadcasters believe that getting rid of the rules would strengthen local journalism by allowing them to combine broadcast stations and newspapers.
Waldman doesn’t expect to deliver a new business model for journalism. “The government’s role is to make sure that it has created an environment that enables other people to create good business models,” he says.
When the government built the interstate highway system, it wasn’t thinking about how to structure the trucking business, he says. “They were just saying we need an interstate highway system and, if we do it in a sensible way, the private sector will innovate in a thousand ways we can’t even anticipate.
“That’s how I look at it and that’s how Chairman Genachowski looks at it…. Most of the solutions for the problems in the news business will come from the private and nonprofit sectors.”
Many journalists are wary of the government mucking around in the business of journalism, even when it has the best of intentions.
Waldman says he understands such concerns. His passion for the First Amendment and journalistic freedom is “quite strong,” he says. “Everyone who knows me knows I would not do something that would get anywhere near government control of news content.
“I take that very seriously.”
And, for the record, he says, he, like Genachowski, opposes restoration of the fairness doctrine in any form.
The FCC initiative does not imply an increased government role in media, he says.
“Policies have to be smart. Unwise government policies can make things worse. Wise government policies can make innovation more likely and help solve problems.
“It’s about coming up with policies that match the 21st century that are cognizant of both the encouraging and discouraging parts of modern media landscape.”